How big-time athletics corrupt universities

I'M a member of the faculty of the University of Florida. You may have heard recently about my institution. What you heard was probably not about our fine research or graduate programs. Rather, it was that after a prolonged investigation, of what was termed one of the worst cases on record, our football program was penalized and placed on probation by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). This sorry situation merely confirms what I have discovered in recent years -- that major college athletic programs inevitably corrupt institutions of higher education. Athletic corruption is not just a problem for a few universities, but affects virtually every institution that supports an athletic scholarship program. Major structural changes must transform these programs.

This is not the call of an ivory tower professor who couldn't care less about athletics. It is the opinion of one who was on a small-college football team, who has taught numerous athletic scholarship students and several All-Americans, and who considers football to be one of the finest spectator sports.

First, let's expose three myths about major college athletics, beginning with the representative player myth. As originally conceived in the 19th century, intercollegiate athletics provided the opportunity for athletically talented students to represent their college in the same way that talented speakers would be on the debate team, talented singers in choral groups, etc. Although this was an opportunity for the display of special talents, the underlying assumption was that all participants were representative students, meeting the same intellectual and degree requirements.

This is a generalization that does not apply to all athletes, but today the majority of student athletes in major sports programs are not remotely representative of the student bodies of their host institutions. Many athletic scholarship holders were pampered in high schools because of their athletic abilities. Sophisticated sales techniques used by university athletic recruiters place tremendous pressure on immature high school seniors and their families. Many are offered illegal rewards for signing with a particular school.

Intellectual standards used to screen the prospective student athlete are low. Federal and state programs established to aid the disadvantaged are used to admit large numbers of athletes. When even these low standards cannot be met, a way can usually be found for an ``exceptional'' admission of a star player. In other words, most are not good academic prospects. They are being bought for a specific purpose and they know it.

Once on campus many student athletes are housed in special dormitories, fed special foods in their own dining halls, advised by academic counselors whose primary aim is to keep them eligible to play, and tutored by graduate students who are paid to attend classes with them. These marginal students are expected to spend four to six hours a day during the season at practice and other athletic preparation meetings. Theirs is not a typical student experience.

A second myth is the ``Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton'' rationale for sports. The idea here is that sports participation teaches lessons that are valuable in other arenas of human endeavor. Big-time college athletics pay few such dividends. Everything is subservient to winning. None of the ``it's not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game'' approach exists with most major college sports. The few coaches who try to maintain higher goals in their programs receive minimal support for their efforts.

Just as the experience of the typical student athlete weakens moral and spiritual values, the win-at-all-costs attitude infects the student body. Try sitting in the student section of a major university stadium during a game and see if the prevailing behavior around you suggests anything of life's higher values.

The big-time college sports scene are so morally distorted that truly unacceptable behavior is overlooked. What would literally be criminal for you and me doesn't apply to coaches. Illegal payment to induce certain action, such as enrollment at a particular university, is called bribery for everyone else. The filing of false information, such as erroneous certifications with the NCAA, would normally be called perjury. Actions prejudicial to the rights of others, such as altering student transcripts or arranging for course credit where none is deserved, are known as fraud. A few criminal convictions for those involved would quickly get the attention of the coaching community. Yet, acknowledged cheaters often leave coaching positions with substantial payoffs.

The final myth is that major college athletic programs are amateur athletics. These programs are primarily big business. Multimillions of dollars are collected in gate receipts. Individual boosters pay thousands of dollars for good seats at games. The University of Florida has ``skyboxes'' at its football stadium that rent for $30,000 a year, with a minimum five-year lease. Head-coach salaries and benefits exceed $100,000 a year at most major universities. University athletic budgets in excess of $10 million are not unusual. The only ones who do not reap financial rewards in legal programs are the student athletes who get a scholarship that in many cases does not lead to a degree, minimal living expenses, and the remote chance of becoming a professional athlete in the future.

Presiding over these professionalized sports programs are the chief executive officers of the institutions. Surely distinguished presidents and chancellors can control sports. But such is not the case. Few presidents have bothered to become familiar with the issues and literature on university athletics. Their faculty oversight committees are often composed of specially selected apologists who treasure free tickets to games. Most presidents receive athletic counsel from a group of reactionaries with vested interests, including athletic directors, who were drawn from the ranks of coaches who were originally players. This fraternity of individuals is dedicated to maintaining the status quo.

Because the myths are thought to be true, universities are running athletic programs without the healthy perspective engendered by realism. In effect, a cover-up is tolerated because few individuals have attempted to step back from the immediate circumstances of wins, losses, coaching changes, and investigations to see what is really going on. It is surprising in institutions dedicated to the search for truth that athletic programs have not been subjected to adequate scrutiny.

Fortunately changes are on the way and they will bring a revolutionary restructuring to athletic programs. In the past year officers of the NCAA have publicly stated that major changes are necessary. Several Ivy League presidents have warned their colleagues of the danger of the present system.

When it is recognized that major college sports are entertainment businesses, new approaches will become more palatable. A number of different systems, including but not limited to the following elements, have been suggested: Recruiting must either be eliminated or closely controlled and monitored. Players need to be paid according to need on a scale set to uniform standards by the NCAA. Student athletes must have specially structured academic programs in recognition of the fact that most cannot be full-time students during their athletic season. Presidents must give real authority for sports programs to representative faculty committees, not subject to conflicts of interest through special privileges.

These changes will not, as some suggest, destroy sports, school spirit, or alumni interest. Honesty in athletics will foster a new, broad-based support. The elimination of corrupting influences from campuses will strengthen faculty morale, improve the image of universities, and increase public support for higher education. Changes such as these will not come quickly or easily, but they will take place by the end of this century. Institutions of higher education cannot tolerate athletic corruption in their midst much longer.

Ary J. Lamme III is a geographer at the University of Florida and author of ``Florida: A Geography.''

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