The corruption of US colleges

LEN Bias's drug-connected death has sparked a new war on drugs and a new look at the overemphasis on intercollegiate athletics on the college campuses of America. Bias had been flunking all of his courses and would not have graduated. It was a reminder of the common practice at too many colleges of somehow keeping athletes eligible to compete even though their academic achievements were really below acceptable levels.

Indeed, the Bias tragedy has provided a fresh and needed underscoring of the professionalism of college athletics, particularly football and basketball. There were those interviews that we read or heard from athletes who indicated they could hardly do more than barely read and write. And there were those sad stories, too, of athletes with years in college -- and some even with degrees -- who had been thrown out in the world with insufficient education to hold down a job.

Only a small percentage of those players who make the college teams are able to make it into the professional ranks. Many of them cannot stick with the pros. So it is that these one-time college attendees, who know little else than how to throw that football or toss that basketball, are cast -- unready -- into the job market.

But there is an almost equally sad happening in our educational institutions, beyond this unfair treatment of the athletically skilled: the corruptive influence of this special treatment of athletics on the colleges themselves.

What reason can one find for turning a college into a training ground for the pros? What does recruiting athletes have to do with academic excellence? And how can any college let an athlete just slide by in his studies, while keeping other students to higher standards, and still hold its head high?

Oh, yes, this has been said and written about before -- many, many times. But the remedy that is so often put forward is a limited one: ``Let's make changes that will reduce the excesses'' is the usual recommendation. Thus, there have been some useful new rules imposed on the grades that athletes must maintain to stay eligible.

But as anyone who knows the college scene will tell you, the frantic bid for superathletes goes on -- with no apparent evidence yet that the special catering to the most highly skilled performers still isn't going on.

Many college presidents today decry this state of affairs. Some are working hard to bring back the day when students chose colleges and universities for what those institutions had to offer academically -- and then, if they had athletic skill, went out for one of the teams.

It was still that way, to a large extent, when I was a boy, growing up close by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Both the athletic director, named Huff, and the football coach, Bob Zuppke, presided over a program that put academics first, winning second.

``Zup,'' as we called him, was a winner, too. He was a master tactician and an innovator, who, even with ``poor material,'' would often pull off exciting upsets. In his early years as a coach, in the teens and '20s, his teams won national attention.

I was fortunate enough to see Illinois's ``Galloping Ghost,'' Red Grange, play all of his games as a three-time All-American halfback. My dad would take me along on the football trains so that I could see Grange play away from home.

Grange, incidentally, came from nearby Wheaton, Ill. And one of the outstanding linemen on those Grange-led teams had never played in high school.

Later on the heavy recruiting began -- along with the shift toward making colleges known more for their winning teams than for their academic excellence. Zup never liked this change and refused to adjust to it. He wouldn't lower himself to active recruiting. In fact, he once talked a young friend of his, from where he summered in Michigan, into not coming to Illinois.

That was Benny Oosterbaan.

Zup told him he should go to the college that was close to him, geographically. Benny, already showing great promise in football, wanted to play for Zup. Oosterbaan became one of the great ends of all time -- at the University of Michigan -- and went on to coach top Michigan teams.

This attitude toward recruiting later cost Zup his job. The good athletes who had, without much persuasion, been coming to the University of Illinois were beguiled to go elsewhere. Zup's teams began to lose. He'd score an upset now and then. But the alumni and townspeople and state legislators -- who wanted winning teams -- put on the pressure. And Zup was gone.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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