SMU football and the ABCs of college sports

WHAT should college presidents learn from the ``death sentence'' of the Southern Methodist University football program? The same lesson they should have gained from the Len Bias death at Maryland, the Jan Kemp verdict at Georgia, the basketball escapades at Tulane, the Charley Pell scandals at Florida, and hundreds of other headline-grabbing cases of intercollegiate sports corruption. Unfortunately, presidents have been slow learners. So here are the SMU ABCs that should be learned before beginning another round of superficial and ineffective presidential reform. The current system of major college athletics cannot be repaired.

There is no possible way to control the hundreds of thousands of personal interactions that take place each year as college sports enthusiasts - from athletic directors and coaches to alumni and boosters - manipulate the current system to get players into athletic scholarship programs and keep them there. The basic problem is that the majority of players in revenue-producing sports across the country are not intellectually qualified to be full-time students and, simultaneously, athletic contestants. All the maneuvering to finesse this situation simply produces recurring scandals.

There is a legitimate demand for sports entertainment on campus.

Athletic contests, when conducted in accordance with the highest principles of sport, are enjoyable to watch and provide a unique mechanism for rallying diverse campus and community elements.

Severing the tie between college sports and academics is the only way to reconcile A and B.

Presidents should establish a new system that allows high-quality athletes to compete in campus facilities without being students. This action would separate academics from already professionalized sports entertainment programs. Eliminating the requirement to keep players academically eligible would immediately remove the cause of most corruption in college sports programs. Furthermore, coaches and athletic administrators make large salaries from college sports.

Contestants deserve rewards for providing this sports entertainment, and a standardized player pay scale should be adopted. In addition, recruiting should be eliminated, to be replaced by a nationwide draft system. Career counseling programs are needed to encourage players to pursue goals on campus or elsewhere. The farce of apologist faculty athletic oversight committees and the payoffs that go with them is unworthy of university faculties. Finally, presidents should turn over the management of programs to sports business professionals versed in the traditions of higher education.

These ABCs for SMU would bring cries of anguish from various groups. Under the current system of mass higher education in the United States, it is the presidents who will have to face that noise.

Some administrators will argue that college sports generate financial support for universities. The recently released Tulane report has shown that college athletic programs have little relation to support for academic programs. Even if a few cases can be cited where some donor gave to academics because of sports, is it really worth the cost? College athletic corruption, which is found in some degree on every campus that has an athletic scholarship program, fouls every institutional nest. What is the honor of a university worth? Should presidents sell it for a new building, an endowed chair, perhaps, or even dollars to the general educational fund? Hey, chief executives, it just isn't worth the price!

Faculty cries of injured innocence from SMU, Georgia, and elsewhere come from those who have been closing their senses to the evidence of athletic corruption for years. How many of us can say that we haven't known what kind of students athletic departments have been foisting on the university? In this era of factory-line higher education at large universities, faculty governance is mostly a thing of the past. Yet nobody has stopped us from individually speaking out on this issue.

Alumni and friends of universities have nothing to fear. The same contests with the same players will continue to attract fans to games and homecoming celebrations who will cheer for ``our'' team. Most players are going to take advantage of local opportunities to enroll in academic programs suited to their aspirations. No more spoon-fed degrees or loss-of-eligibility ignominy for those who really want educational preparation for life.

There must be a few presidents who are willing to say what needs to be said, and do what needs to be done. It won't be easy, but that is what leadership is all about. The presidents who lead in this inevitable direction - and the day of radical change must certainly come as scandal piles on top of scandal - will deservedly receive the gratitude of those of us sincerely committed to the integrity of American higher education.

Ary J. Lamme III is a geographer at the University of Florida.

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