Two men who preside over major universities rocked by recent sports scandals say their experiences demonstrate that college presidents must take charge of their athletic programs to ensure that education does not take a back seat to sports. Eamon Kelly, president of Tulane University, and John Slaughter, chancellor of the University of Maryland, College Park, also say that, despite a steady stream of revelations tainting college sports programs across the United States, they are optimistic that reforms have already begun to make a difference.
When a basketball point-shaving scandal jolted Tulane in 1985, Dr. Kelly discontinued its intercollegiate basketball program as an extraordinary first step in cleaning up the school's athletics.
And when Maryland basketball star Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose last June, Dr. Slaughter tightened his school's admission standards and strengthened academic-support programs for student athletes. ``We have to leave behind the laissez-faire approach to intercollegiate athletics,'' Slaughter says.
Tighter regulations already approved by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and other reforms expected later this year ``reflect an important change in the tone of intercollegiate athletics,'' Kelly says. ``They are important steps back in the direction of truly amateur sports on our college campuses.''
The two university leaders spoke here Monday to members of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB). Some members of their audience expressed skepticism over the prospects for serious reform. But a number of AGB participants expressed support for the NCAA's continuing push for more stringent athletic regulations.
Slaughter, who is chairman of the NCAA Presidents Commission on Athletics, says it is too soon to predict what additional regulations that group will propose.
But Kelly says he anticipates a number of possible steps from the NCAA's June convention, including elimination of spring football practice, a reduction in the football and basketball scholarships allowed, and restricting basketball to spring semesters.
Kelly says he believes such legislative action is the ``first step of a three-step process'' in accomplishing a change in big-league college sports.
The second step, he says, is a change in behavior by individual institutions, such as the recent reforms in Southern Methodist University's system of governance in the wake of a football recruiting scandal.
The third step, Kelly says, will be changing the public's perception of intercollegiate athletics. He says universities have ``not been very successful'' in addressing the growing commercialization of college sports.
Yet several AGB members said it was unlikely that the big schools that reaped the financial benefits of television coverage would be willing to give up their chance at a piece of that pie.
``The will is there [among college presidents] to change [the commercialism], but I don't think the system will allow them to do it,'' says Harrison Wilson, president of Norfolk State University in Virginia. He says that if the big athletic powers cannot control payments to their athletes, then perhaps authorizing such payments will be the only way to clean up revenue-earning sports.
``I'm not advocating that. But I'm saying that if it's going to happen - and I'm convinced what was happening at SMU is typical, not atypical - then maybe these schools should be up front about it.''
Paying college players is an alternative receiving increasing attention in the wake of recent scandals. But many people disagree strongly with the suggestion.