Did the NCAA Learn `Reform' From Russia?

IN the week before Desert Shield became Desert Storm, there was one headline among all the foreboding news that struck a hopeful note. It announced ``the avalanche of reform measures'' adopted at the National Collegiate Athletic Association's annual convention held in Nashville, Jan. 7-10. At last, a reader thought, the watchdog of college athletics, the NCAA, was going to do something about steroids, drug trafficking, point shaving, alcohol abuse, academic fraud, recruiting bribes, coed rape, and the exploitation of black athletes.

But when the reader progressed to the story's fourth paragraph, he learned that the new reform measures had little to do with the offenses listed above. How in the world would reducing the number of assistant football coaches from nine to eight prevent a coach from offering a $100,000 recruiting bonus to a high school star? Or how would eliminating team breakfasts and lunches improve the pitiful 17 percent graduation rate of black basketball players? Even the one new measure that seemed to make sense, abolishing athletic dormitories, would not go into effect until 1996, plenty of time for the NCAA to change its mind.

Changing its mind and reforming itself are two things the NCAA does frequently. In the last decade alone, the NCAA has had two other ``reform'' conventions.

In June 1985, the Presidents Commission, an NCAA organization comprised of college CEOs, adopted the so-called ``death penalty'' for recruiting violations. Yet it has been invoked only once - against Southern Methodist University - despite a long list of candidates.

Puffed up by the victory, the Presidents Commission convened the entire NCAA in June 1987 to reduce the ever-increasing costs of big-time college athletics.

If 1985 was the NCAA convention of triumph for the Presidents Commission, the 1987 Convention was its humiliation. All eight proposed reform measures were defeated by embarrassing margins, and several that were passed in 1985 were rescinded before they ever went into effect. Robert Atwell, president of the American Council on Education, said at the time, ``It was the end of the so-called reform of college athletics.

Had sportswriters included this recent history in their convention coverage, the public would have seen that Nashville hardly rivaled the cathedral doors of Wittenberg.

For the much-needed reform of college athletics to take place, sportswriters must disclose what everyone now suspects anyway: Money is the root of all evil in college athletics. Sportswriters must also show how the NCAA exacerbates, rather than deters, this evil with its yearly men's basketball championships.

CBS will pay the NCAA $143 million to televise the men's basketball championship this March, an increase of $88.7 million from last year. But will this huge windfall be used to correct some of the offenses listed above? No.

Shrewdly, the NCAA leadership precluded college presidents and the NCAA's smaller schools from answering this question by diverting them with reform pretexts in Nashville. While the convention-at-large reduced the number of football scholarships from 95 to 90 by 1996, the NCAA executive committee met behind closed doors to adopt a formula for distributing CBS's money. Not surprisingly, the formula rewards those NCAA schools with the most tournament wins and the biggest athletic departments.

While big-time athletic departments stand to gain several million dollars annually from the CBS money, needy big-time student athletes will not fare as well. A special fund will be established that will dispense, on average, a trifling $25 per athlete per year for those who qualify.

A mere $25,000 per Division I school will be spent on what the NCAA refers to as academic enhancement. The NCAA's Division II will receive $1 million to be divided among 209 institutions. Division III schools, 323 institutions, will receive nothing.

With all the new CBS money swamping the NCAA system, there still are only 18 NCAA investigators to monitor over 800 NCAA schools and 200,000 athletes. But when questioned, Judith Sweet, the new NCAA president, said, ``With respect to enforcement, we want fair competition throughout the NCAA system. We feel that we have that now. There's always room for improvement, of course, and I am more than glad to improve what is already in place, but I don't think more money is necessarily the answer.''

To restore its credibility, the NCAA must divide opposing functions of promotion and enforcement into two distinct and equal bodies. And, like major league baseball, the enforcement body must be headed by a commissioner with sweeping powers.

As a nation, we deserve more from the NCAA. College athletics reflect the character of our higher education system. When hooliganism tarnishes the World Cup, although regrettable, it reflects only the baseness of a few. But when an athletic scandal taints a university, it corrupts everyone's symbol of integrity.

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