Tom McMillen: Advocate For Reform of Sports in US


Although not an astronomer, Tom McMillen sounded a bit like Carl Sagan the other week while speaking at a sports conference about the future of American college athletics.

"My prediction is that you've got these comets coming at each other that are going to collide and implode," said the former All-American basketball player at the University of Maryland. "Then you're going to have a real problem."

In McMillen's scenario, the comets are two major counterforces in college sports. From one direction speed the proponents of gender equity, mainly women. From the other come coaches demanding higher salaries and athletes eager for a slice of the financial pie.

McMillen shared this perspective moments before addressing the National Consortium for Academics and Sports in Boston. The consortium and its network of 125 colleges and universities advocate a balance between academics and athletics.

McMillen balanced both during his own college career at Maryland, achieving All-America recognition as an athlete while earning Phi Beta Kappa honors as a student with a pre-med chemistry major. He delivered the class commencement address and was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. At Oxford University in England he added a Masters degree in politics, philosophy, and economics.

McMillen also served as a three-term Democratic congressman from Maryland between 1987 and 1993.

Four years ago, while both men were still in office, former fellow NBA player Sen. Bill Bradley wrote the forward to McMillen's book, "Out of Bounds," which explores how the American sports establishment is driven by greed and hypocrisy.

McMillen believes his book was written before the public was ready for it. He thinks more "consciousness raising" must occur.

When the Monitor caught up to McMillen, he was making a whirlwind swing through Boston. Before speaking at the consortium brunch, he said he has no urge to return to Congress. "I'm having fun doing the business stuff and the President's Council," he says.

The first reference is to his current vocation as the chief executive of a health-care management company, the latter to what might loosely be described as his avocation, namely preaching the physical-fitness gospel.

Since 1993 McMillen has served as co-chair, along with Olympic sprint champion Florence Griffith-Joyner, of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. It is a nonpaying position.

As a fitness advocate, he has gone before the Senate to testify that the government "is guilty of benign neglect when it comes to supporting grass-roots sports," including physical education classes. He points out that in a country like Great Britain, with a population about a fourth as large as that of the US, the ministry of sport has a budget of more than $100 million, compared to $1 million budget for the President's Council.

He says the United States bows at "the altar of an elite sports structure," consisting of high-level college, pro, and Olympic sports. "They make money not off a recreating America," he observes, "but off a sedentary America. Pure greed is running the system in America. I'm not necessarily for big government, but I believe we ought to have some of the best minds in the country take a look at this and make strong recommendations."

McMillen himself has served on the Knight Foundation's Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics which has investigated abuses.

At some point he anticipates the bubble will burst as friction intensifies between what he calls the academic and commercial models of intercollegiate athletics.

"We're the only country in the world that puts sports and schools together," he says. "It's a uniquely American problem, and the answer is to separate them. Take the European model which relies on club sports."

McMillen views one of these forces, the push for absolute gender equity, as a significant positive influence. Despite its impact, he doesn't believe the complex college system can reform itself.

"I think it has to be restructured," he says, probably at the instigation of a president who can convene a commissioner of "outsiders."

McMillen's entry into the national sports limelight began in high school, when he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. At the University of Maryland, the Terrapins failed to make the Final Four during McMillen's years on campus. That disappointment, however, was overshadowed at the Munich Olympics in 1972, when he and his US teammates refused to accept their silver medals after a highly controversial loss to the Soviets. To this day the Americans have never collected their medals.

As a professional, McMillen played for the Knicks, the Atlanta Hawks, and the Washington Bullets. For 11 seasons he carved out a solid, but unspectacular career.

A highlight, he says, occurred during the 1985-86 season, his last, when he was named NBA Player of the Week while a declared political candidate.

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