Can big-time athletics and college education coexist?

Notre Dame athletic director Mike Wadsworth and Michigan AD Tom Goss were told the other day by their school presidents that their services no longer were needed.

In South Bend, Ind., president Edward Malloy offers little except to say it is time for a "fresh start" for both Wadsworth, who has been there about five years, and Notre Dame.

In Ann Arbor, Mich., president Lee Bollinger says, "What lies behind this decision is far too complex for simple prepared summaries, and it would be wholly inappropriate for us to try to offer such."

Goss has been AD for 29 months; the next AD will be the school's fifth in 10 years. In fact, it's not all that complicated at either school: Both have sunk into a morass. It clearly shows the fragile nature of athletics. And it brings into sharp focus the humiliation that sports can bring to fine academic institutions.

At Notre Dame, football has been struggling. Last year the Irish had a 5-7 record, poorest since 1963. Worse, the National Collegiate Athletic Association hit the Irish with a two-year probation for wrongdoing involving a booster who treated various players to trips and gifts, all illegal. "The embarrassment to the athletic department and to all associated with the program is deep," a statement says. It all happened on Wadsworth's watch.

At Michigan, turmoil has been ongoing for a number of years, involving most recently star freshman basketball player Jamal Crawford. The NCAA ordered him suspended for six games and to pay back a booster who had given him illegal financial assistance. There also are serious budget problems. It all happened on Goss's watch.

But what is most troublesome is that these two schools are among the few with big-time athletic programs that usually - not always - do a laudatory job of controlling athletics. Others in this group include Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, Virginia, Penn State, and not many more.

To cut to the quick, the real problem is trying to make big-time academics and big-time athletics somehow coexist under the umbrella of higher education.

The truth is, they go together like oil and water. That's because being a student with a full academic schedule is a full-time job. Being a football or basketball player is a full-time job. So an 18-year-old is recruited, then required to handle two full-time pursuits while making no allowance for the possibility the athlete occasionally might like to go to a movie. Or sit on the grass and lallygag with friends, like a real student.

Yet, football - and sometimes basketball - can bring in a lot of money. At Notre Dame, for example, football produces so much money that recently it has been contributing around $5 million a year to the university's general fund.

Sports also can bring in a lot of attention. A good case can be made that Notre Dame is best known for its football. Michigan, which has had the likes of former President Gerald Ford play for it, also is extremely well known for football.

Of course disciplines like English, biology, sociology, engineering, and history are important. But do you know anything about them at Michigan or Notre Dame? Conversely, do you have some vague idea that the two schools routinely have top football teams? Case proved.

Most football and basketball players go to major colleges principally to play their sports. Some have substantial interest in their education, but not many.

The difficulty is that football and basketball have precious little to do with academics. But in this country, it's basically the only place for athletes to continue competing on a high level after high school.

Notre Dame has 26 varsity sports. On a far less-intense level, the school also offers 22 sports in club competition, 57 intramural sports, and 45 recreational sports. To support all this, it has nine major athletic buildings and 112 acres.

In fairness, while all these activities might not have much to do with learning, they can have a lot to do with offering suitable, and necessary, diversions from academics. It is, however, impossible to defend football, basketball, and some other varsity sports educationally because of their time-consuming nature, and because the scholarship athletes typically are far more interested in sport than study.

As much fun as college sports can be for fans and athletes, do they really deserve to be part of the university landscape?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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