Welcome to college, Mr. Jones!

It was the only time that the NCAA used its severest form of censure. After a series of "pay for play" incidents involving football players, Southern Methodist University's football program got the "death penalty" in 1987 from the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

But there is life after death if you're a big-time college program.

After a year-long suspension, Dallas-based SMU sat out 1988, too, then restarted its team. All was well until last fall, when SMU again found itself in the hot seat, facing charges of academic fraud and recruiting violations.

This time, the response was milder. SMU, after all, was only one of more than 60 cases reviewed by the NCAA since 1999, including many involving Division I men's basketball and football. In December, the NCAA put SMU on probation for two years (and the school imposed some of its own sanctions).

The sheer number of large and small cases like SMU's is fueling a wave of outrage over the corrosive effect of intercollegiate sports on higher education's primary mission: to provide a good education.

With male-athlete graduation rates near record lows amid a flurry of abuses, a number of observers are trying to take action. A new Knight Foundation Commission on college sports has convened. A new faculty group with its base at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, is pushing for greater academic responsibility from sports programs. No fewer than five new books on the topic have appeared. And a notable handful of colleges are actually dropping certain sports (see story).

Even NCAA and other sports officials are calling for a new focus on academics and a cutback on athletic spending for men and women. What's needed, many say, is more academic accountability and a full rethinking of the role of college sports.

"For far too long, it has been the requirements of winning that have shaped the way sports are handled in higher education," says Ellen Staurowsky, a former athletic director, now professor of sport sciences at Ithaca College. "When we talk about sports in higher education, it must be the 'higher education' that drives our vision, rather than sports."

The abuses are well known: routing athletes into certain classes, assigning them tutors, changing grades - even in a few cases curbing athletes' attempts to get a real education. All are signs of a "beer and circus" mentality increasingly common at all levels of higher education, says Murray Sperber, an English professor at Indiana University.

"I describe many of them as vocational students," Dr. Sperber says. "They work full time. The athletic scholarship is their pay. They're putting in 30 to 40 hours on their sports. It's just very hard to get an education when you're putting in that amount of time."

Still, he says, college sports can be reformed, "although it will probably come from a lawsuit decided by the courts - or somewhere outside the academy."

That limited optimism is remarkable, given a century littered with failed attempts at reform.

Critics have been trying to clean up college sports' excesses since before 1905, when 18 football players were killed in one season. President Theodore Roosevelt summoned representatives of Princeton, Harvard, and Yale to the White House and threatened to abolish college football unless the violence was reduced.

But problems persist. And faculty and administrators - as much as the sports establishment - are to blame, Ms. Staurowsky and others agree. Faculty silence aids the biggest problem: academic fraud. Fudging papers, tests, and grades to help student- athletes who might flunk is a growing problem, they say.

At the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus, Jan Gangelhoff, a former athletic-department secretary, told a local reporter in 1999 how she worked on 400 academic assignments for at least 18 basketball players. The head coach and academic adviser knew about it, she said.

The resulting scandal led to dismissals and NCAA sanctions last December. And it has prompted calls for athletes' transcripts to be open to scrutiny.

While disagreeing that such examples are common, even sports chieftains concede something needs to be done. Cedric Dempsey, president of the NCAA, said at the organization's national convention at Disney World last month that spending on college sports had to be controlled, and academics emphasized.

"There's not enough attention being paid to the educational mission," he says in an interview. "We've got to reduce what I've referred to as the 'arms race' of college athletic expenses."

Among 970 NCAA member schools, revenues were about $3 billion last year. Spending was about $4 billion, he says. Even some of the most prominent programs are losing money, he says.

Critics say all that money chasing a few good athletes undermines the university's core mission of education. Current graduation rates are 42 percent for Division I men's basketball players who started college in 1993-94, and 48 percent for football players, the NCAA reported last fall. In contrast, 54 percent of all male students and 51 percent of male athletes graduated.

At some institutions, athlete graduation rates are much lower. The University of Tennessee, for instance, graduated about 10 percent of basketball players and 41 percent of football players who came as scholarship athletes from 1990-91 to 1993-94. Ohio State's numbers were 18 percent and 28 percent respectively.

"We need reform in regard to academic outcomes in some areas - especially basketball and football," says James Delaney, commissioner of the Big 10 Conference, which includes the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. "There's no simple solution. It's on the radar screen of a lot of people. I think it's possible to get something done."

Not everyone is convinced. Allen Sack, director of the sports-management faculty at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Conn., played on the 1966 Notre Dame championship football team. The author of "Athletes for Hire," he says the next shift may be toward more commercialism, not less. "College sports are beyond reform - if we mean somehow closing the gap between education and commercialized sports," he says. "You have to entertain millions of people with the highest-quality athletes.... There aren't enough high-quality athletes who are also great students."

There is one bright spot: For the first time, there is a push among faculty to fix the machine from the inside. "It's easy to reform college sports - all it takes is the will," says Jon Ericson, professor emeritus of rhetoric and communications at Drake.

He heads the National Alliance for College Athletic Reform, a group made up mostly of faculty. Its platform calls for:

* Abandoning the term "student-athlete," using one or the other for those playing a sport.

* Requiring that faculty senates oversee and control the academic counseling and support programs for athletes - and offer the same support to all students.

* Publicly disclosing all students' academic major, adviser, grade-point average, and courses listed by major and instructor. No individual grades would be disclosed. This might require a court challenge to current interpretations of the Buckley Amendment, part of a federal law, which protects students' privacy.

* Cutting the number of intercollegiate athletic contests.

* Eliminating athletic scholarships and expanding the availability of need-based aid.

Dr. Ericson points to an incident last month at Drake as the sort of thing propelling calls for more disclosure. Two basketball players sued the university for cutting off their eligibility to play. Initially, they garnered support from fans. But that began to dissipate after documents revealed both players had a 1.0 grade-point average the previous term. The judge ruled against them.

"We need to reveal the institutional behavior that goes on behind closed doors," Ericson says. "At the heart of sports corruption is academic corruption."

Linda Bensel-Meyers, an English professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, says she unearthed numerous incidents of apparent plagiarism by football players in 1999. The NCAA found no rules were broken, but a faculty subcommittee later recommended barring tutors from typing athletes' papers or writing other assignments. Even modestly reformed, she says, the system "essentially excludes athletes from access to an education."

A few former athletes are pushing for changes in how players are treated. "We have year-round workouts and we risk - and sustain - injuries on behalf of our institutions," says Ramogi Huma, a starting player with the University of California at Los Angeles Bruins football team until he was injured. "In football we even risk our lives, not to mention bringing in huge amounts of money to our institution."

Now a graduate student, Mr. Huma and other former Bruins players last month enlisted the United Steelworkers of America to help them organize to lobby for health and accident insurance and academic reforms.

"We want to do what we can to change policy," he says. "But we also want to change the whole culture in NCAA sports so education becomes the priority. We want to focus on the 99 percent who don't make it into the NFL."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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