A voice in the wilderness for sports as education

Christine Grant has always been committed to making a difference in college sports. Even in retirement, the former women's athletic director at the University of Iowa is devoted to doing what she can to train the next generation of athletic administrators.

"I feel strongly about what kind of educational preparation they should have," she says of her teaching duties in the graduate program of athletic administration.

Dr. Grant has a wealth of experience, which makes her a respected voice nationally. When she stepped down last year at Iowa after 27 years at the women's helm, the National Collegiate Athletic Association carried a lengthy retrospective of her career in the NCAA News.

It recounted how she taught physical education in her native Scotland before moving to Canada to coach the national field-hockey team, then moved to Iowa City in 1969 to pursue graduate studies.

Although she had no intention of staying, she soon was asked to head up a newly emerging program of women's varsity sports at the school. She became such a respected leader of the emerging women's sports movement that she rose to president of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), an organization that eventually was dissolved in the early 1980s, when the NCAA began offering women's championships.

Although the change disappointed Grant, she, unlike some of her colleagues, "elected to stay in [athletics] and try to change the system."

In her view, the NCAA has become much more receptive during the past decade to ideas from women, like herself, with AIAW backgrounds, and more receptive to gender equity generally.

She has worked closely with the NCAA the past few years (she currently serves on the association's Amateur and Agents Sub-committee) and is encouraged by the findings of the reconvened Knight Foundation Commission, a group of college presidents who have urged various athletic reforms.

Still, Grant feels much work needs to be done. "The problems [of intercollegiate athletics] were identified repeatedly through the 20th century, with no solutions," she observes. "It's way beyond the tinkering stage."

Grant has never hesitated to speak forthrightly on this subject, and was characteristically direct during a phone conversation, excerpts of which follow:

Why do you say college sports are at a crossroads? Is something going to break if it isn't fixed?

I think the financial situation is really out of control. Let me give you an example. At Iowa State [University], 100 miles down the road, the men's basketball coaching salary was increased to $1.1 million [per year], a tremendous increase. Several weeks later, the school dropped two men's sports. If that doesn't raise a red flag, there's something wrong. The schools with the largest budgets are dropping sports, men's minor sports, and that's because the money poured into football and men's basketball over the last decade is unbelievable. [That's] a disgrace to an educational institution.

What kinds of things do you suggest?

If you really want to reform athletics, consider banning all midweek competitions, and have events only on Friday evenings, Saturday, and Sunday. I would also ban all [off-season] "voluntary" practices, and suggest that a head coach make no more [salary] than the average full professor - and an assistant coach no more than an assistant professor.

Do you feel like women athletes are getting a fair shake at this point?

No, I don't. But that's not the NCAA's fault. That's the fault of the institutions. They say there's no money for gender equity, then turn around and give a million-dollar salary to one person.

So what you are saying is that revenue-generating sports, regardless of gender, are treated differently, right?

Absolutely. And the women's and the men's minor sports are the have-nots.

Since the so-called minor sports don't generate revenue, how is their existence justified?

We're not in athletics to make money. We're in athletics to help educate young people, and athletics is one of the best laboratories we will ever have to do that.

Besides coaching salaries, what else about college sports disturbs you?

Athlete recruiting. It should be thrown out the window, and we should start again. What is spent on recruiting is unbelievable, and in this day and age, with our technology, are you telling me that going off campus, goodness knows how many times, to see the same student, is the best system we can come up with?

Has sportsmanship changed much during your tenure?

Actually, I think it's getting better. We went through a very bad period with trash-talking, but there has been a concerted effort by athletic directors, and some influence by college presidents, to decide what is acceptable behavior.

What is your response to those who argue that college athletics are a public relations arm of the university?

I can buy that to a certain extent, so long as we are treating our student athletes as they ought to be treated, and we are keeping our athletic programs in perspective. In my opinion, though, we are not doing either right now.

Given this, why even try to change the atmosphere in college sports?

Because we in education have a responsibility to try to help society understand that in educational sport, winning is not the most important thing and losing is never failure. We can teach society that. I truly believe that, but we've got to believe it ourselves.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.