If the chief of the most powerful organization in college sport has his way, the national momentum toward education reform will find a new and unusual target: dumb jocks.
Faced with mounting pressure to improve classroom achievement in a big-time sports system that has, in some cases, become an academic farce, the NCAA is considering historic changes in the culture of college athletics.
It's a kind of 'No Jock Left Behind' plan that, like President Bush's education policy, would hold students and schools harshly accountable for academic achievement - to try to ensure that "student athlete" is no longer a punch line, especially in football and men's basketball.
Every athlete's progress toward graduation will be tracked, forcing coaches to think twice before recruiting a player with no intention of ever marching to the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance." And schools with slacking student-athletes could face potentially disastrous sanctions - from loss of NCAA funds to limits on scholarships to curbs on game schedules.
Skeptics doubt that the NCAA - the National Collegiate Athletic Association - has the desire or resolve for real reform. Indeed, the plan is far from being implemented. But growing doubts about the wisdom of spending millions on athletic programs amid tight budgets mean the NCAA is at least talking about reform more seriously than ever before. Colleges also face mounting pressure from faculty and even possible federal regulation.
"This is a very interesting moment in intercollegiate athletic history, one of the more interesting ones of late," says Ellen Staurowsky, a former athletic director who's now a sports professor at Ithaca College in New York and an NCAA critic.
The organization has long been dominated by athletic directors. But a series of institutional shake-ups has put college presidents largely in charge. They're pushing the change, led by former Indiana University President Myles Brand, who majored in philosophy and never played college sports. He became known for firing Hoosier basketball coach and icon Bobby Knight. Now, as the new head of the NCAA, Dr. Brand says his top priority is to boost academic standards.
One reason for the push: Low graduation rates for the highest-profile sports. In the most recent tally, just 36 percent of Division I men's basketballers - and 52 percent of football players - got diplomas within six years of arriving at a school. Those numbers are actually better than past years. In fact, for the first time ever, 60 percent of Division I athletes made it to graduation - two points higher than the general student population.
But when the football and men's basketball stats are combined with figures like the $6 billion TV contract the NCAA signed with CBS for basketball tournament rights through 2014, it raises questions about whether colleges are exploiting amateur athletes for financial gain. This has sometimes incited members of Congress to threaten to investigate - or even regulate - the NCAA as a monopolistic organization. Reform would dissipate such desires. Another impetus for change: Small but growing numbers of faculty revolts. Some professors say schools' essential educational mission is compromised by institutional winking at student-athletes who are shuffled through flimsy majors like "landscape engineering."
Others question huge sums being spent on athletics, including sky-box-laden stadiums, which can drain school resources - and depress faculty salaries.
To stay competitive, schools are shelling out more and more money. Brand has called it a collegiate "arms race." Even his former school, Indiana University, recently signed basketball coach Mike Davis for a school-record $900,000 a year. As president last year, Brand made a relatively paltry $300,000.
Like Brand, some other college presidents are starting to see athletics as a budgetary black hole, even though it's long been viewed a serious method of advertising. Boosters cite the "Flutie Factor": After Doug Flutie threw a hail-Mary pass to win the 1984 national championship, applications to Boston College jumped some 25 percent.
Furthermore, local economies in college towns thrive on sports, with vendors and restaurant owners reaping game-day profits. Then there are fans and alumni: In some regions, including the South, their devotion is practically religious.
It's in this context that the reforms debut. Starting this fall, every student-athlete must make regular progress toward graduation. There may be a resulting boom in athletes' summer-school attendance, as they rush to keep up. Coaches say it's already affecting their recruiting. "As I look at a prospect, I want to know he can survive academically," says Don Brown, head football coach at Division I Northeastern University in Boston. Already, he and his staff "spend a lot of time with players on meeting graduation requirements."
That leads to the toughest question the NCAA faces: Will boosting academic standards drag down the quality of play - and eventually threaten revenue streams such as the CBS deal? "If the new academic rules render top players ineligible, we'll see whether that resolve is still there," says David Knight, a chemist at the University of North Carolina and a former NCAA official. The job security of coaches, athletic directors, even presidents is sometimes tied to win-loss records.
"You may do a tremendous job graduating your players," says Mr. Brown. "But if you suffer through two seasons of 1-9 records, you're not going to be around long."