A Whole New Ball Game?

The push to reform--and scale back--collegiate athletics is gaining yardage

A glorious autumn day. School colors flying. Bands blaring fight songs. Cheerleaders in skimpy skirts kicking up their heels. Stands vibrating from the stomping feet of fans. Fearsome young men raging with the fire of competition. Isn't this what college is all about?

Er...not according to a killjoy named Gordon Gee. In September, Vanderbilt Chancellor Gee grabbed headlines when he announced that he was disbanding the university's athletic department. Granted, no teams were cut, no athletic scholarships lost. But Gee did strike a chord. In trying to pull the athlete back into the academic community, he became the public face of a movement that is making a serious stab at reforming college sports. "Other universities have called and said: 'Good, you jump off that cliff, and if it works, get back to me,"' says Gee. "I suspect they're sweating bullets, with all this national attention."

Why? Because Gee's success or failure just might help foretell the future of an extracurricular activity that has grown into a $3 billion-a-year annual industry, according to Smith College economist Andrew S. Zimbalist, author of Unpaid Professionals. Behind the crowds and TV hype, pressure is building either to turn class-skipping athletes into students or recognize that -- at least at big-time sports schools -- it's too late to turn back the clock. And that's pitting reformers against an army of alumni boosters, politicians who control state schools, TV networks, and commercial interests -- all of whom would feel the impact of downsizing college sports.

The endless debate over the proper role of sports in university life would probably not be raging so fiercely if it weren't for a particularly troubling spate of scandals. Months after Maurice Clarett led Ohio State to the national title in football, the running back was charged with receiving special treatment on an exam and accused of lying to police about what was stolen from a car loaned to him by a school booster. The men's basketball team at Fresno State was put on probation after someone else did players' course work. The University of Washington was hit with a two-year probation for recruiting violations.

And it isn't just the players. Georgia basketball coach Jim Harrick resigned amid charges of academic fraud. Alabama fired head football coach Mike Price for "indecorous" behavior involving a drinking spree and a stripper. Iowa State basketball coach Larry Eustachy resigned after photos surfaced showing him drinking and kissing coeds at a party after a game. Most bizarre, Baylor basketball coach Dave Bliss threw in the towel after trying to cover up illegal payments to a player -- before he was murdered -- by allegedly spreading rumors that he dealt drugs.

Some reforms have already been put in place: stricter academic requirements for entering freshmen and for athletes to remain eligible. Others are long-range and more ambitious. They include shortening the football and basketball seasons, and, most fundamental, pulling back from the commercial forces that have turned college sports into an entertainment spectacle.

Leading the charge are faculty senates, including many from the six athletic conferences that form the Bowl Championship Series (BCS); the powerful Association of Governing Boards of Universities & Colleges; and the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. (NCAA) -- generally considered the marketing arm of college sports. "What's unusual here is having a faculty group and a trustee group aligned," says Robert Eno, co-chair of the faculty group, the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics (COIA), alluding to trustees' usual fervent support of athletics. "It's odd. It's unprecedented. We're all surprised, but it seems to be working well."

Crisis is nothing new to college sports. Violent deaths in football led President Teddy Roosevelt in 1905 to threaten the game's abolition, which spurred the forming of the NCAA that same year. What's different now is the amount of money sloshing around. Schools that make it to the top bowl games can pull in up to $13 million apiece. And in March, 1999, CBS (VIA ) signed an 11-year, $6 billion TV contract, mostly for basketball. (Football contracts are awarded by individual conferences.) As a result, schedules and seasons have expanded, expenses have skyrocketed, and scandals have multiplied.


Now, says Myles Brand, head of the NCAA since January, "change is in the air." Predictably, the current reform movement started over money. The coalition of faculty members was born in the fall of 2002 after a professor of classic languages at the University of Oregon, James Earl, became alarmed by a single act of university spending. "I picked up my newspaper one morning and read about the university spending $90 million to expand the football stadium," says Earl. "The faculty had never been told about it. We went nuts. We're poor as church mice here. How could you spend $90 million on a stadium when we can't even pay the faculty's salaries?"

Earl was then president of the Oregon faculty senate, and he wrote to the presidents of the other universities in the Pacific 10 Conference. By the beginning of 2003, faculty senates at 45 to 50 universities had contacted the COIA to voice their support. In January, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities & Colleges, the advisory group representing the trustees of over 1,200 institutions elected to join the COIA in its reform push. The final member of the triumvirate to weigh in was the NCAA. Says Brand, the first university president to head the NCAA and the man who fired basketball legend Bobby Knight at Indiana: "Reform was one of the conditions under which I took this job."

The three groups met in Chicago in April and endorsed a series of educational and budgetary reforms. Some had already been enacted by the NCAA over the previous two years, all of them aimed at improving academic performance. One rule stipulates that athletes complete a set percentage of the requirements to graduate each year. Another raises grade-point-averages athletes must achieve in college, and a third boosts the academic qualifications athletes must have to enter.

The reformers also back a carrot-and-stick plan, rewarding teams that do well academically with more scholarship slots and money from television and punishing teams doing poorly by taking away scholarships and ultimately barring them from post-season play. These measures will be voted on by Division 1 presidents in April and are expected to pass. "We are also looking at the kinds of courses that student-athletes should be taking," says Brand. "We want general education courses, not any old course."

Critics, however, point out that stronger regulations aren't enough. They require accurate and honest reporting. "You can toughen up academic standards, but that leads to more academic fraud," says Howard Chudacoff, a history professor at Brown and the university's NCAA faculty representative. Brand insists that maintaining academic integrity is a primary objective and says the NCAA will modestly boost its investigative staff, which now numbers 15.

The April meeting also set longer-term goals involving "transparency" in athletic budgets. The sources of money for college sports are often murky: Cash from boosters often goes unreported and can cover under-the-table payments to coaches and even players. Facilities can be a mystery all their own. "It's always difficult to account for capital spending, athletic or otherwise," says Brand. On Aug. 6, the NCAA received a $50,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation to back a study of capital spending on athletics.

What's not murky is that as more money goes to new stadiums, celebrity coaches, and better training facilities, critics of the so-called "athletics arms race" have become more vocal. Some schools have independent athletic departments that support themselves, but the majority are funded by the university. "About 30 schools have separate athletic budgets," says reformer Earl, but around 100 in Division 1 are "sucking money from the schools."

And it isn't just the money that bothers the reformers but the deals made to get that money -- like the Nike (NKE ) swoosh on uniforms at many schools and ads on arena walls. "That's an unpleasant message to a lot of people who care about the idea of the university as a place of inquiry free of commercial taint," says Derek Bok, former president of Harvard and author of Universities in the Marketplace.

The reformers are also training their guns on what may be the most powerful force in today's college sports landscape: television. They believe that TV's scheduling needs -- games during the week, long travel to tournaments -- increasingly clash with academic requirements. One of the movement's long-term goals is regaining control of schedules. They would like to see shorter seasons and smaller squads. The Drake Group, a four-year-old reform organization of about 100 dues-paying professors across the country, wants "to return control of the classroom to the faculty," says its president, Linda Bensel-Meyers of the University of Denver. The group believes many athletic departments currently have the power to get grades changed, and encourage plagiarized papers.

Major ammunition for the reform movement has come from a persuasive set of statistics -- "myth-breaking," Brand calls them -- that challenge the benefits long thought to flow from strong sports programs. One of the biggest myths was shattered when Brand announced in August that "fewer than a dozen universities" make a profit from sports. All of those were Division 1-A schools with major basketball and football programs.

Universities that can't rely on football and men's basketball to pay the bills are often forced into painful downsizing of their sports programs. Since 2000, 31 Division I schools have eliminated at least one intercollegiate sports team, according to the Chronicle of High Education. This year, West Virginia University swung the ax at five, including men's cross-country and men's tennis.

Four studies in the past eight years -- the latest by the NCAA this year -- conclude that winning sports teams do not necessarily inspire alumni to donate, and in those cases when they do, the boost is short-lived. "We only saw an impact in alumni giving if a school wins a bowl game, on average 7.3%," says economist Thomas A. Rhoads, who co-authored a 2000 study. "But when a basketball team was put on probation, there was a decrease of 13.6% in alumni contributions."


Perhaps the most shocking findings came from a 2001 study by the Mellon Foundation that demonstrated the importance afforded athletics at Ivy League and other prestigious schools that downplay sports and profess to give no athletic scholarships. "We say we don't give scholarships, but we really do -- the whole Ivy League does," says Brown's Chudacoff. "We give money to needy students, and we have a lot of needy athletes." The Mellon report revealed that nearly all top schools also lowered admission standards for athletes, opening the door more readily for jocks than for minorities or the children of alumni. Once enrolled, athletes do more poorly than nonathletes -- as much as 20% worse.

"It makes it harder for faculty to teach the way they want to teach because they don't get the commitment or the preparation from the recruited athletes that they get from the other students," says William G. Bowen, head of the Mellon Foundation and co-author of two books based on the study. Bowen adds that nonathletes resent what they see as domination of the campus by athletes, who can make up as much as 35% to 40% of the student body of smaller schools, compared with about 3% at big state universities. The result, he says is "an athletic divide."

Some schools have already taken action to rein in sports. Boston University dropped football in 1997 after 113 years, and Swarthmore ended a 122-year football tradition in 2000 -- both citing an overconcentration on sports. In 2002, 5 of the 11 members of the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) decided to reduce the number of athletes it accepted, and the Council of Ivy League Presidents in June voted for the first time to limit the athletes its eight universities can recruit.

"We were willing to trade off SATs and GPAs to get a kid who's a great violinist or a student of color, but we were more willing to make that trade-off for athletes," says President Morton O. Schapiro of Williams, which voted for the NESCAC cuts.

How many schools will follow suit remains to be seen -- and some of the reformers' proposals clearly amount to pigskin in the sky. Many university leaders argue that the benefits of a major sports program still far outweigh the drawbacks. "The idea of sports is to shine a light on the university in a positive manner and to help enrollment," says Robert J. Dwyer, chairman of the board of trustees of Niagara University and a 1965 graduate who helped fund the school's first hockey rink. "Our [men's hockey team] went to the Final Eight in 2000, and our women to the Final Four in 2002. Enrollment has risen steadily."


Besides, college sports are deeply woven into America's tapestry. "Sports offers high visibility that in some mysterious way creates a bond between the university and a broader public," says James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan. The pull that collegiate sports has on the populace is especially true at state schools, where traditions are storied and fans rabid. It was no accident that Gee waited until he had left his previous positions at Ohio State, Colorado, and West Virginia before making his stand at private Vanderbilt. "If I were to try to do this at Ohio State," says Gee, "I would end up pumping gas."

And it is not just emotions that are at play at state schools but money and politics. The governor and legislatures control school budgets, and they stand for election answerable to a sports-crazed electorate. "Because the state has deeper pockets than any single institution, state universities are more likely to spring for new facilities," says sports economist Zimbalist. "Once that investment is made, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars, it ups the pressure to win."

That's why many think the reform movement will get nowhere -- at least at big-time sports schools. "I can't believe that a Michigan or a Penn State, schools with good academics and successful sports programs, are going to want to cut back," says Bill Cella, chairman of Magna Global USA, the TV negotiating arm of the communications conglomerate Interpublic Group. "I think the reverse is happening. There are efforts now on behalf of the networks to convince the [BCS] conference to go into a real playoff structure. That would generate some real money, and money rules the day." Zimbalist adds that shortening seasons might not loosen money's grip: "With less supply, the price for sponsorship and advertising could go up," he points out.

The question is: Where is it all going to end? Reformer Eno sees a nightmarish future: "If the situation continues to evolve the way it has," he says, "there's going to be increased pressure for the payment of athletes in the revenue sports, even for the outsourcing of big-time football and basketball, to try to distance the universities from the negative associations of commercialism."

That may not be far off. State legislatures in California, Utah, and Nebraska last summer introduced bills to pay athletes and allow them to share in money earned from bowl games, TV, and endorsements. The NCAA firmly opposes "pay-for-play" but is studying a plan to increase scholarship support.

"We're at a crossroads," says Brand. "If this reform fails and schools adopt a pay-for-play professional model, it is the end of college sports as we know it and a serious loss to the educational system." That's why the reformers plan to keep grinding it out on the ground until they make some serious yardage.

By Skip Rozin, with Susan Zegel

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