March madness time in more ways than one

Tom McMillen

March 19, 1991|By Tom McMillen

THE NATION is now in the middle of "March madness," that time of year when the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament takes place in arenas across the country.

But behind the euphoria and hoopla is another kind of madness -- the madness of an intercollegiate athletic program that has grown to gigantic proportions, a program run by people who have become obsessed with money. Unfortunately, in their lust for profits, these people have shown little care or respect for the average collegiate student-athlete.

In the midst of this March madness, a group of college presidents and business leaders today releases a report which could change the balance between college athletics and academics. The Knight Commission, on which I served, has issued a blueprint for reform, "Keeping Faith With the Student-Athlete." The commission was co-chaired by Theodore M. Hesburgh, president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, and William Friday, president emeritus of the University of North Carolina, and included many college presidents, including the new secretary of education, Lamar Alexander (president of the University of Tennessee).

For 18 months, we reviewed thousands of documents, interviewed witnesses and considered various ideas for reform. The final report is an indictment of college athletics today and a road map for changing the system.

We aren't alone in our belief that the current system begs for reform. A nationwide Harris survey showed that 75 percent of the American public believes that intercollegiate athletics have gotten out of control and 83 percent believes rule violations in intercollegiate sports have undermined universities and colleges as places where young people can learn ethics and integrity. This demonstrates that the perennial scandals in college athletics and at the NCAA go beyond the world of college sports and threaten the credibility of high education in general.

Based on some common-sense ideas, the commission developed a "one-plus-three" model for reform. "One" is presidential control, which calls on university and college presidents to wrestle the reins of their athletic departments away from boosters and coaches. Only through direct presidential control, with strict accountability of presidents and trustee boards for the operation of athletic departments, can a balance be restored between sports and academics. (I advocate an even stronger reform: that presidents be given absolute control of the NCAA through the creation of a new, over-arching body.)

The "three" parts of our formula are academic integrity, financial integrity and external checks on the system through auditing and certification. Among other things, these proposals call for the establishment of a "no pass, no play" standard, the curtailing of independent organizations funding athletic departments and the regular auditing of programs to determine if they are meeting these goals.

While I strongly support all the proposals in the Knight report, I believe more needs to be done to clean up college sports. The NCAA needs a much more radical approach to redistributing the billions of dollars flowing into college athletics. We must discard the "winner-take-all" philosophy that encourages rule-breaking and unethical behavior.

The NCAA also needs desperately to change the way it enforces its own rules. The University of Maryland learned a hard lesson last year when it sought to appeal the NCAA's verdict and penalty after College Park was found guilty of rules violations in its basketball program. University officials had little time to present an appeal and found themselves facing the same group, the NCAA, which had acted as judge, jury and prosecutor in the case being appealed. Congress will soon be considering legislation to compel the NCAA to obey simple due-process requirements, giving accused individuals and institutions the same basic rights defendants have in legal proceedings.

It there isn't reform in college and university athletics, the problems are bound to get worse and to invade high school sports. We have already seen a $250,000 contract with a cable company for televising high school basketball games. What's next -- sneaker contracts for junior high coaches and scouting reports on third-graders?

If the credibility of higher education is to be restored, the NCAA needs to make the welfare of the student-athlete its top priority, instead of worrying about where the next billion in advertising and sports booster revenue will come from.

Tom McMillen played basketball for the University of Maryland ,, and in the National Basketball Association. He now represents Maryland's 4th District in Congress.

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