Four years ago, as a special convention of the National Collegiate Athletic Association was ending in Dallas, one of the sharpest critics of college sports caught up with John B. Slaughter then chancellor of University of Maryland College Park.
Mr. Slaughter was also president then of the NCAA's reform-minded Presidents Commission. He was leaving Dallas with deep bruises which had been administered by coaches and athletic directors re-asserting their control over intercollegiate sports.
The presidents had wanted to start a debate on the proper role of athletics at American universities. They wanted to shrink these spectacles to relieve the increasing pressure for profit, for winning records and for lucrative television contracts, to reduce the potential for scandal and exploitation.
The coaches and the ADs said no. The presidents were defeated, almost humiliated.
But Donna Lopiano, assistant athletic director at the University of Texas, told Chancellor Slaughter not to worry. The reform movement would continue. The work started in Dallas would continue.
She was right. While college basketball and football are still big and still driven by the need to be profitable, the NCAA has responded to some of its critics by imposing real academic standards on athletes -- and on the universities that need top quality athletes on the basketball court or the football gridiron.
Admissions standards were raised by the NCAA last week. An athlete could still qualify with 700 (of a possible 1,600) on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), but his grade point average would have to be 2.5 (out of 4.0) in 13 core courses. Currently, the minimum is 2.0 (a "C" average) in 11 courses.
To remain eligible, college athletes will have to complete a certain percentage of their course work each year, keeping them on track to graduate. The new standards will go into effect in 1995.
"I'm pleased they raised the academic standards," says Representative Tom McMillen, D-Md-4th, a former Maryland basketball star and now proponent of radical changes in the structure of big time college sports.
Mr. McMillen said the argument made by some coaches that the new rules discriminate against minority athletes is only valid "because we do such a lousy job in our high schools."
Others, including Dr. Slaughter, have argued that SATs are only a little more valid as predictors of a student's success than mere chance. At Maryland, Mr. Slaughter tried to balance what he thought were important opportunities for minority athletes against his university's effort to raise its overall academic standards.
The tension between opportunity and rigidly applied standards continues and may be used on occasion as a way to admit less than marginal students. A good deal of subjectivity comes into play and, perhaps, it should.
Congressman McMillen said the NCAA's actions, while important, are somewhat cosmetic. Many of the reforms have been adopted to keep Mr. McMillen and other federal legislators out of the NCAA's business.
The real pressure within intercollegiate athletics, Mr. McMillen and others say, comes from the need to make money. And the real reform will come if colleges address the conflict between their vision of themselves as non-profit educational enterprises and the reality of college sports as business.
Reform has come incrementally, however, and the NCAA was happy last week to accept congratulations for taking strides that seemed longer than the norm.
The academic reforms are hailed as a real effort at restoring the integrity of universities and of intercollegiate athletics.
The meaning of that goal, sometimes piously articulated, may not be fully understood. If universities accept athletes knowing they cannot succeed in the classroom they are engaged in exploitation. The bargain involved in an athletic scholarship is always said to be athletic talent for an education, but if the university knows an athlete cannot collect on his side of the deal, the trade is fraudulent -- and the university knows it, or should.
Up to the imposition of Proposition 48, poorly prepared students were admitted to universities and relatively low academic standards were widely flouted, avoided, demeaned and ignored.
At the same time, athletes were shipped around the country to play and study far from home, a circumstance difficult enough for the well-prepared student with sufficient income and
motivation to learn. Often, the college athlete did not have enough money to buy a winter coat or have a visit home. His needs were viewed in the context of NCAA rules, not in the context of a young person's needs.
The problems that sometimes erupted were not surprising. Scandal became chronic in intercollegiate athletics. Public opinion surveys showed that many Americans thought big college sports were out of control.