The issue at question is whether college athletes should be college students. It's really a modest proposal. It isn't against athletes or college sports or one racial group or another.
What the proposal adopted last week by the NCAA convention in Anaheim, Calif., intends is that as many college athletes as possible be eligible for life when they have used up all of their athletic eligibility. They should be able to add a column of numbers, read the instructions on a piece of equipment and maybe even write a letter in English. That's not so outrageous, is it?
What the world needs isn't really another basketball player, it's a good accountant.
Delegates from almost 900 NCAA schools were dealing with the fact that university presidents are taking a stronger position in controlling athletic departments and college sports. Those presidents are trying to raise standards for admission and ensure that athletes make real progress toward degrees rather than merely stay eligible.
What they are saying is that college athletics are too important to be left to athletic departments.
If university presidents are going to make real strides they're going to have to deal with the rule of television money. Some day they'll have to decide that education is not served by having games begin at 10 p.m. because television wants it, or by spreading what should be weekend events over the school week because television wants it that way.
But that's too radical a step to take all at once. First, they have to make progress on who goes to college in the first place. College presidents have been trying to refine that for seven years since Proposition 48 said that a student had to score a combined 700 on the SAT to play as a freshman. No system with a single criterion is perfect. Critics argued that the inner-city black student was less likely to come upon the world "regatta" in daily life than was the white kid from Long Island, N.Y.
The stronger side of the argument said that high school athletes would pay attention to English and history if they knew they had to learn something to get a college scholarship. "There are two things that scare high school kids in New York City," said Bob Oliva, basketball coach at Christ the King. "Guys running around with guns, and SATs."
That was the point. As Barf Brugel, an academic adviser at Penn State, put it: "Most people will work up to what's expected of them. If you only expect them to be an athlete, that's all they'll be."
What was adopted this time is an increase to a minimum of 750. Splendid. The 700 floor was embarrassingly low, and 750 is not high, either.
Actually, it's not that simple. The SAT will be one component of a sliding scale. It will increase the number of core courses -- history, English, math, for example -- from 11 to 13, with a 2.5 grade-point average (a C-plus) and a minimum combined SAT of 700. There would be a trade-off provision to accept a 2.25 average with a 750 SAT, and so on.
The SAT makes a level playing floor for those schools that give grades to athletes and those that do not.
College acceptance varies from school to school. A second-chance school, such as Cleveland State, doesn't have the same admissions standards as Duke. The athletes should be representative of the student body, and Duke demonstrated that it could win with a representative basketball team.
"The major sports are not going to be truly representative of the student body as long as they maintain the system of athletic scholarships," said David Merkowitz of the American Council on Education. "Face it, the Duke basketball team has a much larger proportion of black males than the student body. The key is not that the team should look like the rest of the student body but that it should not be so distinct academically.
"That's where university presidents have been working. It's been a long haul and at some cost."
The cost, for example, was at Iowa, where the university president suggested that his school unilaterally hold freshmen out of varsity sports. So Hayden Fry, the football coach, threatened to quit and the governor of the state took outrage at the university president. And the president of Michigan State was rejected when he sought to take the athletic directorship away from football coach George Perles.