University presidents appear to be in charge of football and basketball on their campuses. They should be, and it's about time. For years it has been clear that on some campuses, at least, many athletes were students in name only. Entrance requirements were laughably low or non-existent, as was required scholastic progress after matriculation. The presidents began to reassert themselves in the early 1980s, and gradually they have made real progress against those athletic directors and alumni groups who oppose any reform that might weaken a team's won-loss record.
Last week at the National Collegiate Athletic Association's annual meeting, presidents scored again. They won adoption of rules that will significantly increase the academic standards for athletes, both as to entrance requirements and scholastic eligibility. Since 1983, the NCAA has forbidden athletic scholarships for high school students who did not have a grade point average of 2.0 (a C) in 11 core courses and did not score at a certain level on aptitude tests (700 on the SATs). The new standard is 2.5 on 13 core courses, except for those scoring much higher on the SATs. The new rules also require college athletes to maintain a certain grade level and to pass a certain number of courses each year.
The entrance requirement reform was criticized last week as being discriminatory against minority, inner city youths. One educator has estimated that perhaps 70 percent of the present black freshmen on athletic scholarships did not meet the new standard. Even if this is so, the new standards will almost surely raise the performance abilities of the students and their high schools in the three-year grace period the NCAA provided.
Precisely that happened after the 1983 reform was approved. The same fears about black youths were expressed then, but the percentage of blacks winning athletic scholarships is higher today than it was then. We like what Bill Hunter, athletic director at Towson State University, said about the reforms. He called them a message not only to secondary but to elementary schools that they must do a better job of preparing youths for college. They must and they can. We predict they will.
College athletics play too central a place in American popular culture and life to be de-emphasized to insignificance. However, the scandals and tragedies that result from colleges treating athletes as resident-athletes rather than student-athletes must be halted for good. The best way to do that is to keep the presidents in control -- and under public pressure to keep cleaning up their act.