In the Seamy World of College Athletics, No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

June 20, 1993|By C. FRASER SMITH

It used to be, when the crimes of intercollegiate sports flashed into public view, that defenders blamed what they said were a few rotten apples. The vast majority of programs, they insisted, were crisp and clean.

It was assumed the clean programs would stay that way -- free of under-the-table cash payments to athletes, free of grade-tampering to preserve eligibility and thus free of the consequent low graduation rates.

Today the assumption is different. By now, sports fans fear that almost every program is or will become dirty.

That conclusion is given further support by the tribulations of Richard D. Schultz, head man at the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The reform-minded Mr. Schultz resigned in April after reports that he knew of illegal loans to athletes when he was athletic director at the University of Virginia. He claimed he didn't know about the loans; some of his former aides said he did. But even an alleged violation of the rules could not be tolerated in the new environment. If Mr. Schultz had sinned, how could he be asked to admonish and give penance to sinners of the future?

And, what can be said about the fact that his alleged offenses occurred at U.Va., one of those schools even now regarded as good and honorable but no longer immune to cheating impulses?

As sports scandals go, the media romp over Mr. Schultz's fall from grace has been relatively short. This is so partly because nothing we hear from the campuses can surprise us now. We have had an athlete dead of cocaine intoxication in his dormitory. We have had governors paying athletes even after they were found out by the NCAA. We have had college graduates who cannot read. No wonder we are about to throw up our hands.

The writer and editor Frank Deford found a parallel to the woeful sports conundrum in the Clinton administration's approach to gays and the military, the so-called ''don't ask, don't tell'' approach. If you're the military, you don't ask about a recruit's sexual orientation. If you're gay you don't say so. Similarly, Mr. Deford suggested, mockingly, the solution to sports scandals is for the NCAA to stop asking if offenses have been committed and for the universities to stay mum.

Tufts University President John DiBiaggio, a member of the recently disbanded Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, says that, like the poor, the $100-handshake will always be with us.

We are about to conclude, yet again, that the sports machine is too powerful for mere mortals to control. If the estimable Dick Schultz couldn't survive it, who could?

But surely Mr. Schultz was not the last chance to put things right. He did have an impressive resume. He had been an athletics director. He knew the problems. He knew the players -- not just the athletes, but the boosters, the coaches and his own former colleagues -- people who could control the thing if they wanted to. They had faith in him or thought he was the best reformer they were likely to get.

Now he is on his way out. But the NCAA must find a new leader and -- assuming that ''don't ask, don't tell'' won't be the new policy -- it might want to make a hard-headed assessment of just how much progress has been made on the road to reform.

It may be time to stop focusing on the apples and take a new look at the barrel. The NCAA could start by examining what has been said about Mr. Schultz's problems. Several theories have emerged:

* Dick Schultz was a victim of the new integrity of college sports.

Great irony is perceived: Here was the most renowned of reformers caught in a web of rising expectations, a web he himself had spun. Yet, if he were participating in an illegal loan program at Virginia, the rules were as binding then as they are now. The NCAA is caught between the impulse to forgive whatever may have happened -- and the need to honor its standards.

* He had fallen prey to a remarkable quagmire of rules. Like the IRS code, it is said, the NCAA's rulebook makes felons of us all. This is the sporting world's version of moaning about government regulation of business -- as if businessmen surely would be more virtuous without it.

The sense one derives from the reports on his downfall is that no one else ever tried to fix this broken system. The suggestion is a disservice to many others who have tried to effect change -- and to decent university presidents or future NCAA leaders as well.

Mr. Shultz did have leverage: The U.S. Congress was threatening to take over if the NCAA and the colleges can't find a way to stop victimizing young athletes. Movement on Capital Hill forced movement in the nation's athletic councils. Providing firm and intelligent leadership by all accounts, Mr. Schultz properly got the credit.

Having been hoist by his own petard, he is now canonized. This is a well-settled precedent of sport: The annals of intercollegiate scandal are replete with fallen men, idolized.

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