NCAA makes progress, but its task of governing athletics is fearsome one

January 12, 1995|By PHIL JACKMAN

Why, oh why, didn't those professors at Princeton and Rutgers lay on an extra load of homework that fateful weekend back in 1869, the year college sports was born?

Think of the trouble that would have been avoided, lo these many years, at the annual convention of the National Collegiate Athletic Association if the Scarlet Knights and the men of Old Nassau hadn't gotten together for a spot of Foot Ball (two words back then).

The NCAA, you know, short for No Chance for an Acceptable Answer.

The gang was at it for the 89th time this week in San Diego and, in a bit of a surprise, accomplished a bunch. Like not allowing those power-mad temples of higher X's and O's and half-court traps in Division I to abscond with all the organization's hard-earned cash simply because they're the wage earner.

Picture the so-called head of a household, which used to be dad with a job, trooping home with a paycheck on Friday afternoon and informing the wife and kids, "Well, I got mine, time for you to go and get yours."

On the plus side, slowly but surely the organization is making progress toward making athletes in the revenue-producing sports of football and basketball have more than a vertical leap or an impressive bench-press ultimately to qualify as an alumnus.

It has been tough and there have been roadblocks, figuring out what part standardized test scores and grades in high school algebra and history play in predicting a student athlete's ability to absorb advanced information. Not helping matters, of course, is the incontrovertible fact that secondary education has tumbled to a scandalous level in many areas.

Then there's the crowd that while constantly insisting "we want to make it better for the kids," seems intent on placing the emphasis on extracurricular activity to the detriment of what the original intent of attending college has always been. Their credo is, participation in sports is a right, not a privilege.

For instance, right around the time the foolishness about paying collegians a stipend above and beyond a six-figure education had subsided following the NCAA's extending a billion-dollar deal with television, a curmudgeon named Walter Byers sings the second and third verses of this tune.

Walter, which you probably never knew because of his reclusive ways, was executive director of college athletics dating back to the days of Walter Camp, Jim Naismith and the second or third Army-Navy game. Many suspect that Byers was actually King Curmudgeon himself, keeper of the amateur flame Avery Brundage, since they were never seen together.

Byers is touting a book he has written that has the words "Exploiting College Athletes" in the title. He's the gent who raised the practice to a fine art and this is going back to the days when there was little or no money involved.

Money, you remember, the stuff you cannot live with. Or without. If there were no outlandish obligations to be met wrought by massive TV deals, which lead to gigantic campus stadiums and arenas to be filled and the expensive supporting industries they lead to, chances are an NCAA convention could be staged in an hour via teleconference.

Since it's not likely the colleges are about to return money they have already spent or transform hoops halls into libraries, the organization must try to be all things to all people. A place to teach the masses how to earn the revenue they send to the government for disposal while readying those scant numbers who end up as our idolized and despised professional sports millionaires.

It's a tough assignment and somebody has to do it, as the saying goes, but why academia took it upon itself is anybody's guess. Study the situations that arise as times, people and college administrations change and it's not long before you come to the conclusion that these are problems that don't necessarily have satisfactory answers.

Tougher entry and eligibility rules for freshmen, which the convention got through and has coaches screaming bloody murder, is definitely a step in the right direction. Now making sure that these rules are adhered to and not watered down in time becomes the problem.

More than a decade ago, the NCAA passed legislation (Proposition 48) that ended up producing the desired effect, athletes meeting the improved standards. Despite the evidence, there are still those who insist "the rules are locking out a significant number of students who, if given the opportunity, would have been able to graduate." The rules also allow more qualified people to attend and graduate.

Years ago there was a legislator in Colorado who had the answer to end all this strife: Hire an athletic department and the teams to represent the university, no strings attached. Unfortunately, the poor guy was voted out before he could learn about his franking privileges.

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