Why College Sports
Collegiate athletics, it is generally agreed, are a mess. And not merely from an educational point of view. By almost any measure, college sports are becoming increasingly difficult to justify. Although they are sometimes defended on the grounds of the publicity they bring to a school, athletics can as easily be a source of embarrassment as of glory. Within a matter of weeks at the University of Oklahoma last year, a young woman was gang-raped in the athletic dormitory, one football player shot another, and the star quarterback (who had appeared in anti-drug announcements) was arrested for selling cocaine. It seemed obvious, at least to those who concern themselves with such matters, that the athletic program at Oklahoma was out of control, removed from any sense of accountability, badly in need of reform. Nor was Oklahoma’s program alone. At the University of Florida, fraud and financial misdealings in the sports department had become so commonplace and unsavory that Governor Bob Martinez proposed the creation of a statewide office to oversee the conduct of collegiate athletics.
The reform of college sports is clearly an idea whose time has come. No one expects athletic programs to clean themselves up: they have become too independent, too unrestrained, too powerful. At some universities, coaches now earn salaries two or three times higher than the highest-paid professor, higher even than the president. Student athletes are (in the phrase of Wayne Duke, former commissioner of the Big Ten) “compartmentalized”: they live apart in specially reserved dormitories, train and practice in specially reserved facilities, and have scant contact with other students. Through the booster club, people who know little and care less about the work of a university are invited to have a hand in its activities. And perhaps as a direct result, almost anything is tolerated—from illegal cash payments to counterfeit grade reports—as long as the team is winning. Between 1984 and 1989, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) publicly reprimanded 83 programs for rules violations, but not even public opprobrium seemed to have much of an effect: another eight programs have been added to the number so far this year. As a successful football coach at a Western university explained, “I’ll be fired for losing before I’m fired for cheating.”
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