The following commentary was published in the July 4, 1990, issue of The NCAA News
Intercollegiate athletics has never been as concerned about its student-athletes, as highly regulated and monitored, as visible to the public through television and other media or as influential in higher education as it is now.
Academic requirements for eligibility are paying off in graduation rates higher than those of the student body in general, the NCAA compliance services staff provides outstanding services to member institutions that wish to maintain honest and equitable programs, and institutional CEOs are actively involved in NCAA affairs and in achieving desired changes.
Yet the rhetoric of some members of the media and the unfair stereotyping of athletes and coaches have stampeded some faculty, CEOs and others into stating that intercollegiate athletics is out of control and that drastic action. including Congressional action, is needed to clean up the mess. A few individuals at a few institutions have indeed violated ethical standards and rules established by the athletics community, but that is no reason to join in the media dynamics of athletics bashing or to condemn the entire system.
I am concerned about two major forces in intercollegiate athletics — one dealing with the reaction of faculty and others to the inflammatory, sensational and often misleading rhetoric of some sportswriters, and the second dealing with the condition of higher education generally.
I have always believed that faculty and university administrators sought the truth — that they used reasoned, analytical approaches to controversial issues. When it comes to intercollegiate athletics, though, many faculty seem to believe what they read in the popular press.
Despite the positive evidence about athletics programs at most institutions, faculty and students continue to speak of the stereotyped image of the “dumb jock” and often demean both student-athletes and their coaches.
This unreasoned and uninformed attitude of faculty about their own students and colleagues is grossly unfair and is a mindless approach that is unbecoming to members of an educational community.
Those in the academic community who write about athletics being out of control and who offer simple solutions without first evaluating the problem and understanding their institution’s athletics program are doing a disservice to the academic community and are merely pandering to the press. Even more tragic is the potential impact on some student-athletes: If faculty and fellow students continue to label a student-athlete as a “Proposition 48 casualty,” or to refer to the stereotypical image of the dumb jock, then some student-athletes may come to believe that such behavior is expected of them and will tend to act out that personality.
Even if we agreed that public opinion has been manipulated and misled by a few sportswriters, if that public opinion tends to impugn the public trust in higher education, then drastic action is indeed necessary.
But that action shouldn’t castigate athletics by blindly accepting the stereotype. It shouldn’t accede to the uninformed or misinformed without attempting to reveal the truths about athletics. Instead, the proper role of faculty is to provoke informed understanding about their own programs, to demand integrity and to deal harshly with their colleagues who have let their own academic programs get out of control.
This is precisely the role of the institutional athletics representative, but unfortunately, too few faculty have accepted this responsibility for either athletics or academic programs.
This leads me to my second concern — that higher education in general is losing some of its values, and that academic excellence, rigor and ethical consideration at the undergraduate level are diminishing at many institutions.
Several years ago, student-athletes at five institutions in my conference received credit in courses offered by other reputable, accredited institutions to meet requirements of the NCAA academic progress rule. The students did nothing to earn the credits — the courses were a fraud. When the fraud was uncovered by the conference, intercollegiate athletics took the brunt of the penalties and the finger-pointing — yet the students were only the johns who visited the academic brothel.
The sad part of the entire affair was that many of the courses were designed primarily for teachers who needed an advanced degree or a teaching credential, and I don’t even want to think about how many teachers today may have been advanced because of those courses or that the fraud might still exist if athletics hadn’t been diligent and taken immediate remedial and punitive action. So now tell me, what was out of control in that situation, and who was it that exercised appropriate action and control?
Each issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education is replete with horror stories of plagiarism, conflicts of interest. manipulation of research data, bigotry and fraud. Here are a few of the headlines of just one recent month:
“Quality of Life Said 10 Have Diminished on U.S. Campuses” — “White House Meeting on Campus Crime Appears to Please No One Involved” — “House Panel Renews its Criticism of the Way Universities Police Scientific Misconduct — “(CEO) Formally Charged with Making Obscene Phone Calls” — “Former University Official Pleads Guilty to 3 Charges” — “College Votes No Confidence in President.”
The November 22, 1989, issue of the Chronicle featured actions of the attorney general of Missouri in achieving accreditation for a fictitious institution with Arnold the Pig as a member of its faculty. The regrettable part of the whole sordid mess was that the Commission for Schools, Colleges and Theological Seminaries already had accredited 130 church-related and proprietary schools since 1982. These schools deceived students into enrolling in an “accredited” school; because the U.S. Office of Education does not recognize that accreditation, those students are not eligible for any Federal grant or loan programs.
A university is indeed a public trust, because if we can’t trust the research and the truths in learning in higher education, then there isn’t much left that we can trust. If any institutional activity diminishes the integrity and public credibility of an institution to the point that the public no longer can trust that institution, then that activity must be terminated. However, I believe that our publics are much more sophisticated and aware than we realize; and even though intercollegiate athletics may have its problems and may be more visible, by far the greatest problems for an institution are the other skeletons in the academic closet.
There’s nothing much worse than an institution’s cheating its own students or deceiving the public, but it’s happening all the time at too many institutions, and the public is aware of it. That’s the main reason that governors, legislators and other leaders engage in university-bashing. It’s not because some assistant coach halfway across the country gave an athlete an extra $20, but because the public is tired of the shoddy performance of graduates of their own universities and the stories they hear about the diminishing quality of education.
Something is wrong when more than 50 percent of qualified freshmen fail to graduate and when for some who graduate the ability to communicate or to have a creative thought is nonexistent.
Academic abuses in higher education affect all students but seem to draw attention only when athletes get involved. Academic abuses are too subtle to be noticed by accrediting agencies, but somehow institutions need to focus attention on the erosion of academic quality and institutional values. Just ask students about courses for which little work is required. Why have some colleges abandoned academic counseling — is it because faculty no longer care, or because promotion and tenure are not based on advising?
Some faculty criticize intercollegiate athletics because it has become “big business.” Haven’t these faculty been aware of the intense grantsmanship that prevails on campuses today, or of the efforts of the CEO to increase foundation income? Some faculty are critical of some coaches’ attitudes to “win at all costs,” yet seem to accept “publish or perish” policies. Faculty are critical of coaches who violate rules, as we all are, but seem to overlook the fact that student cheating on exams and papers and that research fraud are worse than they ever have been.
If there arc academic abuses of athletes at an institution, you can bet that many other students are also denied the educational enrichment for which they came. Athletes are more visible but represent only the symptoms of an institutional illness. Faculty therefore should exercise their responsibilities to all students by seeking to improve the quality of education generally. Faculty should work toward assuring academic integrity of their institutions, not by denouncing athletics, but by requiring discipline, honesty and excellence from all their students.
My point in expressing these concerns is not to denigrate higher education or to divert attention away from the problems of intercollegiate athletics, but instead to suggest that focusing singular attention on a “crisis” in athletics tends to waste the energies and good will of an institution. The “crisis” rhetoric is blown out of proportion; too many people accept the babbling of a few sportswriters who wouldn’t know a kind word or the truth if they looked. CEOs and faculty tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to the popular media; that reaction is often manifested in uninformed and righteous breast-beating. We need to put more of that media hype aside and instead work together to build stronger bonds between athletics and academics at each institution.
Is intercollegiate athletics out of control? Maybe at a few institutions with passive faculty and/or absentee leadership. But generally, no — athletics is highly controlled and its coaches and administrators arc intensely devoted to the integrity of their professions and their institutions.
The NCAA, through collective actions of CEOs, athletics directors and coaches, is attempting to identify and solve athletics’ part of the problem, but I fear that other members of the academic community are either too tired or unorganized or lack the desire and the resources to address major institutional problems. Because of recent reforms, athletes are no longer a stigma on the good reputation of an institution — rather, in some instances, even academic advisers for athletics state that the decrease in academic performance of the institution has threatened the quality and reputation of its athletics program.
Too many CEOs are barking up the wrong tree if they believe that a problem in the athletics program is the main reason that public support of the institution has decreased. Maybe it’s because higher education is losing control, or that it no longer strives for academic excellence and integrity.
To have CEOs, ADS, coaches and faculty denunciate each other in the media does not impress students, alumni or the public generally; rather, the public will question the credibility of all the participants and will react negatively to higher education generally. It is high time we worked together to agree on what needs to be done to improve the educational process and to give high priority to building the entire institution, not tearing down a part of it.
John R. Davis recently had retired as a professor at Oregon State University at the time this commentary was published in The NCAA News. He served as faculty athletics representative at the university, and was NCAA membership president in 1985 and 1986.