College Athletic Reform and Presidential Cheerleaders

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Ronald A. Smith is a sports historian and Professor Emeritus at Penn State University. His latest book is "Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform" (Illinois, 2010).

“College presidents,” stated Harvard’s long-time president in 1905,” certainly cannot reform football.”  How prophetic.

History has shown the wisdom of Harvard’s Charles W. Eliot, who had responded to a request to lead a conference of colleges and universities to reform or ban football, only a month before the National Collegiate Athletic Association was formed to reform football rules.

Eliot, after three and a half decades of leading Harvard, knew that college presidents did not have the power to reform or abolish intercollegiate athletics.  More than a century later, the presidential-led Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and university presidents who control college athletics through the National Collegiate Athletic Association had less insight than President Eliot, though they had a century of experience from which to profit.  They were following the questionable belief of President Jacob Gould Schurman of Cornell, who, in challenging Eliot, said that “presidents have it in their power to abolish the evils of the game.  All that is needed is action.” 

For the next century, the claim remained that presidents could reform athletics, including the famed American College Athletics report of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  The 1929 report concluded naively:  “The man who is most likely to succeed in uprooting the evils of recruiting and subsidizing is the college president.”

College presidents were not reforming, then, and for generation after generation presidents continued to be cheerleaders for their institutions and for athletics, not reformers. 

Following the number of scandals revealed in 1951 that saw the revelation of basketball point shaving by athletes from a number of institutions including Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky; West Point football classroom cheating; and grade changing and other irregularities at little William and Mary, the American Council on Education formed a star committee of presidents for athletic reform.  The report said that presidents must be in control to reform athletics.  Little happened.

By the 1980s, with the depth of athletic irregularities by players and coaches alike increasingly commonplace, J. W. Peltason, president of the American Council on Education, described his college president-led organization as believing that “in athletics, there is no substitute for presidential involvement and leadership” when raising eligibility standards and instituting other reforms needed in college athletics.

When the Knight Foundation’s Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics report for a new model for intercollegiate athletics was published in the early 1990s, little had changed conceptually.  Presidents, the report stated emphatically, “are the linchpin of the reform movement.”

A decade later, as collegiate athletics entered their third century, the Knight Commission, composed principally of college presidents, knew that its reform movement led by college presidents was a failure.

Only minimal reforms had been instituted under college presidents and with the NCAA completely under presidential control, things had gotten worse.  “Time has demonstrated,” the Knight Commission admitted, “that the NCAA, even under presidential control, cannot independently do what needs to be done.”

If presidents are unsuccessful in reforming athletics and upholding academic integrity in higher education, who then might help in the process?

To help presidents, who are principally fund raisers and cheerleaders for their own institutions, I have suggested in my recent book, Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform, that three principal groups of historical importance be brought back into the reform equation— governing boards, faculty members, and athletes. 

Governing boards set university policy, and as athletics are a very important part of institutions of higher education, governing boards should be represented on the agency overlooking athletics, the National Collegiate Athletic Association.  Governing boards, often accused of being one of the problems in college sport, would be made visible, rather than hidden, in the governing of the NCAA if they were represented.  Bring them to the table and help make them responsible for making athletics educationally respectable.

Faculty members, who a century ago were major role players in intercollegiate athletics, may have the most to gain by raising the integrity of athletics, for they are the gatekeepers of the college curricula and academic achievement.  Presently there is one faculty organization that could be effective, the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, an organization of faculty senates among major universities.

Athletes, who first organized and ran intercollegiate athletics in the nineteenth century, should also be given a seat of importance in setting policy within the NCAA.  Presently, athletes have almost no say on their own athletic teams, at individual institutions, conferences, or the NCAA.  Athletes should be heard as well as seen on the field of play.

If an organization composed of presidents, governing boards, faculties, and athletes fail to bring about athletic policies that do not make a mockery of higher education, then the hope for reform by those most affected is slim.

It is then likely that a major crisis may arise, like the throwing of games and shaving point scandals of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s (and continuing to today) that will be brought to major national attention.  If another scandal of major proportions occurs, one can expect the federal legislature to take action, helped along, as it was in the case of women’s involvement in intercollegiate athletics, with court decisions. 

If it ever arises that athletics in higher education are legally recognized as being neither amateur nor educational and are only commercial and professional entities, the reform measures that could have been accomplished by the institutions themselves will have been lost.  To prevent outside reform, the mostly cheerleading university presidents need help from within.

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