- Created on Monday, 08 June 2015 12:02
In my last post I implored my alma mater to give up Division I football and men’s basketball. I argued that it is impossible to compete at the highest level in those sports by recruiting only students who are prepared for college, and therefore the system has an inherent imperative for academic fraud.
But is giving up those programs feasible?
Well, it has been done. The best known example occurred in 1939, when, under the leadership of Robert Maynard Hutchings, the University of Chicago dropped varsity football.
Hutchings was a larger-than-life figure. The son of a Presbyterian minister who himself became a college president, Hutchings had a deeply ingrained sense of morality. After serving in the Army ambulance corps during World War I, Hutchings graduated from Yale University and then, first in his class, from Yale Law School. He became a law professor at Yale and a leader of the Legal Realist Movement, which looked to the social sciences to better understand and improve the law. By age 29, Hutchings became dean of Yale Law School. By 30, he was named president of the University of Chicago.
Chicago was then a member of the Big Ten but had a dreadful football team that consistently placed at the bottom in the conference. The problem was that it suffered a competitive disadvantage. Even then, universities with good football programs recruited players unprepared for their normal programs. About half of Big Ten varsity athletes majored in physical education. But the University of Chicago did not offer a phys-ed major. Hutchins mocked the system by saying that it was possible to earn twelve letters in college athletics without knowing how to write one.
According to his biographer, Hutchins abominated both the “perversion of athletics to commercialism,” and even more, “the myths that were fabricated to justify it.”* In direct expenses and revenues, football cost the university money; but football was said to more than make up for that in alumni enthusiasm and donations. Hutchins didn’t buy it. Some of the universities and colleges with the largest fundraising had the worst football teams. And while presidents at state universities said that football generated financial support from the state legislatures, the universities concealed the costs of their football stadiums.
At a meeting of Chicago’s board of trustees, one member asked: “Football is what unifies a university – what will take its place?” Hutchins answered: “Education.”
After laying the groundwork with nine years of internal advocacy, Hutchins made his move at the conclusion of the football season by publishing an article titled “Gate Receipts and Glory” in the December 3, 1938 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. College athletics had become crass professionalism “masquerading as higher education,” he wrote, but “nobody has done anything about it.” “Why?” he asked.
“Nobody wants, or dares, to defy the public, dishearten the students, or deprive alma mater of the loyalty of the alumni. Most emphatically of all, nobody wants to give up gate receipts. …Gate receipts are used to build laboratories and to pay for those sports that can’t pay for themselves.”
Hutchins denounced those justifications as myths. But if money was corroding truth and morality in universities, then “the cure is to take the money out of [college] athletics.” It was up to universities with leaders and prestige to walk away from the money, he argued. “The substitute is light and learning. The colleges and universities that taught the country football, can teach the country that the effort to discover truth, to transmit the wisdom of the race, and to preserve civilization is exciting and perhaps important too.”
A year later, despite considerable opposition, the board of trustees of the University of Chicago decided to stop playing Big Ten athletics and have intramural sports instead.
A more modern – and in some ways even more interesting – example occurred at the University of San Francisco.
USF used to be a basketball power. It won two national championships and another Final Four appearance in the 1950s. It reached the Elite Eight four times in the 1960s and 1970s. Its players who went on to great careers in the NBA include Bill Russell and K.C. Jones. But scandals – including academic integrity issues – erupted at USF. Tutors took tests and wrote papers for players. There were other issues too, including accusations that the university tried to cover up an assault by a basketball player on a nursing student who feared she would be raped.
As the New York Times put it, in 1982 USF's president, Rev. John Lo Schiavo, decided “to forgo the revenue, publicity and acclaim of the university’s successful men’s basketball program and instead stand up for institutional rectitude.”** He eliminated the basketball program.
Here’s the most interesting part of the story. Father Lo Schiavo reinstituted basketball beginning in 1985. Recruiting, however, was radically reformed. “The real question,” Lo Schiavo said, “is, ‘Can an athletic program based on the right principles survive and thrive in this stressful environment?’ I think so.”
It appears he was wrong. USF has made the NCAA tournament only once since pledging itself to “the right principles,” and on that one occasion (in 1998) it was eliminated in the first round.
But USF has seemed to do just fine without a highly-successful basketball program. Not only did Father Lo Schiavo eliminate the university debt and balance its budgets, by the time he stepped down as president in 1991 he had increased the university’s endowment eightfold to $38.7 million. USF’s endowment today stands at $289 million.
I’ve heard the University of Chicago has been doing well too.
* Milton Mayer, Robert Maynard Hutchins: A Memoir (U. Chicago Press 1993), Chpt. 14.
** Bruce Weber, Rev. John Lo Schiavo, 90, Who Barred a Sport, Dies, N.Y. Times, May 20, 2015, A18.
- Created on Wednesday, 27 May 2015 08:10
Dear Alma Mater:
As an undergraduate in bygone days, I cheered when Floyd Little, the third great running back to wear Syracuse number 44, returned punts the length of the field. (About you, Syracuse, Floyd Little said: "I liked it because they made you be a student first, an athlete second.”) As an alumnus, I was thrilled every time the basketball team reached the Final Four and delighted when Syracuse won a national championship.
Now I beseech you – and other universities of integrity: Stop playing Division I men’s football and basketball.
Yes, I understand the value of those programs for the university. That’s just the problem; they have become too valuable.
Like alumni of other universities, I wanted to believe that my school’s teams were composed of genuine student-athletes who were just like other Syracuse students, except, of course, that they were athletically gifted and disciplined enough to succeed in sports and academics simultaneously. Periodically scandals erupted at other colleges; but I wanted to believe my school was different.
Then Syracuse had its scandal. I learned from the NCAA report that there was an entire infrastructure within Syracuse’s basketball program to ensure that players succeeded academically. There were mentors to provide skills training for athletes, tutors for particular subjects, and a director of basketball operations who – notwithstanding that job title – spent 90 percent of his time on players’ academics.
According to that report, in January 2013, a star basketball player’s grades made him ineligible to play. Much was at stake: Syracuse’s team was undefeated and a potential contender for another national championship. The athletic director convened a meeting to discuss how to restore the player’s eligibility. Eight people attended, including the associate provost – a high-ranking official from the academic side of the university. They decided that the player should ask an instructor in a completed course to consider raising a grade if the player did extra work, an option purportedly open to all Syracuse students.
The following afternoon, an instructor for a course the player completed the previous year agreed to consider a grade change if the player submitted a four or five-page paper. The very next morning the paper was submitted, and the instructor raised the player’s grade in the course from a C- to B-. If, as a general matter, students can raise a course grade that much with a four-page paper, the university has other problems; but in this case anyway, that’s what happened. The player’s eligibility was restored, and the team went on to reach the Final Four.
Later an investigation revealed that the paper was written – or, at a minimum, substantially revised – not by the student but by the director of basketball operations and one of his staff members.
You ask, alma mater, that we believe that the problem was caused by a few apostates who violated not only the university’s formal policies but its genuine wishes and expectations. The director of basketball operations and his staff member are no longer at Syracuse, and the athletics director has been reassigned.
Head Coach Jim Boeheim says he knew nothing about the fake paper. I believe him. But what signal did he send to his staff when he recruited that player in the first place? The player was from Brazil, and he himself says that he didn’t speak English well enough to do college work. Did the coach reasonably expect the player to learn English well enough and quickly enough to succeed in a rigorous college program – while devoting 40 hours a week to basketball?
Jim Boeheim is a good man. That I do not doubt. Among other worthy things, he and his wife have raised millions of dollars to fight cancer. Moreover, Boeheim gives his time not only to fundraising but to personally talking with cancer victims, including children. The problem is not that the system is filled with bad people. The problem is that the system forces good people to close their eyes to its fundamental flaw -- a flaw they can't change and, to succeed, must ignore.
There is nothing unique about Syracuse. Other prestigious universities with academic-integrity sports violations include Stanford, Berkeley, Notre Dame, Michigan, Minnesota, and UCLA.
The mother of all scandals is unfolding at University of North Carolina, where over a period of thirteen years 3,100 students took sham courses. Most of these students were athletes, who had been directed to those particular courses by the athletic department’s academic support staff. Some of the courses never existed in any form; there were no instructors, no classes, and no assignments. For other courses, students wrote fake papers. The convention was that students could cut and paste material from the web and submit it as their own work, provided they cited the source. The citations provided a pretense that the paper was not plagiarized, or at least were so accepted by the instructors. (Was it a coincidence that the Syracuse instructor initially rejected that four-page paper because it lacked citations?)
Regardless of whether universities use the same techniques, they may have no alternative but to engage in self-delusion and fraud – for the hard truth may be that it is otherwise impossible to compete at the highest levels in men’s basketball and football. Here’s why: When they look at high school prospects, college programs find both athletically-gifted players who are – and who are not – prepared for college. Programs that limit themselves only to athletes who are prepared for college work place themselves at a competitive disadvantage. That's the fundamental flaw in the system.
Coaches, admissions officers, and college presidents may tell themselves that their academic support programs will help athletes who are unprepared for college work to succeed academically. But tutors are not miracle workers. They can do a great deal; but extra help takes extra time. Even the best tutors cannot turn students who are not prepared for college into successful students with the time that Division I athletes have available for study.
Because of the enormous sums that can made through television broadcast rights, ticket sales, and apparel licensing – or, conversely, the red ink that will flow should those revenues fail to exceed coaches’ and trainers’ salaries, athletic scholarships, team travel, and all of other costs of these expensive programs – the drive to do whatever is necessary to compete successfully in men’s basketball and football has become irresistible.
The NCAA can’t help. When colleges without elite sports programs make noises about real reform, schools with profitable programs threaten to bolt. Moreover, the NCAA has itself become addicted to the money. Its men’s basketball tournament generates $750 million annually for itself and its member institutions. Consequently, the NCAA’s greatest interest is in preserving the appearance – rather than the substance – of academic integrity. It can make itself look good by landing heavily on a school such as Syracuse, where academic integrity issues involved three students; but so far it has recoiled at the too-big-to-acknowledge UNC scandal. Investigative journalists and internal whistleblowers – not the NCAA – exposed the fake courses. Although its investigation has not concluded, the NCAA is suggesting that situation may be beyond its jurisdiction because it involves the academic integrity of an entire university rather than whether athletes received benefits unavailable to other students.
Desperate people cling to fantasies. For too long, coaches – who, if successful, are showered with fortunes and glory; and if unsuccessful, are fired – and university presidents – who are painfully aware of the tens of millions of dollars to be made or lost in men’s basketball and football – have been deluding themselves. So have alumni like me. It is time to face reality.
- Created on Monday, 20 October 2014 09:52
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