If you want to get good and confused, nice and tied up in knots, you want five new questions for every answer, consider the reform of intercollegiate athletics. That's what a bunch of university presidents and other experts were doing in New Orleans over the last week, and the subject is so slippery that when I say "that's what they were doing," I'm not at all sure what it is they were doing. And in some cases neither were they.
"We've got our heads down, we're working hard to try to reform intercollegiate athletics, but what kind of reform is it?" asked Todd Turner, the former athletic director at Connecticut, North Carolina State and Vanderbilt. "Is it academic reform? Cultural reform? Competitive reform? Postseason football reform?"
Postseason football reform is what brought the crowds to New Orleans, to the National Symposium on Athletics Reform, presented by Tulane University. The main event of the week was a meeting Sunday at which presidents and chancellors from the six major conferences met with their counterparts from the five lesser Division I-A conferences -- the so-called mid-majors -- to discuss changing the Bowl Championship Series, the lucrative football postseason system that the smaller conferences say unfairly excludes them.
Scott Cowen, the president of Tulane, formed the Coalition for Athletics Reform to lobby on behalf of the BCS have-nots. He called Sunday "a very constructive day." The 11 presidents and chancellors, plus NCAA president Myles Brand and Fr. Edward Malloy of Notre Dame, an independent school that's in the BCS, agreed on a process by which the conference commissioners will hire marketing consultants to study various proposals to reform the BCS, and the chancellors and presidents will meet again within three months.
Cowen and University of Oregon president David Frohnmayer, who represented the two sides at a Sunday evening press conference, agreed that the only scenario not on the table is a 16-team postseason tournament like the ones used in Divisions I-AA, II and III.
The BCS is basically an agreement between the six major conferences -- the Pac-10, Big Ten, Big 12, Southeastern, Atlantic Coast and Big East -- and the four biggest bowl games, the Rose, Sugar, Orange and Fiesta. The champions of the six conferences are guaranteed a spot in one of those most lucrative bowls, leaving two at-large spots, which almost always go to other teams from BCS conferences. The two top-ranked teams play in the national championship game, which rotates among the four bowls. There is much amusing argument over the ranking system, which combines computer assessment with traditional polls, often resulting in rankings that fans -- especially fans of the No. 3 team -- find nonsensical.
Representatives of the smaller conferences claim that the BCS creates a two-tiered system that harms them in terms of recruiting and opportunity to win championships. BCS defenders say that two-tiered system existed before the BCS came along in 1998, that schools like Tulane, Marshall and Texas Christian, to take a few examples of mid-major powerhouses from recent years, weren't playing in major bowls or vying for national championships in the old days either.
But wait. Is this what "athletics reform" is all about? Dividing up the BCS pie? The Associated Press says that the BCS bowls generate more than $110 million a year for the big conferences, and about $6 million a year is given to the smaller conferences. So making it, say, $95 million and $21 million, that's how college athletics are going to get "reformed"?
That sounds odd to anyone who remembers the academic and coaching behavior scandals that were epidemic earlier this year. It sounds bizarre to anyone who followed the criminal case against Chris Webber stemming from alleged huge payments from a booster to Webber and his early-'90s Michigan basketball teammates. It has to come as a surprise to anyone who heard University of Miami president Donna Shalala sounding like a Fortune 500 CFO when talking about the reasons her school was jumping from the Big East to the ACC. It sounds downright weird to anyone bothered by the idea that the only people involved in big-time college football and men's basketball who can't legally collect a dime of the enormous revenues created are the players, the ones who create that revenue.
Big-time college football and basketball are built on a lie, that the players are amateurs who are simply participating in an extracurricular activity that is part of the university's academic mission. That lie is so fundamental, so pervasive, that the entire system is buckling from the moral decay. Tinkering with the BCS is like changing the air-freshener in a condemned outhouse.
And here's the thing: I bet it would be hard to find a high-ranking university administrator who doesn't agree with me to some extent. Oh, they tend to be far less cynical and more optimistic than I am, but it's not at all controversial to say that the problems are deep and serious and getting worse. And the people in positions of power aren't a bunch of Simon Legrees. They're concerned educators trying to figure out what to do with a system that's out of control.
NCAA president Brand, formerly the president of Indiana University, where he became famous beyond academia by firing Bob Knight, talked on the first panel about sports existing on a continuum, with the unrealistic ideal of pure amateurism at one end and professional sports at the other. "My concern is that college sports is moving on that continuum toward the professional approach," he said. "That's what I find troublesome." He said sports have to be brought back into the mainstream of the university, that they have to have the same objectives as the rest of the school's departments.
Tom McMillen, a star basketball player at Maryland who went on to an 11-year NBA career and three terms as a congressman, declared himself less optimistic than Brand that real reform is possible. "I think it's a very, very difficult challenge changing this system internally," he said. "The best analogy I can give you is campaign finance reform as a politician. It's pretty hard to change the rules when the issues are so difficult, the conflicts are so intractable, or the money is so great."
James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan and chairman of the Big Ten conference, went even further. "We've come together to discuss the reform of college sports," he said, "but as the press conference this morning indicated, perhaps with a hidden agenda to commercialize them even further by revising the BCS system."
Duderstadt, author of the book "Intercollegiate Athletics and the American University, a University President's Perspective," said he represents "the lunatic fringe" because he believes commercialization and corruption is pushing college sports toward a cliff. That means he represents me, and he summed up what I believe better than I ever have.
He said that after four decades as a student, athlete, professor and academic and athletic administrator, he's reached this conclusion: "I believe that most of intercollegiate athletics in our colleges and universities are valuable and appropriate activities for our universities. However, big-time college football and basketball, that is, Division I-A, I believe stand apart because they have clearly become commercial entertainment businesses. Today I believe they have little if any relevance to the academic mission of the university."
That's not lunatic fringe. That's straight shooting. It's daring to speak an obvious truth.
I hope the Coalition for Athletics Reform and the major conferences agree quickly on how to revise the BCS. I'd like to see the university presidents and chancellors turn their powerful intellects to real reform, to fixing the problems at the core of big-time college athletics, either by acknowledging the professionalism of the enterprise or by pushing away from a table weighed down by billions of dollars and bringing sports back into line with the educational mission.
"It really doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what to do about this," Duderstadt said.
Easy for him to say. He's a rocket scientist.
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