Education & Workforce Development and Media & Marketing and Sports Business

SPORTS: The game is on: Academics vs. big-dollar sports

June 20, 2005

Give NCAA President Myles Brand and his Task Force on the Future of Intercollegiate Athletics their due.

If you will pardon both the pun and the cliché, they're going to give it the old college try.

Putting the paste back into the tube won't be easy. It will require a dramatic change in our sports culture-American in general, on campus in particular-to view intercollegiate athletics by any measure other than the one posted on the scoreboard.

That is especially true when it comes to the two athletic department breadwinners: football and men's basketball.

The task force, which Brand introduced earlier in the year, recently had its first meeting. It is composed of 50 presidents and chancellors and is divided into four subcommittees: fiscal responsibility, implications of academic values and standards, presidential leadership of internal and external constituencies, and student-athlete well-being.

When the committees meet, I recommend they do so in rooms that have mirrored walls, because some of the task force members will need to look at themselves as they address these issues.

The NCAA's executive branch should, too, because it presides over an organization that has turned its men's basketball tournament into a month-long extravaganza worth 6 billion of CBS' dollars.

And, while we're at it, the alumni, fans and-yes-the media, because we've all contributed to what critic, author and IU professor Murray Sperber terms the "beer and circus" influences of big-time college sports.

As I've often told Sperber, a big part of the problem is that we like the beer and circus and-as much as we say otherwise-many value the athlete over the student and the coach over the professor.

Now, before I go too far down this road, let me offer the counterpoint. Despite media sensationalism and its passion for dirty laundry, intercollegiate athletics-even those that are part beer and circus-serve a worthwhile purpose for both the student-athlete and the institution if the student-athlete takes advantage of the educational opportunities athletics provide and if the institution provides the proper oversight and direction.

Overall, the enterprise of intercollegiate athletics serves its constituents well and the headlines that focus on recruiting scandals, academic improprieties et al often do not reflect what occurs on a daily basis.

"This is not an exercise in firefighting," University of Arizona President Peter Likens, who is the task force chairman, told the NCAA News. "This is an exercise in strategic thought, playing the role that presidents and boards are expected to play, looking ahead, making data-based decisions that reflect favorably on athletics 15 years down the road. We've assembled to protect something we value-intercollegiate athletics-rather than to fix something we perceive as broken."

Yet coming to any kind of consensus among the NCAA's many and diverse constituencies won't be easy. There simply are few, if any, one-size-fits-all solutions.

I could also see the subcommittees in conflict. The fiscal folks might think the 12th football game for I-A members is a good idea because it represents another payday. The student-athlete well-being subcomittee might see it as another chance to put student-athletes at risk.

How does playing college football games on weeknights square with the NCAA's emphasis on academic standards?

Will presidents and athletic directors have the gumption to resist alumni and media and support a coach whose athletes peform well in the classroom, but not on the field? Will they stop competing at pro prices to hire coaches? Will they ever stop answering, "How high?" when television says "Jump!"

Will the athletics arms race ever cease, or at least moderate? Likens says it has to.

"We're looking at two scenarios, both worrisome," Likens told the News. "One, we can see the possibility of fiscal crisis for one school, then another, as their revenues at some point falter with expenditures still growing.

"Two, we have to wonder how responsible presidents and chancellors are obliged to behave as they try to escalate the revenues and mitigate the expenditure growth."

Fiscal responsibility. Presidential leadership. Academic accountability. Student-athlete welfare. All lofty theoretical ideals but often difficult to attain.

"Frankly," Likins admitted, "those issues are far easier to talk about than they are to solve."

Especially in a culture that likes beer, circus and, of course, victories.



Benner is a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com.
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