Washington "We're not in the entertainment business," said the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, co-chairman of the Knight Foundation's Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, "nor are we a minor league for professional sports." Hesburgh is president emeritus of Notre Dame, which is receiving an estimated $45 million from a 5-year contract that gives NBC, which emphatically is in the entertainment business, the right to telecast the university's football team, which over the years has sent more than 400 players into professional football.
College football season begins Aug. 25 with the Pigskin Classic (this "classic" is just 12 years old), for which this year's participants, the University of Nebraska (the source of 301 professional football players) and Texas Christian University (126 professionals), will each receive a minimum of $600,000. But hand-wringing about college athletics is never out of season.
Familiar rhetoric, both high-minded and hypocritical, presents the situation as more novel and alarming than it is. The commission yearns to return to the days when "amateurism was a cherished ideal." But when exactly was that in a nation in which describing someone as a "real pro" is an encomium? The commission regrets that nowadays "the apex of sporting endeavor is defined by professional sports." Yes, and the apex of literature by professional writing. So?
Coaches often are paid more than college presidents, and much more than the approximately $84,000 average salary of tenured professors at public research universities. The commission blithely recommends that coaches' compensation be "brought into line with prevailing norms across the institution." But this merely wishes away the anomalous nature of largely entertainment operations that have been grafted onto educational institutions.
It is an anomaly with a long history. College athletics has had a large national audience far longer than has professional football or basketball, and arguably for at least as long as has major league baseball. This multibillion-dollar industry (starting next year CBS will pay $6.2 billion over 11 years, primarily for broadcasting and licensing rights to the men's college basketball tournament) is not going away.
Nor should it. Athletics can teach lessons and instill virtues as surely as studying accounting. The commission notes that a tiny fraction of college athletes become professionals, yet it also deplores colleges being "steppingstones" to professional leagues. But why, exactly, is that so deplorable, whereas being a steppingstone to Wall Street, or Main Street, is not?
The commission was composed primarily of current and past university presidents, who rightly say presidents must assert their control over university athletics. There is an endless stream of evidence of insufficient control.
For example, the NCAA, for the second time in five years, has imposed sanctions against New Mexico State University, whose former basketball coach, the NCCA says, had promised an assistant coaching position to a junior college head coach if that coach would get two of his stars to transfer to New Mexico State. This they did, but only after the junior college coach gave one of them cash and helped both to become academically eligible by arranging for them fraudulently to complete some course work.
Nevertheless, the commission's "culture war" approach to reforming college athletics is unconvincing. It declares itself "unimpressed" by the argument that athletes' graduation rates are not much worse than those for students generally: Barely half of all students at Division I schools eventually graduate. The commission recommends that teams that do not graduate 50 percent of their players should be ineligible for conference championships or postseason play. But that might merely become an incentive for even more derisory academic requirements than are already available for some athletes (and not only for athletes).
The commission hyperventilates about "the open, ever-escalating war between the academic and athletic cultures." But the latter can hardly damage the former more than the former is damaging itself.
Inadequate secondary schools are sending students to college who require remedial reading and writing instruction. Most colleges have essentially open admissions and, at the small minority of selective schools, admissions are corrupted by racial preferences. At all schools there are ethnic and sexual spoils systems in hiring. Much teaching is done by graduate students. Political correctness taints everything from teaching to the administration of student publications and associations. Curricula are diluted to the point that Shakespeare is optional and Toni Morrison is mandatory, and students can study comic books under the rubric of "cultural studies."
The Knight Commission says the "disgraceful environment" of college athletics has "distorted" educational institutions. However, on many campuses, the culture of the athletic department is less harmful to higher education than the culture of the English department.