Have just returned from my first trips to two quintessentially American spectacles: the Rose Bowl and the NCAA convention in Nashville. For, the president of a university—in my case, the University of Iowa—these events were vivid and exhilarating yet, paradoxically, disturbing.
College sports are irresistibly enjoyable. Nowhere is their mythic power more fully realized than at the Rose Bowl, which not only entertains millions but also creates in those with something at stake a sense of awe once inspired only by religious observance.
With awe, however, comes responsibility, the need to perform the rites in a worthy manner. Having the Hawk-eyes in the spotlight meant that the state of Iowa's pride was on the line. The team's falling behind 33-7 by half-time stirred in me twin demons of depression and anxiety—especially with our governor sitting one row ahead, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
Fortunately, the second half brought partial redemption. A comeback, though not a victory ( Washington won 46-34), was enough to revive the fans, salve the president's and governor's spirits, and satisfy ABC's need for entertainment on a day when eight bowl games clogged the airwaves.
From which flows this incongruity: Large universities now play football and basketball primarily for television. TV determines the times and sites of our games, controls our athletic departments' budgets, and dictates conference membership and realignments. Dependence on TV revenue reinforces the need to field winning teams. Hence, the relentless search for highly talented athletes, with the resulting recruiting scandals, abdication of academic responsibility and, ultimately, in the NCAA's euphemistic phrase, "loss of institutional control." In recent times, several universities—indeed, entire conferences—have seemed willing to sacrifice even minimal academic standards in exchange for producing winning teams, a compulsion, in former Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer's words, "to feed the monster." At this nadir, the U.S. Congress threatened to intervene to restore some measure of respect for our nation's universities.
That did it. Public embarrassment plus the specter of congressional intervention finally moved university presidents to act. At the NCAA convention last week, the Presidents Commission, aided by NCAA executive director Dick Schultz and major conference commissioners, proposed a landmark agenda of reform. With a record number of university CEOs present, the reform legislation passed overwhelmingly. Purely athletic interests, which have dictated NCAA decisions for decades, either rode the wave or were unceremoniously engulfed by it.
I believe, nonetheless, that most athletic directors support the reform agenda and that their support arises from their recognition of the problems that are besetting their profession. This emerging consensus between athletic directors and presidents is a healthy development.
It is also a necessary one, because the new reforms will have a minimal impact on the deeper systemic problems afflicting college sports. This year's agenda focused on cost control, reductions in time demands on student athletes and limitations on recruiting. But it did not address the principal scourge of intercollegiate athletics: the enrollment of ill-prepared and uninterested students solely for the purpose of winning games, adherents, visibility and money for colleges and universities.
It is clear that the 1991 reforms represent only the first wave of change. Next year the presidents will directly confront the academic issues. We must ensure that universities recruit only those students who genuinely qualify for admission, that the students take real courses once they are enrolled and that they make a serious and continuing effort to graduate. Anything less misleads and abuses the student-athlete and subverts the fundamental purpose of higher education. Universities must now send a clear and convincing message to the public that education is our first priority, even for students recruited into our revenue-producing athletic programs.
A final paradox struck me on my way home from the convention. Contrary to the presidents' own expectations, our control of the NCAA was relatively simple to assert and, once established, nearly absolute. But this should not have surprised anyone, because the NCAA is its member institutions, and they are run by presidents. Narrow athletic interests are powerless in the face of presidential will and consensus. So the question is not "How did we do it in Nashville?" but "Why didn't we do it long ago?" A candid answer requires embarrassing admissions about a lengthy record of presidential inertia and timidity.