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WHY IS THIS MAN SAYING THE THINGS HE'S SAYING?
Listen to this radical stuff: "I don't think the fabric of higher education as we believe in it and would like to see it function in this country can stand the strain of big-time intercollegiate athletics and maintain its integrity."
And get this: "The structure we have in place as a means of controlling the activities of recruiting and financial aid must go through a dramatic change."
More: "Is there anything that can keep big-time college athletics operating within the rules? That's the real question."
Because it's a fascinating and utterly unpredictable world in which we live, the above words were spoken not by some raving anarchist but by Walter Byers. Yes, the Walter Byers, the NCAA's powerful and ordinarily reticent longtime executive director and the leading architect of the "big-time intercollegiate athletics" he's now openly criticizing. Having estimated to the Associated Press two weeks ago that as many as 30% of major sports schools cheat in a big way, and despairing of the possibility of stopping the cheating, Byers is now talking—reluctantly, he emphasizes—about a drastic remedy. In what amounts to a trial balloon, he suggests the creation of an "open division" in which those schools that choose to do so could compete on a semi-professional basis.
"I'm gradually coming to the conclusion that there has to be a major rearrangement on the part of the institutions of higher learning as to what they want to do with their athletic programs," Byers says. "I think there's an inherent conflict that has to be resolved. I'm not prepared to go into how an open division would work. But we're in a situation where we, the colleges, say it's improper for athletes to get, for example, a new car. Well, is that morally wrong? Or is it wrong because we say it's wrong?"
In raising such startling (coming from him) questions, Byers says he's also influenced by the relaxing of amateurism in the Olympics. "I've watched as the Olympics have gradually loosened the rules," he says, "and I've heard as the youngsters tell about their income to millions of TV homes. Well, I think there's growing acceptance that they ought to receive those benefits. I didn't sense any shock among the American public or the media about those disclosures. Had that come out 10 years ago everybody would be shocked."
Byers also says, "It's the Me Generation. 'It's mine and I want it now.' Well, why not? I think back in time. It used to be that a rich alumnus could get a needy kid out of a Gary, Indiana steel mill and send him to Yale. Then the NCAA came along with a bunch of rules and said, 'You can't do that.' An alumnus can't send a kid to school to play athletics? But is it wrong for the donor to give the boy the money? No, I'm feeling that it's only the colleges with the rules that say it's wrong. The coaches don't think it's so wrong anymore. The public doesn't think it's so wrong."
But does Byers think it's wrong?
He neatly sidesteps the question. "Sure, I have my own ideas, but I don't think that's my job," he says. "We're here to try to facilitate what the members want."