SI Vault
Edited by Jerry Kirshenbaum
October 27, 1980
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October 27, 1980


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It was troubling enough when USC, which is currently celebrating its 100th birthday—it opened its doors on Oct. 6, 1880—was disqualified with four other schools from this season's Pac-10 football race. That penalty, announced in August by the chancellors and presidents of the conference schools, was imposed in USC's case because of "unwarranted intrusions by the athletic department into academic processes," a reference to a speech course for which 32 Trojan athletes were to receive credit while doing little or no work. Then, last week, USC's new president, James H. Zumberge, released an in-house study suggesting that academic transgressions involving USC athletes went far beyond that lone speech class. Among other things, the study charged that over the past decade some 330 "academically marginal" athletes had been admitted to USC "based chiefly on athletic prowess as judged by the athletic department and without normal admissions office review."

That statement cast in an unfavorable light Southern Cal's remarkably successful athletic program—and the university generally. Over the years, USC (current enrollment 12,600) has won 63 NCAA team titles, far more than any other school. In football it has been named national champion eight times and has appeared in 23 Rose Bowls, winning 17 of them. At the 1976 Summer Olympics its athletes won eight gold medals, a hoard that would have put USC, were it a country, in sixth place behind the Soviet Union, East Germany, the U.S., West Germany and Japan. The luster of these accomplishments would certainly be diminished if it turned out that USC had admitted an average of more than 30 athletes a year in violation of its own academic procedures and NCAA rules.

To be sure, there was some debate as to whether any rules had been violated. Disputing the findings of the faculty report, USC Athletic Director Richard Perry insisted that entrance of the athletes in question, who represented virtually all sports and included women, had in fact been subject to veto by the admissions department. John R. Hubbard, whom Zumberge succeeded as Southern Cal's president in August and under whom the athletes were admitted (and who ordered the study), pointed out that the athletes had gained entrance to the university under an affirmative action-type program that also covered students in such fields as music and prelaw. NCAA regulations specify that athletes must be admitted "in accordance with the regular published entrance requirements of that institution," a rule sufficiently vague that no school has ever been held in violation of it. Hubbard's contention was that the athletes fulfilled the normal requirements governing so-called "high-risk" admissions. But Vance Peterson, USC's director of academic relations, said, "The difference was that the admissions department didn't exercise veto power over the admissions decisions of the athletic department. It did everywhere else in the university. The policy that was developed said, 'Hands off, admissions office, you're not a part.' "

USC is one of many schools that have adopted affirmative action, or "minority access," programs in recent years as a way of giving disadvantaged youngsters, who ordinarily might not meet admissions standards, a crack at college. But these well-intended programs, which are supposedly designed for students with at least a spark of academic promise, should not be used for the wholesale admission of athletes; after all, while the heads of prelaw, music and other departments that admit such students are academicians, primarily concerned with classroom performance, the same cannot be said, as a rule, of football coaches. It's a flagrant abuse of the spirit of such programs that athletes apparently made up as much as 25% of USC's total undergraduate special-access admissions. It's all the more so when one considers that, according to the latest available comparison, only 12% of the high-risk athletes graduated vs. 35% of the high-risk students generally.

Zumberge is under no illusions about the harm that can be done by admitting academically deficient athletes under whatever program. Speaking of colleges generally, he noted in his introduction to the study, "Too often the practice has been to admit athletes with marginal academic motivations and abilities, permit them to drift through the curriculum and, once athletic eligibility is used up, to cast them aside with neither a degree nor much hope of attaining one." To deal with the situation at USC, Zumberge announced a number of reforms, including stricter enforcement of entrance requirements for athletes with final decisions to be made solely by the admissions office. Yet there is reason to question how much good any of this will do. Until Zumberge and, more important, USC's rabid alumni indicate that they would accept more than occasional defeat on the playing field, the intense pressure to win, which helps cause academic corruption, will continue.

Given its preeminence in intercollegiate athletics, USC could, if it meant business, assume a leading role in combating the malaise afflicting college sports. In the process, it could better meet its avowed goals. During his 10 years as USC's president, Hubbard was an unabashed athletic booster who called sports "a kind of glue that holds the university and community together." But he also set for himself the task of improving the school's academic standing, which he succeeded in doing. Zumberge has committed himself to do the same, a worthy enough objective in a centennial year. But he can't possibly succeed unless he roots out transcript, curriculum and admissions abuses in athletics that have sullied USC, as they have other schools. Otherwise, as Zumberge himself concluded in issuing his school's report, "The potential exists for gradually undermining the integrity and credibility of the educational enterprise as a whole."


During a campaign stop earlier this year in Columbia, S.C., Ronald Reagan mentioned that he has been sympathetic to the advancement of blacks in U.S. society as far back as when he was a radio sportscaster, which was before baseball's color line was broken, or, as Reagan put it, "in the days before Willie Mays and Hank Sauer." Reagan apparently meant Hank Aaron. Sauer, an outfielder for the Chicago Cubs and other teams in the 1940s and '50s, is white.

Last month, making an appearance in a church in Oakland, John Anderson referred to the man next to him as his "good friend, Paul Warfield." It was actor Paul Winfield. Anderson had apparently confused Winfield with the former wide receiver for the Browns and Dolphins.

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