Sadly, coaches often discharge that responsibility by cheating and other dubious behavior. Called upon to calm an unruly home crowd at the Missouri game two weeks ago, Billy Tubbs, the coach of Oklahoma's top-ranked basketball team, proved that the school's athletes aren't the only ones capable of stepping out of line when he took the microphone and said, "The referees have asked that, regardless of how terrible the officiating is, please do not throw stuff on the floor." It was almost incitement to riot.
If coaches can't live by their own rules, why should athletes? "Character comes from above," says Joyce Alexander, a staff psychologist at Cleveland State who works with that school's athletes and is a consultant for UNLV athletes. "How can you expect players to show it when there isn't any demonstrated to them?"
In dealing with athletes who misbehave, many coaches see no evil or, worse, compound the misdeeds, as Lefty Driesell did when he was the basketball coach at Maryland. In 1983, Driesell called a woman student three times to try to persuade her not to press charges, within the university judicial system, of sexual misconduct against Terrapin forward Herman Veal. The woman instead brought a harassment complaint against Driesell, who was reprimanded by the university.
Linking the coddling of athletes and the constant excusing of their transgressions to the wave of police-blotter incidents, Melvin C. Ray, an assistant professor of sociology at Mississippi State, says, "Big-time athletics is creating an atmosphere conducive to those types of things. These athletes are put on a pedestal. They are given almost free rein to do what they want as long as their teams are in the Top 20."
Some educators believe that schools ought to deal with athletic miscreants more harshly, not more leniently, than other students who misbehave. Thus, at Minnesota, the fictional Gillis's (and Shulman's) alma mater, then president Kenneth Keller threw three basketball players off the team in 1986 after they were charged with rape—they were later acquitted—saying that he was holding them to a higher standard of accountability than that applied to ordinary citizens. "Issues of legal guilt or innocence are quite separate from whether a person can properly represent the University of Minnesota," said Keller.
Perhaps those two supercops of the basketball-coaching fraternity, Indiana's Bob Knight and Georgetown's John Thompson, have the right idea. Knight demands discipline from everyone but himself, and Thompson is suffocatingly protective of his players, but say this for both of them: They set limits that players respect, or else. Knight's fierce desire to win didn't prevent him from bouncing Mike Giomi, his leading rebounder, from the Hoosiers a few seasons back for skipping classes, even though Giomi was in good standing academically under NCAA, Big Ten and university rules. Nor did Thompson hesitate to drop Michael Graham, one of the mainstays of his 1984 national championship team, for much the same reason. Knight and Thompson have not always recruited angels, but their players seldom have serious scrapes with the law.
Misbehavior by athletes frequently occurs in an athletic dorm. Officials of schools that have such dorms argue that for-jocks-only lodging facilitates control of athletes, but what the dorms—which go by names, like the Bryant Hilton (Alabama's), that only hint at their luxury—mostly do is create a sense of isolation. "A lot of the incidents we read about are happening in those dorms," says Arizona State athletic director Charles Harris, whose school doesn't have one. "It's important to incorporate the athletes as much as possible into the standard university life-style."
The goal should be to get athletes more involved in all aspects of college life, including, yes, the classroom. Yet it's an open secret that many athletes merely go through the motions of attending classes. Often they are spoon-fed tests in advance and take never-to-be-made-up incompletes, and they seldom see the inside of a classroom while their sport is in season. Walden estimates that 75% of college football players who are drafted by the NFL virtually quit school for their entire final year, sticking around only to play their sport, get free meals and use the weight room. In essence, there are no eligibility requirements for a player's final season other than the stipulation that the athlete be enrolled at the school for which he plays.
That last loophole comes courtesy of the NCAA, which tries to enforce niggling rules, like the one prohibiting a recruit from accepting even a free T-shirt from a school interested in signing him, while ignoring real issues affecting college sports. At the NCAA convention in San Francisco last month, Dick Schultz, the organization's executive director, said, "There is a firm feeling that we have turned the corner when it comes to major violations. We are getting on top of this integrity issue.... Ninety-nine percent of everything that is going on in intercollegiate athletics today is exceptionally positive. We have to be sure that we don't get caught and mired down in that one percent that is negligent." For those statements, Schultz was not even laughed out of the room. But then, as everybody knows, the member schools get exactly the NCAA they want and deserve.
Here are some measures that would help put college sports on the right track. They contain no surprises—you've heard some of them a hundred times—but the foot-dragging has gone on long enough. They should be enacted immediately.