As if we needed any more evidence that the NCAA is a corrupt and destructive organization, here is the word from the horse’s mouth: comments by Walter Byers, the former long-time executive director of the NCAA, who died recently at age 93. In his New York Timesobituary, Byers is described as both a creator and a destroyer — he is hailed for having “forged a moneymaking colossus” only to see the NCAA develop into a racket that Byers himself considered “corrupt and unfair.”
Some excerpts from the obit:
Mr. Byers is often given credit for coining the term student-athlete, and it’s possible he did (he was known to deflect both credit and the spotlight), although, as he put it in his 1995 memoir, “Unsportsmanlike Conduct,” “We crafted the term student-athlete, and soon it was embedded in all N.C.A.A. rules and interpretations.”
But as his tenure grew closer to its end, he viewed the college sports landscape with increasing cynicism, recognizing, he said, that the high stakes of the sports business had led to rampant corruption, made the notion of amateurism quaint and outdated, and gave an air of hypocrisy to the N.C.A.A.’s insistence on maintaining it.
In 1984 Mr. Byers told The A.P. that he believed that 30 percent of big-time college athletic programs were cheating and that he despaired of bringing the problem under control. He suggested the creation of an “open division” within the N.C.A.A., in which colleges could opt to operate their sports teams as semiprofessional programs.
“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,” he said in a subsequent interview with Sports Illustrated.
As I read his latest column, the NYTimes’ Joe Nocera seems to be edging toward the realization that the NCAA is beyond reform and should be abolished. Today, he tells the story of whistle-blower Mary Willingham, who was hired as a tutor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for intercollegiate athletes.
Now it appears that the NCAA is not content to corrupt American colleges and universities. The gargantuan semi-professional sports monopoly is now reaching not only into high schools but as far down the age ladder as junior high.
Today’s NYTimes has a page 1 enterprise story about the growing tentacles of NCAA coaches engaging in arms race to lock in young athletes at lower and lower ages. A key passage:
The heated race to recruit ever younger players has drastically accelerated over the last five years, according to the coaches involved. It is generally traced back to the professionalization of college and youth sports, a shift that has transformed soccer and other recreational sports from after-school activities into regimens requiring strength coaches and managers.
The practice has attracted little public notice, except when it has occasionally happened in football and in basketball. But a review of recruiting data and interviews with coaches indicate that it is actually occurring much more frequently in sports that never make a dime for their colleges.
Early scouting has also become more prevalent in women’s sports than men’s, in part because girls mature sooner than boys. But coaches say it is also an unintended consequence of Title IX, the federal law that requires equal spending on men’s and women’s sports. Colleges have sharply increased the number of women’s sports scholarships they offer, leading to a growing number of coaches chasing talent pools that have not expanded as quickly. In soccer, for instance, there are 322 women’s soccer teams in the highest division, up from 82 in 1990. There are now 204 men’s soccer teams.
I’m not sure this was what anyone had in mind when Title IX was passed in 1972 to put women’s and girls’ sports on an equal footing with male sports. Why can’t we just let kids run around and get some exercise? Sheesh.
Today’s NYTimes greets the new year with a dismaying (though hardly surprising) story about the ways in which the NCAA extends its corrupting reach into college classrooms. It’s an extreme version of a common practice — providing fluff courses for intercollegiate athletes so that they can maintain their student status even while they are spending all their time in training for their schools’ teams (which are nothing more than farm teams for professional leagues).
This story is particularly dismaying because it involves charges of academic abuse that are so egregious that they caught the attention of a criminal prosecutor. Not only that, but the case involves UNC-Chapel Hill, where I went to graduate school in history, which is actually a fine, serious, and improving university. Yes, it is also an NCAA powerhouse in football, basketball, lacrosse, and other sports that fill stadia and attract national TV distribution.
Again, I ask: What educational purpose does the NCAA serve?
In my experience, the practice of intercollegiate athletics not only contributes nothing to students who participate, it also detracts from educating young people. The only educational purpose I can imagine is to serve as an object lesson in what not to do in economics, law, and ethics.
Here’s some very exciting news for those who would like to eliminate the corrupt (and corrupting) NCAA from college campuses and instead encourage college sports that actually involve getting all college students to exercise.
Today’s New York Times has a story about Spelman College, which is doing exactly that.
The battle over intercollegiate athletics rages on. (Actually, it is just a few folks crying in the wilderness.)
Recently, the reformist Joe Nocera of the NYTimes weighed in with an op-ed. Like many reformers, he seems to really believe in the need for more radical solutions, but he pulls his punches in the name of being realistic. Enh!
Earlier, the Chronicle of Higher Ed shared this story about a football player at the University of Memphis, which makes a powerful case for eliminating college athletics. It’s a thoroughly reported piece on the Chronicle’s handsome, lucid, well-designed website. ( Actually, the home page is not that brilliant, but the Memphis piece is beautifully laid out and includes relevant multimedia. The audio clips are really something.)
And Buzz Bissinger, never one to mince his fuckin’ words, had this to say: Ban College Football.
AP photo / Football at my alma mater, UNC
(Which would be a start. What educational purpose does college football serve? It really amounts to a farm system for the NFL in which the pro teams don’t have to pay player salaries.)
For that matter, what educational purpose does any intercollegiate athletics serve? If you are in college and you want to get some exercise, start a pick-up game and challenge the kids in the next dorm. Then, get back to reading long books.)
My only quarrel with Joe Nocera, who is doing some good reporting on this issue, is that I think he just wants to reform the NCAA, when the real answer is staring him in the face: Ban intercollegiate sports.
Here’s my question: What educational goal does the NCAA advance?
The latest Atlantic (print edition) brings a major piece by historian Taylor Branch on the NCAA. Titled “The Shame of College Sports,” it shines a much-needed light on the NCAA and depicts it as a corrupt, self-serving institution.
It is piece that feels like a landmark in sports journalism and that feels like the core of a new book. If Branch is working on a book, I hope he will expand on this piece and pursue several related themes:
–Even when a NCAA program is behaving itself, what is the impact on those students who are on a varsity team? How many get injured? How many graduate? How many live in a bubble on-campus?
–Branch makes a good case for considering NCAA football and basketball as minor leagues for those professional sports. In that case, why not cut them adrift and make the NFL and the NBA pay the cost of maintaining these farm teams? Pay the kids who play on those teams.
–Is it time to abolish not only the NCAA but all intercollegiate sports? In pursuit of the ideal of mens sana in corpore sano, intercollegiate athletics is actually counter-productive. NCAA athletes make up a tiny proportion of the student body at most schools. (And too often, the NCAA athletes neglect their minds and over-exert their bodies.) What about everyone else? All students need exercise. They need access to places where they can work out — not to giant stadiums that are only used 8 or nine times a year, not to exclusive “weight rooms” dedicated to varsity athletes, and the like. I am all for athletics on campus, just not the expensive hoopla that arises from having one school compete against another school.