Almost no one denies that there is a serious illness in intercollegiate athletics. It has diverse symptoms: recruiting scandals, falsification of academic credentials, huge financial inducements, graduates of comprehensive universities who cannot read or write, exploitation -- especially of minority athletes -- and a growing loss of confidence on the part of the public in some of society's most important institutions. Given this array of manifestations, it is not surprising that the underlying disease state is often represented as a complex one requiring multiple therapies. But in fact the underlying cause is about as complicated as a broken arm; it is that universities enroll athletes who do not meet their own admissions standards.
Because that singular truth about the pathology of intercollegiate athletics is so difficult to accept, a complex therapeutic fiction has been developed. To maintain the illusion that real students are playing the games -- a belief essential to the nostalgia of rivalry, which is in turn essential to the gate -- institutions, conferences and the NCAA are drawn into a bizarre collusion to offer putative relief, which takes the following form. A list of remedies is offered for each of the symptoms -- that is, the problems of intercollegiate athletics -- but the fundamental cause is carefully avoided. There is strict regulation, for example, of the timing of letters-of-intent, but no requirement that athletes must complete the normal application process (the vast majority do not). There are elaborate requirements for the number of units student athletes must complete each quarter in order to retain their eligibility, but no realistic measure of whether these courses are effectively aimed at graduation with a major (most are not). There are impressive-sounding limits on recruiting contacts but little control over what is done in them. And so it goes.
The well-publicized recent efforts at reform, unfortunately, are carefully structured so as to ignore the perfectly straightforward diagnosis. Thus, for example, the "reform measures" designed to correct exploitation will do nothing of the sort. The two proposals that have received most attention admittedly have a righteous ring to them: limit freshman participation, because 17- and 18 year-olds have enough to do in adjusting to the first year of college without the additional challenge of varsity competition; and restrict practice time to 20 hours a week so that sports will not infringe unduly on class time.
These policies will have a significant effect, all right -- but not on the real problem. Freshmen athletes who are fully qualified for admission can do their academic work and still play. They are doing so now, successfully, at those institutions that admit by their own academic rules. And the purported remedy, it should be noted, will limit freshman participation in intercollegiate competition but will not prevent freshmen from being used as cannon-fodder in the time-consuming and enervating business of preparing their varsity colleagues for the next Saturday afternoon.
The practice time limitations are even more distant from the real source of the difficulties. Those sports that will fall under this regulation are the ones in which individuals are often preparing for Olympic or other international competition -- especially swimming and gymnastics. Anyone who has been looking knows that these are not the sports generating rules infractions and causing credibility problems for our universities. At Stanford there are 67 varsity swimmers, men and women. Both teams are perennial NCAA champions or contenders. Of the 67, about 40 were individual NCAA qualifiers in the past season. These young men and women average well over 20 hours a week in practice. They appear to manage their time well, perhaps because many of them were doing it for years before they entered college. Their aggregate Stanford grade point average is 3.07 of a possible 4.00. And if the NCAA reform movement catches this group of undergraduates in its regulatory net -- while missing the most penalized football and basketball programs in the country -- a much larger number of students will still be spending 20 or more hours a week outside the classroom in nonacademic pursuits. They're the ones investing their time in the old-fashioned way, to earn money to help pay for their education.
In short, these proposals are all solutions in search of a problem. There is only one meaningful reform -- and it will neither punish good students nor damage our Olympic development programs, as will the proxy remedies now offered in its stead. That is to make NCAA institutions enforce their own admissions standards by establishing criteria for entry, requiring full applications and monitoring and reporting progress toward the degree. Compliance should be enforced by random, unannounced audits, and failure of athletes to graduate should result in period of reduction in the permitted number of scholarships. These measures should be directly aimed at the revenue sports of football and basketball, where the abuses are heavily concentrated.
What we are being offered instead is not real medicine. It isn't even a placebo. It's the worst of all possible remedies -- a cure for the wrong disease.
The writer is president of Stanford University.