My university's football program is undergoing the painful and humiliating experience of being on probation for violations of NCAA rules. And appropriately so. Many are saying that the three years' probation, with one year suspended for good behavior, is far too lenient. I would agree except for one thing: the violations at the University of Florida for the most part involved rules that invite violations because of their unreality.
It is becoming increasingly evident that in large numbers of major university athletic programs, violations are occurring in fact or in principle. I believe the temptation, perhaps even the necessity, of violating rules can be sustantially reduced by establishing more realistic rules, then enforcing them through more strenuous penalties. Thus, I propose the following for the elimination of grade-padding and wallet-padding.
It is unrealistic to expect football and basketball players -- and perhaps other athletes -- to meet high academic standards during their season of activity. Their practice, travel and thinking time (required for truly competitive participation) simply will not allow it. Therefore, their academic burdens should be lessened, consistent with other academic programs. Here's how:
Permit athletes to enroll during the semester of seasonal participation at a greatly reduced academic load, or for no credit at all. This is now done in many fields -- engineering work-study programs, journalism internships, education practicums, etc.
As in those fields, athletic participation should be considered professional development. Indeed, athletic skill development is professional, even though a relatively small number of college athletes succeed as pros. An ever-increasing number enter coaching, athletic and recreation administration, or take business jobs that call directly on their athletic skills or knowledge. Virtually every major university athlete will use his athletic prowess in whatever profession entered, whether selling insurance or becoming president of a bank. Athletics and its spinoffs have become a major business activity, and players and administrators are fully as professional as those in any other occupation.
Under my proposal, the athlete could devote his time away from practice and game participation to learning about his sport, athletics in general and in developing academic skills built around his lifetime of interest and participation in athletics.
He would be required, for example, to prepare a speech on his sport to be delivered to youth clubs or service organizations, to have the speech critiqued by a professor both in written and oral presentation form, then to deliver that speech several times. He would be required to take notes and develop outlines or essays on skull practice sessions and have that work critiqued by a professor. For this and similar work, he could be awarded, say, three hours of credit. This method of awarding credit is commonly used in journalism, engineering, even law.
To be eligible for participation each year, the athlete would have to complete the same number of hours now required between the end of the sports season and the beginning of the next. This would mean summer attendance. But summer attendance is quite common among students in general and particularly among such students such as those in journalism and engineering who participate in internships and other professional development programs.
A university could and should establish an athletics major, one with standards as high as it now has for other degree programs. Of course, an athlete with other interests and abilities should be encouraged to pursue them and to take as many hours as he is capable of handling.
But in reality, a majority of college sophomores today are undecided about their majors. A very large majority of athletes are among the undecided because their principal pursuits during their precollege careers have been in athletics. Society has more or less demanded this, even at the high school level.
An athletics major would differ from a physical education major, with traditional emphasis on preparing for positions in education. The athletics major would require such courses as personal finance and investments, management of athletic enterprises, promotion, the role of athletics in society and, above all, ethical issues in athletics.
It is to the nation's shame that we do not adequately prepare multimillion-dollar athletes, as well as our other Saturday afternoon heroes, for their considerable responsibilities in society.
The freshman athlete with substandard preparation should be academically redshirted and placed in a remedial program for a year, preferably at a nearby community college. He could then work out with the team without the rigors of preparing for participation.
The solution to the wallet-padding problem is even simpler:
Allow scholarship athletes a livable stipend. A student at the University of Florida eligible for full financial support (family can provide no monetary help) can receive $5,020 from a combination of sources. This will see a student through a year, although virtually at poverty level.
A scholarship athlete at Florida can receive support totaling only $4,877 under NCAA rules. This includes, for the first time this year, a $900 federal grant if the athlete is eligible. The figures will differ at each university because both are based on costs of tuition, room and board and the like. But the differential will be relatively the same everywhere.
I propose that a scholarship athlete be permitted $600 to $800 a year above the full financial support figure at his school to cover laundry, personal expenses, etc., not now permitted by the NCAA. Athletic programs can afford and athletes deserve this extra for the recognition they bring the institution.
Furthermore, I see nothing wrong with an alumnus, an automobile dealer or the folks down the street, giving a college prospect an automobile, say at a $12,000 ceiling. The family that can afford to send a scholarship athlete to school can buy their son a car from the savings resulting from the scholarship, all within NCAA rules. Why should a scholarship athlete whose family cannot afford it be deprived of the set of wheels?
Actually, I see nothing wrong with the $600 to $800 figure being even higher, but certainly a quantum percentage lower than many -- including some otherwise credible sportswriters -- who unthinkingly and unrealistically propose paying college athletes as professionals. This should not -- and is not -- going to happen and we should purge it from our minds.
We love our college football, perhaps with a fervor, and perhaps above our love for more traditional and meaningful things. This love affair has endured for generations. It will continue for generations.
College football will not return to the good old days, which never were, anyway. It will grow larger, not smaller. Encouraged by a citizenry just as zealous in doing the right thing for well-deserving young men and women capable of playing college athletics as that citizenry is in pushing for a winning season, universities can -- and must -- remedy the disgrace they now are harboring.