Reform is a kite that spends its time waiting for a strong wind to blow it high enough in the sky for the world to see. Righteousness alone won't suffice without timing. The timing is right. The wind is up.
Profoundly disturbing questions about academic laxity -- not to mention drug use -- still are swirling in the wake of Len Bias' death and, for those colleges and universities with industrial-strength athletic programs, now is the time to declare themselves on one side or the other.
Which do they value more: athletics or academics?
Schools ought to be primarily about learning. Part of learning is how best to split a seam in a zone defense. But that's only part of learning, certainly no more important than how to distinguish between a protein and a carbohydrate, or why the journey theme is elemental to literature.
Students who owe their allegiance to one facet of the university -- whether it is the athletic department or the chemistry department -- are not really students, but tradesmen, and they are missing the essential collegial experience. What is particularly disturbing is the continual evidence that athletes are recruited to be just that -- tradesmen. That the purpose of bringing them to campus has nothing to do with academics, that maintaining their eligibility to play sports is what really concerns them and their sponsors, that they're systematically herded away from participating in a normal campus life. Time and again they are taught that the university values their presence solely as a means for winning games and making money. Recruiting athletes under this fiduciary umbrella is as cynical an act as tossing dimes in a soup kitchen.
There's nothing wrong with granting athletic scholarships. To the contrary, the university has an obligation to reach into the community (though it is hard to imagine that community stretching thousands of miles to include a particular halfback) and encourage a student with a special skill to develop that skill, all the while providing a broader context for developing all that student's skills. But if the university is to prove itself something greater than a subsidiary of the NBA and NFL, it must demand that its students are indeed students, and that its coaches are responsible to some higher ideal than the Tangerine Bowl. Don't blame the coaches for making winning the lord they serve; they're simply being pragmatic. Head coaches are independent contractors. (More ominously, their legions of assistants are barely connected to the university, having no loyalty other than to the head coach.) Administrators have to bring coaches as well as athletes into the university structure.
The first change that must be made is to eliminate freshman eligibility for intercollegiate sports. No practicing with the varsity either. Coaches regularly admit their players have trouble reading and writing. The university can't justify letting any recruit, particularly one marginally qualified, play varsity ball as a freshman. As it stands now a freshman football player will have played his first game before classes start; he is literally a player first, a student later. There is no more tremulous socio-academic leap than from high school to college. Don't compound the burden. Give freshmen a year to confine themselves to being students, to laying a foundation.
The second change that must be made is to put all the TV money in a big bag and divide it equally among the participating schools. The winners' share would be the same as the losers. If it is no longer profitable to recruit thugs and then pump them full of gut courses to keep them eligible, recruiting might take on a saner, modulated tone. In this atmosphere a coach might be valued more for his character than his record.
The third change that must be made is to integrate the scholarship athletes into the campus atmosphere; now they are, by and large, hessians. Eliminate the athletic dorms, eliminate the physical, cultural and spiritual isolation of the athlete. Scholarship athletes can and should -- because their fees are paid -- be held to a higher standard of citizenship than other students. In that context, if a university is truly serious about academics, scholarship athletes should have to attend classes, or forfeit the right to play on the team. To give the athletes a better chance to succeed as students, all academic supports should be under the direction of academic staff, not athletic staff. But if an athlete flunks out, he flunks out; he doesn't get back in through the wide back door of summer school courses in basket-weaving. A university ought to have meaningful academic standards. It's not an inalienable right to play Division I college basketball.
While we're on the subject of how to help the student-athlete, shorten the seasons: 10 football, 25 basketball games, max. Cut the practice time: no more than 15 aggregate hours a week, including weightlifting, meetings, everything. Practicing football shouldn't take up more hours than a pre-med curriculum. If it does, the values are twisted.
Colleges can either heal themselves, or reveal themselves for what they have become: quasiprofessional minor league franchises, more concerned with the bucks than the books.