At the special NCAA convention in Dallas this summer, the conventioneers proceeded to tell academic leaders precisely what we could do with our high-flown aspirations. The participants rejected or postponed every proposal for reform and even repudiated some reforms previously adopted.
Perhaps now we will recognize some facts. First, it is time to do the old maxim one better: to get angry and get even. It is one of those rare moments when we academics should let plain, honest wrath supplant our usual willingness to talk ourselves into stupefaction.
Second, we must now recognize that athletic reform will come only when individual presidents and chancellors have the guts to put their own houses in order, campus by campus, including their errant athletic directors and wayward trustees. The NCAA is a reflection of our campuses; when university leaders bring order to our institutions, the NCAA will follow . . . and not before.
But there is one fundamental red herring that it is essential to contest: the notion that big-time college sports are the key to university visibility and standing in the public eye.
The same argument has threaded through recent committee discussions of athletics at individual universities comtemplating their particular difficulties. Is there life after big-time sports? Will the public, alumni, legislators, donors take us seriously without big sports winners? Some of us stand like Hamlet poised over the void, fearing that if big-time sports are challenged, we will cease, institutionally, to be.
Let me insist on this proposition, on the basis of my 30-year odyssey through every aspect of intercollegiate sports: the institutions that choose to live on the esteem generated by big-time sports stand an excellent chance of dying by it. Indeed, more die every day. The institutions that determine to base their reputation on the basic values of research and teaching will undoubtedly endure temporary though wrenching trauma, but will emerge not only on the moral high ground, but with the practical (and permanent) visibility they seek.
My own institution, New York University, is arguably in numbers of students (47,000) and in size of annual operating budget ($840 million) the largest private university in the world, and we've had athletics in every stage and condition. We've seen big-time football with crowds of 80,000 at Yankee Stadium; big-time basketball that made NCAA and NIT legends; track and field titles of every description; College World Series baseball appearances and 16 NCAA fencing team championships.
And I've also personally seen trouble up close: the dropping of football when competition could not be sustained; the basketball scandals of the 1950s and '60s; the financial stringencies of the early '70s that caused the cutback of major sports, and a thousand smaller traumas.
But I've also participated in the regeneration of sports: the building of our magnificent new Coles Sports and Recreation Center (1981); the restoration of basketball and other sports at the Division III level, which commits us in recruitment, finances and academics to treat all students alike; the excitement of strong competition, and the creation with eight other institutions similarly dedicated to equal treatment of students, a vibrant student life, exciting sports competition and firm presidential control of athletics, of the University Athletic Association.
But most of all, in the process of restoring sport, we have separated ourselves from the delusion that big-time sports would substitute for academic excellence. Our priorities moved sharply to central issues: good students, well-supported faculty, a strong research environment and active student life, excellent facilities for living, teaching and learning.
Then, we incorporated solid student athletics, in proper relationship to our goals. On the strength of asserting these priorities came new faculty, a national student body, enthusiastic donors, wide public support and national recognition. My university has never been better perceived since its founding in 1831.
Are we alone? I think not. It may surprise some to note that the University of Chicago, one of the great centers of learning in the world, once held the most football titles in the Big Ten; but it long ago marched away from big-time sports into the first rank of academe.
Others whose stars shine brightly enough for any loyal alumnus include our associates, with Chicago, in the University Athletic Association: Rochester, Brandeis, Washington University in St. Louis, Emory, Johns Hopkins, Carnegie-Mellon, Case Western Reserve.
Is there life after big-time college sports? I hope you will weigh the word of someone who, like the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins, has been "there and back again"; the answer is a resounding "Yes." The work required to make it "yes" may be extremely hard, but do not let anyone go uncontested, in your own institution or on the floor of the NCAA, who tries to sell the old saw that big-time sports is the key to your institutional visibility and acclaim. That argument falls into the category of another rumor killed by an eyewitness. The writer is chancellor of New York University.