Wednesday, January 31, 2001

College reform movement inching ahead

        Fresh from his memorable joust with college basketball's Knight errant, Indiana University's Myles Brand now fancies himself a crusader.

        Firing Bobby Knight gave Brand a national forum, and the IU president would be remiss if he did not seize it for the sake of reform. Big-time college sports is a cesspool of corruption, exploitation and academic abuse, and it's high time more high-profile educators acknowledged the stench.

        “I believe the situation has reached crisis proportions,” Brand told the National Press Club last week. “It threatens to undermine the integrity of a system of higher education that has been widely acknowledged
to be the best in the world.”

        Brand calls his initiative Academics First, and even Knight might agree it is an idea long overdue. For all his flaws, Knight always understood that the central mission of America's colleges is education. For all its virtues, big-time sports impedes that mission at least as often as it facilitates it.

Goal: tighter control

        This is the inescapable conclusion of several studious volumes published recently, notably: “The Game of Life,” by James Shulman and William Bowen; “Intercollegiate Athletics and the American University,” by former Michigan president James Duderstadt, and “Beer And Circus,” by IU professor Murray Sperber.

        Each book argues for change, much of it sweeping, nearly all of it impractical. Brand's approach is more pragmatic and his aims, perhaps, more attainable. Rather than spin off Division I-A sports as a separate commercial enterprise (Duderstadt) or scale it back toward the Division III model (Sperber), Brand advocates tighter controls on the dates and times of games as a means to reduce pandering to television.

        He would steer athletes who now major in eligibility toward developmental leagues as an alternative to clogging classrooms.

        Brand also endorses legislation that would redefine the concept of “amateurism,” preserving a portion of college eligibility for those who turn pro but can't cut it. If these changes would lower the talent level in Division I-A, the tradeoff is integrity — student-athletes who are real students.

        “There will still be March Madness; but it may be more restrained,” Brand said. “Only those who think the college game should become more like professional sports would see this approach as harmful.”

The alumni problem

        One obvious obstacle is the financial consequences of throttling back, particularly at those schools that have invested millions in new facilities. Another problem is that many of a college's loudest constituents would rather squash State U. than nurture a Nobel laureate. College administrators, however idealistic, are reluctant to provoke a mob.

        “These are people who don't have a lot of will of their own,” Sperber said in a telephone interview. “Whoever puts the most pressure on them wins. It's a small percentage of alumni who support sports, but they're very vociferous and very well organized. They're like the NRA — single-issue people.”

        Sperber remains skeptical of the conviction of college presidents, but he recently has detected a “countervailing pressure” for reform. This much, he says, is new.

        Perhaps Brand may be on to something.

        “We don't want to turn off the game,” Brand said. “We can lower the volume.”



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