Presidents put 'student' back in student-athlete


Understanding that the summer heat and the Terminator and four months of watching the AL East standings may have numbed your senses, I begin today with a warning. Sit down. Now. I have a truly shocking piece of news.

There may be real movement on the matter of cleaning up college sports.

No joke.

I know, I know, it's a stunner. The NCAA has never been much of a self-cleaning operation. Tell them to clean up their act and they say, sure, we'll limit the number of pencils a coach can hand out and tell assistants they can only phone recruits 26 times a week. Academic reform? Sure, they say, maybe we'll talk one of these years, meeting adjourned.

For years, the pinnacle of cynicism in sports has been the NCAA convention. People put on their do-right hats and filibuster about reform, but when someone mentions making the kids actually go to class, forcing them to be real students -- the only reform that would make a real difference -- the room empties.

Not anymore.

At the next NCAA convention, in January, the schools will vote on the most important proposal to hit the docket in a while, a proposal that, said Gerald Gurney, who runs the academic support program for athletes at Maryland, "would make student-athletes real students."

And the proposal probably is going to pass. "I fully expect it to," Gurney said. "I'm not hearing much objection."

Are you believing this? I know, I know, it's tough. My reflex has long been, as mentioned before, to check my wallet when NCAA people start talking about reform. And I'll certainly wait until the // thing passes. We're not talking about people burdened mightily by their consciences. But this does look like the real thing, a proposal that would actually make a difference. It won't make the many problems go away, but it's a start.

What has happened is that the Presidents Commission -- a collection of school presidents trying to clean up the games -- has proposed that athletes be forced to work toward earning a degree. It sounds simple, but it's huge.

Never before was there a larger framework in which athletes had to account for their classwork. They didn't have to progress toward a degree. They could change majors a dozen times, take all the easy courses and stay eligible as long as they passed and maintained the minimum average. They could, in effect, major in eligibility.

The new proposal forces them to declare a major and pass a percentage of the required courses each year. They'd need to complete 25 percent of their requirement after two years, 50 percent after three and 75 percent after four.

"It's something we've never had before, and it's very, very significant," Gurney said. "A common problem among the kids ** who don't graduate is switching majors just to stay eligible. They'll be removed from the pool now."

So, this tackles the fundamental problem with college sports: that too many athletes don't belong in college. You'll have a lot fewer problems if you've got college athletes actually interested in getting a college education.

Just consider the plight of the basketball program at Maryland, which was placed on probation primarily for trying to keep Rudy Archer in school -- after Archer had demonstrated he did not belong.

The pathetic truth is that many schools need to be forced not to compromise their standards, because, given a chance, they will.

The NCAA has long tried to say it was addressing the issue with admissions standards, but that was a charade. They penalized kids who couldn't cut it in high school, but didn't penalize those who avoided cutting it in college.

You just can't find more blatant cynicism. Softer standards mean better athletes, which mean more interesting ballgames, which mean more money. That was the chain driving the NCAA's long-standing ignorance of the problem.

The atmosphere has changed, though. The Presidents Commission has gained control of the NCAA.

The Commission was formed in the mid-1980s and empowered with cleaning up athletics, but when the members spent a few years forming subcommittees and offering piddling changes, it seemed they were too scared to take on the moneymaking beast athletics had become.

They imposed their agenda on the last convention, though, and now it's apparent they'll get what they want. Now they're proposing a further toughening of admission standards and this plan for forcing kids to work toward a degree. They're getting serious.

You know they're hitting where it hurts when you hear coaches whispering that this proposal is ridiculous, that every game will look like Harvard-Yale in 10 years. Not true. It's not as if these year-by-year minimums are particularly tough. The coaches are just upset because now they'll have to work harder to win. So be it. Had to happen.

There will still be all that corrupting money floating around and all those ridiculous alumni trying to buy the best team. And kids will still be able to take easy majors. Someone will find the inevitable loophole. But the entire process will just smell better if this proposal passes. At least more athletes will bear some similarity to their fellow students. That's a good start.

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