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In the Seamy World of College Athletics, No Good Deed Goes Unpunished


It used to be, when the crimes of intercollegiate sports flashed into public view, that defenders blamed what they said were a few rotten apples. The vast majority of programs, they insisted, were crisp and clean.

It was assumed the clean programs would stay that way -- free of under-the-table cash payments to athletes, free of grade-tampering to preserve eligibility and thus free of the consequent low graduation rates.

Today the assumption is different. By now, sports fans fear that almost every program is or will become dirty.

That conclusion is given further support by the tribulations of Richard D. Schultz, head man at the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The reform-minded Mr. Schultz resigned in April after reports that he knew of illegal loans to athletes when he was athletic director at the University of Virginia. He claimed he didn't know about the loans; some of his former aides said he did. But even an alleged violation of the rules could not be tolerated in the new environment. If Mr. Schultz had sinned, how could he be asked to admonish and give penance to sinners of the future?

And, what can be said about the fact that his alleged offenses occurred at U.Va., one of those schools even now regarded as good and honorable but no longer immune to cheating impulses?

As sports scandals go, the media romp over Mr. Schultz's fall from grace has been relatively short. This is so partly because nothing we hear from the campuses can surprise us now. We have had an athlete dead of cocaine intoxication in his dormitory. We have had governors paying athletes even after they were found out by the NCAA. We have had college graduates who cannot read. No wonder we are about to throw up our hands.

The writer and editor Frank Deford found a parallel to the woeful sports conundrum in the Clinton administration's approach to gays and the military, the so-called "don't ask, don't tell" approach. If you're the military, you don't ask about a recruit's sexual orientation. If you're gay you don't say so. Similarly, Mr. Deford suggested, mockingly, the solution to sports scandals is for the NCAA to stop asking if offenses have been committed and for the universities to stay mum.

Tufts University President John DiBiaggio, a member of the recently disbanded Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, says that, like the poor, the $100-handshake will always be with us.

We are about to conclude, yet again, that the sports machine is too powerful for mere mortals to control. If the estimable Dick Schultz couldn't survive it, who could?

But surely Mr. Schultz was not the last chance to put things right. He did have an impressive resume. He had been an athletics director. He knew the problems. He knew the players -- not just the athletes, but the boosters, the coaches and his own former colleagues -- people who could control the thing if they wanted to. They had faith in him or thought he was the best reformer they were likely to get.

Now he is on his way out. But the NCAA must find a new leader and -- assuming that "don't ask, don't tell" won't be the new policy -- it might want to make a hard-headed assessment of just how much progress has been made on the road to reform.

It may be time to stop focusing on the apples and take a new look at the barrel. The NCAA could start by examining what has been said about Mr. Schultz's problems. Several theories have emerged:

* Dick Schultz was a victim of the new integrity of college sports.

Great irony is perceived: Here was the most renowned of reformers caught in a web of rising expectations, a web he himself had spun. Yet, if he were participating in an illegal loan program at Virginia, the rules were as binding then as they are now. The NCAA is caught between the impulse to forgive whatever may have happened -- and the need to honor its standards.

* He had fallen prey to a remarkable quagmire of rules. Like the IRS code, it is said, the NCAA's rulebook makes felons of us all. This is the sporting world's version of moaning about government regulation of business -- as if businessmen surely would be more virtuous without it.

The sense one derives from the reports on his downfall is that no one else ever tried to fix this broken system. The suggestion is a disservice to many others who have tried to effect change -- and to decent university presidents or future NCAA leaders as well.

Mr. Shultz did have leverage: The U.S. Congress was threatening to take over if the NCAA and the colleges can't find a way to stop victimizing young athletes. Movement on Capital Hill forced movement in the nation's athletic councils. Providing firm and intelligent leadership by all accounts, Mr. Schultz properly got the credit.

Having been hoist by his own petard, he is now canonized. This is a well-settled precedent of sport: The annals of intercollegiate scandal are replete with fallen men, idolized.

Mr. Schultz was not the only one to pay for his commitment to change with a slice of his professional life.

Marylanders will look to College Park, whose former chancellor, John B. Slaughter, was head of the NCAA's Presidents Commission at the time basketball star Len Bias died. Drugs and thrill seeking and who knows what other forces conspired to kill the young man. His death uncovered a system in which athletes signed up for empty courses and still didn't graduate.

John Slaughter wanted to save basketball and football as much as Dick Schultz. He also wanted an honest program, one that actually educated athletes. And while he was not driven out of College Park as quickly as Mr. Schultz will leave the NCAA, there is no question the turmoil following Mr. Bias' death took a toll on him and his university.

Dr. Slaughter's commitment to reform was ridiculed by those who said he was in charge at the time of the debacle, as if he had personally planted and nurtured the seeds of destruction. The truth is that he was part of the reform movement -- head of the President's Commission -- well before his university was engulfed in scandal. He accepted responsibility for the system he led -- and was hammered by reformers who thought his declaration tepid and by the athletic community, which found him a turncoat. His critics wanted to know how such a man could have any credibility. Like Mr. Schultz, he could not establish his bona fides.

Reform of college athletics is one of those environments in which "no good deed goes unpunished," to quote Christopher B. "Kit" Morris, staff director of the Knight Commission.

There is a certain perverse joy in suggesting that the reformers often are hypocrites -- in the case of university presidents, trying to have it both ways: taking the gate receipts, insisting that the games are played by real students and feigning shock when the truth emerges.

There is also a sense that the reformers are attacked with extra relish because, in its heart of hearts, the sporting establishment fears its games will be damaged if it is made to pursue objectives other than championships and money. So it must undermine and resist the reformers.

What offers hope, though, is the degree to which the work of Mr. Schultz and John Slaughter has infiltrated the consciousness of some athletes and their coaches.

Baseball players at Rutgers-Newark, an engineering school, voted recently not to participate in a playoff game that conflicted with an examination. In the context of college sports today, this is remarkable. Before the worst of the scandals hit, tournaments and playoff games were frequently scheduled during examination periods.

In California, students organized a booster group to accept higher fees as a way of hanging onto low-profile sports like baseball, golf, tennis or gymnastics, which are invidiously referred to as "non-revenue sports." Budget cuts, which may still claim these programs, had left a $600,000 hole in the athletic department budget. Since they weren't paying their way, apparently, they had to go.

The student response to financial concerns could be a step toward a more profound realization: If we want clean sports, we may have to pay for them -- rather than forcing them to be profit centers. Television networks and rich boosters can be forces of evil in sports, scheduling games when they want them, examinations be damned: Who pays the piper calls the tune.

At the University of Maryland, officials have resisted heavy political pressure to relax academic standards. Backers of the sports department have asked -- without success -- for lower standards to help the coaches recruit.

At the NCAA, progress-toward-graduation standards have been asserted along with all the other rules. If enforced by the NCAA and campus authorities, this standard could do much to show that sports are becoming a decent enterprise: If athletes are given a fighting chance to get the education they are promised, if the courses are real and the schedules become more realistic, despair will give way to some more positive emotion.

These are the "good deeds" Kit Morris was talking about. They deserve applause. Much blood was shed to achieve them. More are needed -- and won't happen if the world imagines that the defeat of Mr. Schultz means the defeat of reform.

The financial pressures arrayed against well-meaning sports administrators are immense and constant. Big-time athletic powerhouses find their athletic programs in deep deficit which puts pressure on them to take the exciting athlete whether he can read or not.

As Mr. Schultz has said recently, the integrity of college sports rests on the integrity of coaches and athletics directors. His own experience shows that as well as anything could.

Fraser Smith, a reporter at The Baltimore Sun, is the author of a book about college athletics, "Lenny, Lefty and the Chancellor."

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