Dec. 17, 2001
By Gary T. Brown
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Reform is a word that's been kicked around a lot lately -- well, actually more than just lately.
For the last decade, the "R" word has been at the tip of everyone's tongue. The Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics thought so strongly of reform that it took it on twice. Even before the 1990s, reform measures in Division I recruiting, financial aid and initial-eligibility standards were headline news. As far back as the 1940s, when the reform-minded "Sanity Code" led to the NCAA establishing an enforcement arm, and even to 1906, when the Association was founded based on -- you guessed it -- football reform, the "R" word has been Red-hot.
Now, 95 years later, Division I is at it again, and the latest group appointed to reform big-time college sports is sounding like a patience-thin parent who has already counted to two.
Who are they? They are members of the Division I Board of Directors and they are college presidents whose résumés reveal a healthy dose of experience with reform: Carol Cartwright of Kent State University, John Casteen of the University of Virginia, David Frohnmayer of the University of Oregon, Milton Gordon of California State University, Fullerton, Brit Kirwan of Ohio State University, Bob Lawless of the University of Tulsa, Francis Lawrence of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, and Jim Wright of Dartmouth College.
What are they doing? First, they are figuring out what drives behaviors -- why institutions spend what they do on football and basketball, and whether success on the fields and courts translates to success in the admissions office or in the development coffers, or even in the classroom. They also will tackle academic reforms and try to boost graduation rates.
Why are they doing it? According to them, it's because there finally is a "will to act." They say previous reform efforts have been too much talk and too little action, primarily because those talking either weren't serious about acting or weren't in the right position to get anything done. They say the environment is different now, that there is a groundswell of support for change and that these eight presidents are in the right place at the right time.
"I can tell you that all eight members of the task force have answered the question of whether there's a will to act with a resounding 'yes,' " said Lawrence, the Rutgers president who chairs the group.
Lawrence and the other seven presidents are adamant that the group is not somehow a response to the Knight Commission, which in June released its second report calling for more academic integrity and less commercial gluttony. While Lawrence said the Commission's report is valid and should be given attention, the issues his group is undertaking are those that were bubbling long before the Knight Commission took them on. They are athletics environment issues, and while they might not necessarily be that new, he said the way this group gets at them will be.
The prerequisite that will trigger the reform agenda is what's being called a "baseline economic study" that will glean financial data from Division I institutions over the next several months. The NCAA already has much of that information, but the new study will get at the "why" more than the "how much."
The 18 institutions represented by the members of the Board of Directors will serve as the test group for researchers, and the chief financial officer from each institution will be asked to participate in the study. Once that group is surveyed, other Division I schools will follow.
The task force hopes that the study will answer the following types of questions:
* Do schools consciously increase spending in football or basketball in an effort to become more successful athletically? If so, what do the data say about the likely consequences and risks of doing so?
* Do commercial arrangements between athletics departments and shoe, apparel, equipment, media and promotional entities interfere with institutional control, and do they enhance or detract from the educational mission?
* Does success in athletics relate to academic success, positively or negatively, over time?
* Do consistent winners over time spend more and achieve higher net benefits without adverse collateral costs on their investment than schools that do not win consistently?
* To what extent does athletics spending reduce or increase spending on academic initiatives or other service components of the university?
* To what extent does increased spending on football and basketball correlate with lower (or higher) academic achievement or graduation rates for the student-athletes?
"Ultimately," Lawrence said, "we want to know what the relationship is between athletics spending and the total university budget. The way people write and talk about it in some cases makes athletics spending sound huge, but you have to take a look at the total university budget and see whether in fact it is.
"Currently, the people who talk about this haven't the faintest idea in comparing themselves to other institutions (as far as what drives spending). We want to resolve that."
NCAA President Cedric W. Dempsey agrees that determining what drives spending in Division I is critical in developing parameters to guide such behavior.
"Division I is especially vulnerable to charges that intercollegiate athletics has become overly commercialized," he said. "We can make all the free-market arguments we want to justify enormous coaches' salaries and lavish facility improvements, but when we do so, we often leave the public with the perception that college sports is all about money.
"But however serious the problem may be, my view of the future is positive if we can find the resolve to do what we need to do."
Any resolve in spending probably can't be mandated. Dempsey noted that NCAA tried that before by trying to restrict personnel costs in basketball. That ended up costing the Association a $54.5 million antitrust settlement.
Big Ten Conference Commissioner Jim Delany points out that such resolve in spending probably will not come from individual institutions, either.
"The large schools don't want to restrain themselves, and they don't want anyone politically to restrain them," Delany said.
But Lawrence maintains that one way to curb the "show-me-the-money" syndrome is to "show me the data." To date, spending has increased seemingly because of an anecdotal environment that has fostered a keeping-up with-the Joneses attitude. Lawrence said the task force wants to know for sure whether increased spending has any tangible effects on winning, whether winning really does attract more donors or more admissions, and whether increased athletics revenue means increased student-athlete welfare. Lawrence said if the study reveals that keeping up with the Joneses isn't what makes an institution successful, then perhaps institutions will exit the "arms race."
"Reliable and relevant information that athletics administrators and college presidents can understand can help them change their habits," he said. "Athletics spending makes great conversation, but is there any reality to it? Our group really wants to establish reality as far as the financial numbers are concerned."
In addition to fiscal integrity, Lawrence's group is taking on academic reform. Presidents have pined for higher student-athlete graduation rates for more than two decades, and recent slides in football and men's basketball have been like fingernails on their chalkboards.
Task force member Brit Kirwan, who also chairs the Board of Directors, says the bleeding can be stopped.
First, he said, eligibility should be tied much more stringently to progress toward a degree.
"There are rules in this general direction, but they are too loose and need to be substantially tightened," he said. "When students enter their final year of eligibility, they need to be within one year of a degree. If they're not on that trajectory, then they shouldn't be eligible."
Second, revenue allocation and the number of scholarships that can be offered should be tied to academic performance.
"Right now," Kirwan said, "we distribute about $300 million of revenue based solely on sports sponsorship and the number of scholarships. We need to build in criteria that also reward and penalize schools based on academic performance.
"Similarly with scholarships, if schools are not graduating their football players, then they shouldn't be allowed the full 85 scholarships. That will get the coaches' attention and the athletics directors' attention."
Kirwan also is interested in a concept that came from the Knight Commission report that would tie postseason eligibility to a school's student-athlete graduation rate. He said, however, that problems with tracking graduation rates must be worked out before that proposal -- or any other that involves a graduation-rate incentive -- can be successful.
Virginia President Casteen also is interested in the ever-increasing "intrusion into the academic calendar." He said not only are eligibility issues a concern, but so are the length-of-season issues where contests overlap final exams.
"It always has struck me as odd that an organization that describes itself as collegiate has no problem scheduling events during exams or graduation," he said. "We understand how we got where we are -- there's no bad guy in that story, but we have responsibilities involving education for our students that we have to look at here."
How to get it done
So while at least the eight presidents have a will to act, is there a way to act? Delany is quick to point out that previous reform efforts through the NCAA and other organizations have fallen short of expectations, for any number of reasons. "Some ople don't want to act for competitive reasons, some don't want to act for financial reasons, some don't want to act because their basketball coaches are influential, some want change but they disagree on the change," he said.
Even Kirwan said that if the Board of Directors has a shortcoming, it's that it "has not provided enough direction."
The Board has tried, most notably in men's basketball and football, by appointing special groups that provide intense study of specific issues and then propose legislation that then bubbles up through the governance structure. The problem has been that the reform muscle the proposals may have had in the beginning is subsequently weakened as the proposals go through the structure. Board members have noted that by the time the proposals reach the Board for final approval, they often lack the impact the presidents originally sought.
That scenario was made clear recently when two men's basketball reform initiatives -- the initial-counter rule and the new summer recruiting calendar -- passed through the Board with mixed results. Both rules emerged from proposals that at their inception were much more stringent. Delany argued that in the end, what was approved may not have been tough enough.
"It was modest change at best," he said. "If anybody thinks those can meet the test of real change or something that could bring about real change, I think they're mistaken."
Delany said the reason is one of politics rather than resolve. He said well-intentioned reform, as it stands in the current structure, has plenty of opportunity to be picked apart by representatives who want to shape it to meet self-interests. "Those at the institutional and conference level interested in the status quo have more will and commitment to maintaining it than those who advocate real change," he said.
Casteen said the composition of the structure is partly responsible since the usual active agent in policy-making -- the Management Council -- is composed of members whose perspective is largely internal to athletics. He said it is the responsibility of the Board, whose members are well-versed in large-scope institutional issues that are more academic in nature, to take on broad-based reform.
But without changing the structure, the Board at best can only provide the direction, then hope that the legislation that comes back fits the intent. Does that initial message from the Board need to be more forceful?
"In the larger view," Casteen said, "it's probably not so much a matter of toughness as it is enforcing a perspective that is focused more on student well-being instead of athlete well-being. That happens to be a perspective that belongs with the Board."
Kirwan said the Board needs to make that clear up front.
"I'm quite optimistic that the Board (through the task force) can come together on a meaningful package of reforms in a conceptual sense and agree that this is what we want -- we want significant change of this kind -- and then turn it over to the Council to come back with the right legislation," he said.
At that point, Kirwan said, it will be up to the Board to walk the walk. "If the initiative is coming from the Board and strong signals and direction come from the Board, then there is an applied commitment from the Board to pass that type of legislation," he said.
Delany said it will be a tough walk. "The fact of it is that reform is a contact sport," he said. "If you're going to make change, you're going to ruffle feathers. You have to have staying power, and I have not seen that yet."
Lawrence said his group will prove it has it. He said if the task force can get its arms around the financial data and address "half a dozen substantive academic issues that are causing us difficulties these days," then it will have established a benchmark by which future reform proposals must be judged.
"We are the presidents. We have to show leadership," he said. "I would not have accepted this role if that were not part of what we're trying to do."
Board of Directors not alone in quest to reform big-time sports
Part of the reason Rutgers President Francis Lawrence believes there is a "will to act" on reform is that so many groups have expressed an interest.
In addition to Lawrence's task force, two groups from major conferences have called for action, and two other high-profile groups are meeting regularly on reform issues. In addition, the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics remains committed to a reform agenda through its own means.
With so many groups cooking up reform, it seems that a veritable buffet would follow. But whatever is dished up ultimately will have to pass muster through the NCAA governance structure as legislation before it becomes a reality. In that regard, Lawrence's group, and ultimately the Board, is the central cog in the reform wheel.
"The Board is the group that ultimately approves policy. That's very clear to everyone," Lawrence said. "But we will take whatever advice we get from anyone. The Knight report should be read, and we should pay attention to all the other groups, as well."
The "other groups" include faculty committees at the Big Ten and Pacific-10 Conferences that have submitted resolutions for reform. The Big Ten group is under the auspices of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, an academic consortium that includes the 11 Big Ten schools plus the University of Chicago. Those faculty members have called for an end to commercialization in college sports and a return to the educational mission, similar to the call from the Pac-10 faculty group.
Also, Pac-10 CEOs have asked that playing and practice seasons be shortened, and that regular-season certified contests be eliminated. That group also wants to eliminate nontraditional segments, reduce the number of contests in certain sports, reduce or eliminate voluntary workouts during the academic year and the summer term, and reduce the duration of some NCAA championships to lessen their impact on student-athletes' academic schedules. All those issues have been forwarded to the Board Task Force for consideration.
The I-A conference group is called the CEO Working Group, and it includes representation from six Division I-A conferences (Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and Southeastern). Those members have charged themselves with reviewing and ensuring the "health of intercollegiate athletics."
The Knight Foundation also remains an active player in the reform agenda. The Association of Governing Boards, representing boards of trustees, has asked the Foundation for funding to create a Knight Foundation-conceived "institute" of intercollegiate athletics that would develop, oversee and monitor reform initiatives.
And most recently, the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) and Character Counts! Sports have banded together to issue a reform initiative called, "Pursuing Victory with Honor: A Game Plan for Amateur Basketball." That is an effort that NABC Executive Director Jim Haney calls "a sincere and serious effort by many of the most influential people in amateur basketball to outline a realistic game plan to address some of the most serious issues facing the sport." Those issues include graduation rates, on- and off-court conduct and sportsmanship, officiating, commercialism and fiscal responsibility (details can be found online at www.nabc.org or at www.charactercounts.org).
Lawrence said that no matter how many other groups are discussing reform, his group is ready to listen, and to lead.
"We must take our leadership and respond to what we hear out there, whether it be from students, parents, the Knight Commission or other groups within the NCAA," he said. "These other groups are talking about the exact kind of issues we're interested in -- and they know we're at work and that whatever suggestions they have will be passed on to us. That's a great sign.
"There's more hope now than I've seen in a long time."