Panel will tackle ethics in athletics

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 25, 2011 

— After a round of high-profile scandals in college sports this year, an advisory panel said Monday it would launch a wide review of practices ranging from student-athlete scholarships to postseason play.

Although any recommendations made by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics won't be binding, NCAA President Mark Emmert and several university presidents said they welcome the review of an increasingly dysfunctional system.

"We are all disappointed and downright disturbed," Emmert said at the meeting of the commission, which counts former UNC System President William Friday among its founders. "We need to hold institutions responsible."

Emmert, former president of the University of Washington who took the National Collegiate Athletic Association post a year ago, said he couldn't remember another year when so many coaches were dismissed because of ethical lapses, and added it was the result of "adults in the room" taking charge.

To critics of college sports, it's an opportunity to make long-overdue changes.

"Nobody's figured out how you solve the problems without undermining the magic of college sport," said Charles Clotfelter, a Duke professor and NCAA critic who wrote a recent book on the topic, "Big-Time Sports in American Universities."

To be sure, scandal touches other corners of society, not just college athletics.

"Any institution is going to have its degree of slippage and impropriety," said Scott Kretchmar, a professor of sports science at Penn State. "But I don't excuse sport for that. It needs dramatic reform, not tweaking."

The list of recent problems is long.

Pending NCAA charges of major violations involving academic misconduct and improper benefits for UNC-Chapel Hill football players brought down coach Butch Davis this summer and led to the retirement of the athletics director.

Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel resigned after allegations that players received cash and tattoos from a local business owner.

A Yahoo Sports story revealed that Miami football booster Nevin Shapiro, now serving a 20-year prison sentence for his participation in a $930 million Ponzi scheme, had showered Hurricanes players with gifts, including cars, money and even prostitutes.

"A lot of good coaches try, by and large, to follow the rules," Kretchmar said. "The cynical side of the enterprise says it pays to cheat."

Kretchmar said universities would be better served taking dollars away from the win-at-all-cost side and putting them on the side of improving graduation rates.

But Clotfelter called it "suicidal" for university leaders to say academics need to come first.

"At the core of this whole thing, universities want to be competitive," he said.

To be competitive means participating in what Boise State President Bob Kustra called the "arms race" - bringing in money, especially at a time when financially strapped states have cut deeply into higher education budgets, forcing universities to raise tuition and fees across the board.

"Money does solve a lot of problems, but it creates a lot as well," said Michael Martin, chancellor of Louisiana State University.

The Southeastern Conference, which includes LSU, earned total revenues of more than $1 billion last year, mostly from TV contracts.

Tom Ross, who in January became president of the University of North Carolina, a 17-campus system with more than 200,000 students, said athletics and academics can co-exist.

"But it takes work," Ross said. For example, he said, it would help if professional sports leagues would impose sanctions on student athletes with professional aspirations, giving them a powerful incentive to play fair.

"Is there some way professional leagues could say, you violated an NCAA rule, you can't play for a year?" Ross asked. "To lose a year is a big deal."

With money driving the headline-grabbing bad decisions made by some people in football and basketball programs, Ross said, it's easy to forget that universities play other sports, and that those student athletes are also good students.

According to the Knight Commission, formed in 1989 to address a decade of scandals in university sports, average spending per student athlete is more than 11 times greater than it is for non-athletes in the SEC. And while average spending on athletes has risen, spending on other students has remained relatively flat.

The commission notes that sometimes there are legitimate reasons for this disparity, such as higher health insurance costs for student athletes. But, it said, "expenses like this cannot account for the lopsided spending patterns seen at some universities."

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