Tudor: Friday preached sports sanity to an often uninterested audience

ctudor@newsobserver.comOctober 13, 2012 

In one respect, Bill Friday died a frustrated warrior.

As much as he cautioned, cajoled and at times urgently protested, Friday was unable to restore common sense to big-time college athletics. It was one of the major missions of his life.

“This avalanche of TV money is undermining institutional missions,” Friday told me during a telephone conversation about a year ago. “It’s out of control and it’ll turn out to be unsustainable. But by then, it’ll be too late.”

For many of his 92 years, Friday did everything humanly possible to put football and basketball in a manageable perspective. His leadership work on the Knight Commission identified serious problems and offered sensible solutions, a few of which were even adopted.

Late last summer, Friday was blessed with a rare moment of triumph when the NCAA Division I Board of Directors approved a 2001 Knight Commission recommendation to ban schools with unacceptably low four-year academic progress rates from football bowls or NCAA basketball tournaments.

“This is a pivotal point,” Friday said at the time. “If you really mean these people are student-athletes, then you have to emphasize that particular point. This is the first major turning point on the road … it took a long time, though.”

Hopefully that turning point will develop into something so meaningful and important that it will be a lasting part of Friday’s legacy. He loved sports and appreciated the importance of football and basketball to many of the nation’s colleges and universities.

“We need athletics, but we need levelheaded athletics,” he said.

Too often, Friday’s pleas for academic/athletic balance and the need for prudent financial constraint were met by empty rhetoric from campus chancellors and presidents so saddled to fund-raising and budget demands that they saw genuine reform as risky.

Friday came from a different era – a time when educational compromise could be tolerated to a limited extent but never for the explicit purpose of reeling in media contracts and annexing cable TV markets.

In 1961, Friday was president of the UNC System when he made one of the most unpopular decisions in the state’s athletic history.

Having learned of point-shaving payments to basketball players at N.C. State and UNC during Dixie Classic tournament games in Raleigh, Friday led a campaign that ended the popular event and briefly de-emphasized the two schools’ programs.

Friday’s actions came after he learned from law enforcement officials that a Wolfpack player had been threatened at gunpoint by a game fixer.

Many otherwise rational fans never forgave Friday for his role in ending the Dixie Classic. As a kid who enjoyed following the Christmas holiday games, I was one of those incapable of understanding Friday’s hard-line stand.

From those days on, Friday worried that gambling might one day lead to campus scandals so ghastly that college athletics might be wiped out. But by the outset of the 1990s, Friday recognized that the greater danger was the college sports framework itself – an ever escalating infrastructure of expenses, multimillion dollar coaching contracts, blatant academic fraud, television-dictated scheduling and marauding professional agents far more ruthless than any neighborhood bookmaker.

In an interview with the Independent Weekly last August, Friday described himself as a person with “a lot of scar tissue” from his battle to bring back sports sanity. “I see a great thing being so tarnished that people are beginning to turn away,” he said.

Sadly, those chilling words will be a part of Bill Friday’s legacy.

Here was a man of exceptional insight, honor and devotion. Although eternally modest and unfailingly polite, he was a powerful force of influence on any number of fronts.

But when it came to trying to instill logic to a rampaging big-business sports industry, even the great Bill Friday himself was frequently overmatched.

Tudor: 919-829-8946

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