A crack in college athletics' facade?

 C. Fraser Smith, The Daily Record Newswire

Twenty years ago, soon after wrapping up yet another reform-of-college-athletics report, Kit Morris watched a film about the Normandy invasion.

High seas lashed at the boats. A million unforeseen events occurred. Chaos prevailed. Soldiers were caught in a rain of artillery. The officer corps was decimated. Only individual heroism earned the beachhead.

Morris thought balancing intercollegiate athletics and academics could occur — as his Knight Commission report urged — but he feared the result would be reminiscent the World War II battle; the effort would continue to leave “wounded and dying on the beach.”

The commission, headed by the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh of Notre Dame, was only the latest group to search for the balance. At stake was the honor of universities that offered scholarships in exchange for thrilling moments on the football field or basketball court.

Also at stake was the future of the players. They were the vaunted “student-athletes.” They were the ones that brought tens of thousands of dollars to campus. They were the ones that made March a month of madness.

I spoke with Kit Morris about the goal of balance and reform several months after Len Bias died in a dormitory room at College Park. The campus was in turmoil for months. The nation learned that cocaine could be lethal, as it had been for Bias on the verge of a lucrative career. The famous coach, Lefty Driesell, lost his job. The university chancellor, John B. Slaughter, was engulfed by a torrent of criticism.

The university had succumbed to the pressure of fans and others, often admitting students who had little chance of success. In exchange for their athletic talents, they were to get a first class education. 

But often they weren’t able — or allowed — to take advantage of it. They were poor students in high school. Too much time was spent practicing. Too much traveling to games and tournaments lost more time. Good students couldn’t have succeeded.

Balance was a worthy goal, of course. But many were urging a real-world look at things: The players were employees, weren’t they? Shouldn’t they get paid? Cutting to the chase, in other words.

And now, after years of talking about real-world reform, players (or ex-players) are back on campus demanding another kind of balance: compensation for use of a player’s name and union representation.

This week, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that a group of Northwestern University football players were employees and had the right to form a union. The powers that be in university life might be on the verge of losing the game they were playing: promising reform, hailing college sports as a metaphor for life and circling wagons around the status quo.

Hopelessly old school, I had hoped for a long time to see the balance issue addressed effectively and honestly. Education is for life. Even if players were willing to miss the opportunity, their dream of making a living in the pros was usually only that, a dream.

The dream goes on, of course. We have seen the introduction of “one and done” — the one-year college basketball wonder who jumps to the pros. The good education argument was out the window — maybe had been for a long time.

Prospective students wanted to be at school with all the sports glory. Boosters demanded it. Political leaders responded to both.

The occasional scandal went on. Icons like Joe Paterno at Penn State were toppled. If he didn’t know what was happening at his school, he should have. Child abuse had been tolerated, it seemed, to protect “the program.” Years went by as the now convicted Jerry Sandusky’s depredations continued.

Sandusky’s crimes were heinous and, one hopes, unique. But the crimes against players risking physical injury, losing out on the value of their scholarships and not being paid continue.

The players had learned this much. Real change was not going to happen if coaches and university presidents were counted on to achieve it.

Is upheaval at hand? Reform? Justice?

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C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org. He is the author of “Lenny, Lefty and the Chancellor: The Len Bias Tragedy and the Search for Reform in Big-time College Basketball.” 

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