Until the end of the '80s, scandals in college athletic programs were like the proverbial elephant in the living room -- everyone knew it was there, but no one wanted to admit it. Then, in 1989, the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics bluntly pointed out the giant obstacles to integrity in athletics, compiling a scorecard of abuses that embarrassed universities and forced changes at the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the agency that helps police them.
Abuses the Knight Commission found included:
-at some Division I colleges, no football or basketball player had met normal requirements for admission;
-at half of all Division I-A institutions, 20 percent or more of football or basketball players were "special admits"; and
-among 100 of the best-known colleges in the country, 35 had graduation rates of less than 20 percent for basketball players and 14 had the same rate for football players.
The commission's study, which cost $3 million and took three years to conduct, concentrated on athletic reform as part of the Knight Foundation's continuing focus on higher education. In the early 1990s, the commission published three reports on the need for reform, urging the NCAA to create more stringent rules and calling for college presidents to control the academic and financial integrity of athletic programs.
Part of the commission's wish list came true when the NCAA overhauled its policies in the '90s and began some reforms. But when the Knight group reconvened in 2000 to evaluate what had been accomplished, it found a mixed bag. The NCAA had made some strides, the Knight Commission reported in June 2001, but its actions were insufficient; abuses continued at some of the biggest colleges and universities.
Big 12 leads way
One man closely watching the commission's initial and follow-up reports was Baylor President Robert B. Sloan Jr., who had presided over several discussions promoting athletic reform in the Big 12. Others also were paying attention. Big 12 representatives started calling other Division I colleges seeking to form an ad hoc group to regulate its own. Last year, college presidents, chancellors and commissioners from six major athletic conferences -- the Big 12, Big Ten, Pacific-10, Big East, Atlantic Coast and Southeastern -- began planning how to rebuild integrity in their athletic programs. They have met in person and via teleconference since 2001.
They asked Dr. Sloan to lead their efforts. Already a vocal advocate for reform and a noted sports enthusiast, he also presides at a university that consistently leads the Big 12 in its graduation rate of student-athletes. He played baseball in high school and as a college freshman at Baylor, and he is in the stands at almost every Baylor home game. He also was selected for induction in the Little League Hall of Excellence, along with former Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripkin Jr. Dr. Sloan is the first to admit, though, that the current state of college athletics concerns him.
"I think athletics is one of the most significant influences in American culture, in worldwide culture," he says, but adds that athletic programs have gotten out of hand. "You have to do your best to control it. You have to be a good steward."
Initially, the ad hoc group kicked off its discussions by exploring two issues: the level of interest for attempting to reform college athletics and the areas in which the greatest changes needed to occur, Dr. Sloan says.
"We knew we couldn't cure the world all at once. So, we decided to pick issues where we could get traction early on, where we could really bring about change and have some initial successes," he says.
Group members agreed on five items and this year are emphasizing the first three: measuring an athlete's progress toward his or her degree on an annual basis; giving more emphasis to high school grade point averages than to SAT scores for initial eligibility; and measuring each institution's progress in every athletic program with an annual report card.
The group is optimistic its reforms will be adopted by the NCAA's board of directors. Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president for membership services, has worked closely with Dr. Sloan's group. Plus, the proposed reforms are similar to those set forth by academic consultants representing the NCAA who conducted a separate study. If adopted, the first changes will take effect in fall 2003.
Proposal I: Progress toward degree
The first proposal essentially would require an athlete to pass at least 20 percent of hours toward a degree the first year, 40 percent by the end of the second year, 60 percent at the end of the third year and 80 percent at the end of the fourth year. The group decided on an annual progress report, among other reasons, because of the number of personnel changes that can occur during a student's college career. Presidents, coaches and athletes leave, and it isn't fair to hold one coach accountable for what happened previously, Dr. Sloan says. Furthermore, the group knew that substantial progress requires frequent and accurate feedback.
Current NCAA rules require an athlete to pass only 25 percent of hours toward a degree by the start of the third year.
"They might maintain their eligibility until the beginning of the fifth year, but by the end of the year, they couldn't and were transferring or, worse, dropping out," Dr. Sloan says. "All you're doing is creating a time bomb if you make the standard too low to start with and then require the athletes to catch up later."
Proposal II: Emphasizing GPAs
The second item -- having to do with initial eligibility to enter college -- would give more emphasis to a student's high school GPA than to the SAT score. It was the only reform proposal on which the group did not reach unanimous agreement, with one dissenting vote, Dr. Sloan says. The group proposed a 2.0 minimum on a student's high school GPA, but no minimum score on the SAT or ACT. Currently, a student planning to enter college must have at least an 820 SAT score and a 2.0 high school GPA.
NCAA data show that the GPA in high school core courses is more predictive of freshman-year success than the SAT is, Dr. Sloan says. "The student who makes 820 on the SAT and has a 2.0 GPA is less likely to graduate than the student who has a 700 on the SAT and a 2.5 GPA," he says.
Furthermore, the 820 minimum score has a disparate effect on minorities, Dr. Sloan says, which is unacceptable because a minimum SAT -- a so-called "cut score" -- cannot be shown to increase graduation rates. Although the SAT still is important, it is not predictive of higher graduation rates except at the upper ranges of the score, he adds.
As a part of the plan to emphasize high school performance, the group of college presidents proposed increasing the number of core courses required to enter college from 13 to 14 by 2003 and to 16 by 2006.
Proposal III: Annual report card
Dr. Sloan refers to this proposal as a mathematical grading system for universities. It would require each institution to conduct annual evaluations of every sport to see if student-athletes are maintaining satisfactory progress toward a degree. Each university then would issue itself a "report card" the NCAA could use for its own rating and accountability purposes. One way to evaluate such report cards would be to compare each athletic program's progress with that of the given university's general student population.
The Knight response
When the Knight Commission reconvened in 2001, it was concerned about many areas, but the ad hoc committee's three goals are "right on target," says Maureen Devlin, a part-time consultant for the Knight Foundation and executive director for the Knight Commission. Devlin, who helped direct the 2001 report issued after the Knight Commission met the second time, says, "They're starting off at a great spot with academics. It's fundamental. You can have an impact immediately."
The Knight Commission's June 2001 recommendations (see sidebar) identify three areas as the most flagrant infractions in college athletics: academic transgressions, the "financial arms race" and commercialization of student-athletes. The report, presented to the Knight Foundation board of trustees, reiterated that the problems in college sports "have grown rather than diminished." The financial situation is a particularly thorny issue, comprising escalating coaches' salaries, disparate monies spent on men's athletics (particularly in football and basketball), the number of scholarships available and broadcasting rights, among other things.
Controlling finances is much more difficult than some of the other reforms, Devlin says, citing as an example an antitrust suit the NCAA lost when it tried to cap salaries in university athletic departments. In 1991, the NCAA adopted the salary legislation to create entry-level coaching positions. Salaries were to be capped at $12,000 during the academic year and $4,000 during summers for graduate assistant coaches. Some universities, however, moved veteran coaches into the jobs, and three coaches brought suit against the NCAA in 1993 claiming violation of federal antitrust laws. Two other suits also were filed. The three suits were combined, representing all restricted-earnings coaches. The court found in favor of the plaintiffs, and the NCAA immediately rescinded the rule. Coaches' salaries, on average, remain high; the latest Knight Commission report notes that about 30 college football and men's basketball coaches are paid a million dollars or more a year.
There are other ways to curb spending in college athletic programs, Devlin says. "I think sometimes the antitrust problem is used as an excuse. You could save a lot of money by cutting back on Division I-A football scholarships." Div-ision I-A college programs can award 85 scholarships per year, and reducing the number of scholarships is part of a Knight Commission proposal to help lower expenditures in big-time sports.
The academic reforms proposed both by the college presidents and the NCAA have given Devlin hope for the future. Of the ad hoc group's work, she says, "the proposals are fantastic." Raising the number of hours that a student-athlete must pass beginning the third year from 25 percent to 40 percent "will make an enormous difference," she says. "At first it may lower graduation rates as coaches adjust to the fact that these must be bona fide students. The presidents will have to make an adjustment, too."
Even though Baylor's record of graduating student-athletes is strong, overall Big 12 graduation rates are not good, Dr. Sloan says. "The Pac-10 has good numbers, the Big Ten has good numbers. Our graduation rates at Baylor are comparable to the better graduation rates in those other conferences," he says.
In fact, student-athletes at Baylor graduate at nearly the same rate as the student body overall. From 1999 through 2001, the student body maintained a graduation rate of 67 percent. Meanwhile, 63 percent of Baylor's athletes graduated in 1999 and 67 percent in 2001 -- matching the student body rate. In 2000, 74 percent of its student-athletes graduated, a percentage that exceeded that of the general student body.
Such success is more the rule than the exception at Baylor, says Tom Stanton, the University's athletic director. It was much the same when Stanton was a student-athlete here, competing in basketball and baseball. "I have never been around an educational system that has a faculty that cares more about its students," he says. "I believe Baylor is unique in that respect."
Fourth on the ad hoc group's list of proposals are incentives and disincentives for universities, which would tie in directly to the third proposal, the annual report card. A disincentive would restrict scholarships and access to postseason competition for those institutions that don't measure up academically. The ad hoc group will not push for that proposal, Dr. Sloan says, until the NCAA adopts the annual sport-by-sport grade card at each university.
The fifth goal on the list stipulates that academic advising of student-athletes be governed by the academic, not athletic, administration. Dr. Sloan says most colleges already are doing this, but it was added as a recommendation in principle, not as a rule requiring NCAA action. Stanton agrees that academic support services, as well as the financial aid aspects of scholarships, should be maintained and administered by those outside athletics.
Momentum for reform
NCAA representative Lennon praises the progress he's seen. The ad hoc group's willingness to get involved in what is basically a thankless job has built momentum for reform, even though it's currently targeted only at Division I colleges. Division II and III schools, which have different restrictions on the number of scholarships they can give, the number of sports they must offer and attendance requirement at games, only are watching for now. "There's been more of a will to act in Division I," Lennon says. "There's long been a frustration among college presidents at the declining graduation rates in football and men's basketball and at legal challenges to the NCAA."
As he prepares for future meetings, Dr. Sloan says other items on the agenda for the presidents to look at include student-athlete issues such as time demands, length of season and personal or academic needs.
Baton is passed
No one would argue there's still much to be done, but the reform efforts of the ad hoc group are enough to make Devlin believe the Knight Commission will not meet a third time. "We have passed the baton," she says. "We didn't envision that we'd reconvene, nor did we envision that everything would be solved. It's just that the forces out there are huge."
As college football season comes to a close and basketball begins, thousands queue up to watch their favorite college athletic teams in action. It's a national pastime that entertains, enthuses and excites -- emotions magnified by one's devotion to an alma mater. No one wants to see athletic programs suffer, on the field or off. For the leaders of the six major athletic conferences, their challenge is to make sure that doesn't happen.
"Progress is being made," Dr. Sloan says. "We anticipate a full slate of meetings for the coming year. As a group, we are committed to working through these difficult issues. All of us who love athletics want to see the integrity of these programs restored."