University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban is frequently heralded as "the most powerful man in Alabama" and "the most powerful man in sports." But college athletics were not always so influential. In Ronald A. Smith's new book, Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform (University of Illinois Press), he analyzes the history behind the current university athletic standards -- from National Collegiate Athletic Association reforms to presidential maneuverings to university governing board lapses. Taking a closer look at how athletic reforms change the character of a college's academic offerings, Smith's book is part history, part policy prospectus, and part call for reform of a system he believes fails athletes -- in particular minorities and women.
Smith, a professor emeritus of sports history at Pennsylvania State University, answered e-mailed questions about his findings for Inside Higher Ed.
Q: Your book covers more than 150 years of history of collegiate athletic reform. What are a few of the overarching trends?
A: Every major effort at college reform has claimed that college presidents are the group to reform it. The only group to even come close to reforming college athletics to maintain academic integrity is the Ivy League in the 1940s and 1950s.
Two other trends over the past 150 years revolve around students and faculty in athletic affairs. The first was to basically eliminate student involvement in running their own games. Where once students, both athletes and others in the student body, organized the competition, raised their own funds, and hired their own coaches, this business model has long since been eliminated, and these tasks have been put in the hands of non-students. In a similar way, faculties of the various colleges, who once created many of the rules intended to maintain academic integrity within their own institutions, have been eliminated from the athletic equation.
Q: Why is separating college sports from commercial interests important? How does it relate to academic integrity?
A: The lowering of academic standards to allow non-educationally motivated athletes to participate in commercially valuable sports is not conducive to maintaining academic integrity. The commercialization and corporatization of colleges and universities to make money for their institutions from teaching, research, and athletics is not new, but it is increasing — some say at an alarming rate. The fact that it started with a basically non-educational activity, athletics, is not surprising. That it is intensifying in medical schools, science research, and for-profit distance education on the Internet is even more troublesome than what is occurring in athletics.
Q: If you had to make a vision of reform in a sentence or two, what would that look like?
A: Reform, to help ensure academic integrity in intercollegiate athletic programs, will continue to be unsuccessful until the major players are brought together. Presidents cannot, or will not, do so on their own as is the situation today in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The major players, I believe, should be the presidents, governing boards (who set university policy), faculties (who have most to do with academic integrity), and students (who are directly involved in playing the games). They must be brought together to create rules that will improve the situation, so that the athletes become an integral part of the student body academically and a level playing field can be created athletically.
Q: Is it too late? Has the train already left the station?
A: Like the nearly 250 years that it took before slavery was abolished, there is hope for meaningful reform by the institutions themselves, even before the U.S. Congress and the courts command it.
Q: You say faculty were and are largely shut out of academic reform, but that they should not be. What can faculty do? What should they do?
A: Faculty can be involved in the entire question of academic integrity, if they are so inclined. An organization formed of big-time institutions, that could be of some value, is COIA, the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, formed in the early 2000s.... One of its major tenets is for universities to admit only athletes who fit the profile of the rest of the student body, rather than to allow the present system of presidential admits, fostering great athletic teams at the expense of educational standards. COIA also opposes special curriculums set up principally to allow academically low-achieving athletes to remain eligible in the low-standard academic program, such as the University of Michigan when it created a “General Studies” major, used by a vast majority of its football players. If COIA were recognized by presidents of the same institutions as having significant value in reforming college athletics, collectively and at individual institutions, it might go a long way in raising academic integrity to a new level. This would, however, require a commitment not only by the presidents, but from their governing boards, who hire and fire presidents.
Q: It seems from the book that you consider the adoption of freshman eligibility requirements a watershed moment for academic reform. What do you think should be learned from them by future reformers?
A: Allowing freshmen to go to school for one year without participating in varsity athletics was intended to push athletes to tend to their books for a school year before spending massive amounts of time and energy on intercollegiate athletics. It may not have accomplished all that it intended, for few reforms do. But there was great support for freshman ineligibility by institutions and conferences until the inflation crisis created by the cost of the Vietnam War and the Great Society expenditures of the 1960s. With runaway inflation raising havoc on intercollegiate athletics financially, one of the cost-cutting measures was to eliminate freshman teams. The first thought was to allow freshmen to play in all sports except football and men’s basketball, where commercialization had been in existence for decades. Four years later, in 1972, all sports were allowed freshman eligibility. Academic integrity, as promoted by the Freshman Rule, was eliminated for financial expediency. What we can learn is that reform, in any form, is difficult to achieve, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to strive for what is best for athletics and for higher education.
Q: You compare the need for collegiate athletic reform to the fight for women's rights, the emancipation of the slaves, and the recent battle for universal health care coverage. Why — as your book says — is academic reform as difficult as these struggles?
A: In order for meaningful athletic reform to come about, a major crisis will be required, and it is just as likely that it will not come from within higher education, but from outside higher education. This could likely be in the form of U.S. legislative action or from Supreme Court decisions. After all, two of the most important reforms in college athletics came from legislation or court action — massive entry of African Americans into college athletics in the 1960s and 1970s following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. The other major reform came as a result of the passage of the Title IX Act of 1972, when women were given a more equal chance to participate in American life, especially high school and college athletics. Reform is never easy, but it is worthy of pursuit.