The Faculty Role in Sports Reform

Knight Commission hears from 3 groups that take divergent approaches to the problems in college athletics.
November 9, 2005

Despite occasional attempts to insert themselves into the process, college faculty members have over time remained largely on the sidelines in national discussions about whether and how to "reform" big-time college sports. Professors who have weighed in have often been too easy to write off as either (1) pie-in-the-sky idealists with unrealistically simplistic ideas aimed at turning back the clock on commercialization and professionalization or (2) jock-sniffing fans who've been won over to the "dark side" and are overly friendly to sports programs.

In the last year or two, though, faculty groups have begun to emerge as a potentially relevant force in the sports reform effort, and to highlight and encourage that involvement, the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics invited the leaders of three groups of professors to address the panel at its meeting in Washington Tuesday, where the Knight group also examined the National Collegiate Athletic Association's new academic policies and announced its plan for a "summit" on athletes' views of college sports.

The three faculty organizations -- the Faculty Athletics Representatives Association, the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, and the Drake Group -- offered three very different faces of faculty approaches to sports, although all said they believed in the value of college sports but perceived significant problems. 

The faculty representatives association is the oldest of the three, and it is made up of the professors on each college campus who have been chosen, usually by presidents with input from faculty leaders and athletics departments, to be intermediaries between the sports programs and faculties on their campuses and to represent their institutions, along with campus presidents and athletics directors, within the NCAA. 

Rank and file professors often view their campuses' faculty representatives skeptically, as too friendly to athletics interests, and the faculty reps' group has rarely been a force for significant change -- a point Percy Bates, an education professor at the University of Michigan and chair of the Division I-A faculty representatives group, acknowledged Tuesday. "We are viewed by many as part of the problem," he said.

Bates insisted at Tuesday's meeting that the faculty representatives see commercialization, low graduation rates, and the spending "arms race" in big-time sports as major problems that need to be confronted, but said his group recognized that these were long-term issues that could be dealt with only incrementally, over a long period of time.

If the faculty reps have been viewed as too cozy with the sports establishment, the Drake Group is at the other end of the spectrum. At the Knight Commission's last meeting, in May, the NCAA's president, Myles Brand, derided the group as a bunch of "radicals" intent on destroying college sports.

Given a chance for equal time, the Drake Group's executive director, David Ridpath, an assistant professor of sports administration at Mississippi State University, accused the Knight Commission of having been co-opted by the NCAA (given that many of its members are or have been leaders within the association's governance structure) and of refusing to "face the real problems" in college sports.

He urged the Knight panel to support the group's call for all NCAA colleges to disclose to the public information about what majors and courses their athletes are taking and how they are performing in them (and how those compare with other students at the institutions), which he described as "the only way to illuminate the academic corruption problem and to hold faculty accountable." Ridpath said that his group was lobbying Congress to put pressure on the NCAA to make that and other changes, noting that many past reforms, including the publication of graduation rates, had been adopted only in the face of pressure from lawmakers.

Not surprisingly, the Drake Group message did not go over real well with the commission's members. "Let me give you a piece of unsolicited advice," said Peter Likins, president of the University of Arizona and a member of the Knight panel. "The rhetoric you use destroys your point completely." He chided Ridpath for deriding previous efforts by the Knight panel and presidents within the NCAA to raise academic standards, limit time demands on athletes and cut sports costs, among other changes. "To suggest that all past efforts" have failed is to "impugn the integrity of well-meaning people," Likins said with an edge in his voice. 

Charles E. Young, former chancellor of the University of California at Los Angeles and former president of the University of Florida, said that he agreed with many of the points Ridpath made but that he was "making enemies rather than friends" with his choice of language. He encouraged the Drake Group "express your views in a way that will encourage cooperation."

That is exactly what the third faculty group, the three-year-old Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, has done, and it seems to be paying off. Virginia Shepherd, a professor of pathology at Vanderbilt University's medical school and co-chair of the faculty group, said that more than 50 faculty senates had joined the group and endorsed its approach of working with athletics directors, presidents, trustees and others in the sports mainstream to be a "moderate voice" pushing for realistic change. 

Shepherd noted with some satisfaction that several proposals made by her group were moving through the NCAA's legislative process, including one that would require NCAA member colleges to collect and provide to their faculty senate (or other governance body) data on athlete enrollments and grades by course section, athletes' choices of majors by team, and other academic measures. While that proposal stops short of the full public disclosure urged by the Drake Group (which supports the coalition's proposal), passage of the rule would represent a "real accomplishment" for faculty leaders," Shepherd said, and show that professors, working "with the establishment," can make a difference in the sports reform movement.

At its meeting Tuesday, the Knight panel also got an update on the NCAA's new policies designed to keep athletes on track toward a degree. Several NCAA officials explained the new policies to the Knight panel's members (several of whom are new and admitted to knowing little about the intracacies of college sports) and gave a preview of the likely results when the NCAA reveals next month how colleges have performed on the association's new measure of graduation rates, and next February when the association publishes its second batch of statistics on the new Academic Progress Rate, which measures in real time how a college's athletes are progressing academically.

Britton Banowsky, commissioner of Conference USA and a member of the NCAA's Committee on Academic Performance, said the new Academic Progress Rate statistics suggested that the NCAA was "seeing improvement" in the proportion of athletes who were remaining enrolled in good academic standing from semester to semester. "It's a little early to be celebrating, but it's nice to be seeing improvement and positive reinforcement," Banowsky said.

Starting in February, teams whose APRs fall below a certain threshold will risk losing scholarships, and Banowsky said that NCAA officials are "bracing" for bitter complaints from colleges whose teams face punishment. Although the NCAA will consider institutions' appeals, members of the Knight panel urged association officials to be vigilant in upholding the penalties if the new academic standards are to retain any meaning.

Next month, the NCAA will also release its new Graduation Success Rate, which it will use in place of the federal graduation rate. The biggest difference between the two rates is that the new one counts athletes who have transferred into NCAA institutions (showing whether they have gone on to graduate) but does not hold colleges accountable for athletes who leave their institutions in good standing; the federal graduation rate counts as a nongraduate any student who does not receive a degree within six years from the institution he or she starts out at. 

Walt Harrison, president of the University of Hartford and chairman of the Committee on Academic Performance, said that colleges on average have Graduation Success Rates that are about 13 to 15 percent higher than their federal rates, although individual teams and institutions might see their rates fluctuate down as well as up.

While Harrison said he believed the new rate offers a "more accurate depiction" of how institutions are doing at graduating students than the federal rate does, he discouraged college officials from any tendency they might feel to use the new, higher rates to suggest that college sports programs "are doing much better than everybody said we are" at graduating their athletes. 

Members of the Knight panel expressed some concern about statistics showing that the NCAA is giving waivers to more than half of the athletes who have sought exemptions from the NCAA's new academic standards for freshman athletes, which are steadily increasing the number of core courses athletes must have taken in high school. "The scope of waivers at some point undercuts the legitimacy of the whole system," said Michael B. Adams, president of the University of Georgia. Kevin Lennon, the NCAA's vice president for membership services, warned that the number of athletes (and institutions) seeking waivers could "spike" even higher as the core course requirement rises from 14 this year to 16 by 2008.

The Knight Commission also announced Tuesday that it would sponsor a January summit on the "collegiate athletic experience" at George Washington University, in which it would solicit the views of current and former athletes. "While we have been successful in advocating for academic reform," said R. Gerald Turner, president of Southern Methodist University and vice chairman of the Knight panel, "we want to ensure that the people who matter most in this process are included as active participants."

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