The decline of the football program at the University of Notre Dame, where I played in the 1960s, has been consistent fodder on sports radio and fan Web sites in recent months. But the situation has implications that extend far beyond the concerns of the university’s loyal alumni and other Fighting Irish fanatics – and I propose that Notre Dame deal with it in a way that could make it a national leader in intercollegiate athletics reform.
One explanation for Notre Dame’s football meltdown since the mid-1990s -- the one I find most compelling -- is that it reflects major and irreversible changes in the college football landscape, some of which Notre Dame helped to initiate. In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s monopoly control of the sale of football broadcasts to television networks, thus allowing individual schools to negotiate their own TV deals.
The Irish, who led the charge for free enterprise in college sports, undoubtedly benefited from this decision. But so too did scores of other schools -- including upstarts like Boise State, Hawaii, and South Florida -- whose increased television exposure allows them to recruit head-to-head with the traditional powers like Notre Dame. NCAA limits on the number of football scholarships and the increase in blue chip players coming out of high school have also created greater parity within the Bowl Championship Subdivision, which features the bigger football playing universities.
As the stunning number of upset victories during the 2007 football season made clear, Notre Dame is not the only traditional powerhouse struggling to keep up with the flood of new entrants and rising stars that now compete for college football’s pot of gold. But academically competitive institutions like Notre Dame have the added disadvantage that their admissions standards far exceed the freshman eligibility requirements recently adopted by the NCAA.
In 1986, the NCAA responded to reports of functional illiteracy among college athletes by passing a rule known as Proposition 48. Over the years, Proposition 48 has gone through a number of revisions, each one further watering down the test score component. Today an athlete with a combined SAT score of 400 -- the lowest score possible -- can compete and receive athletic aid as a freshman if a high grade point average in high school offsets the low test score.
Notre Dame, like every other football power, lowers its admissions standards for athletes. But even though the SAT average for Notre Dame football players -- about 1048 -- falls about 300 points below the average for the student body, it soars above the NCAA minimum. Stellar running backs with a combined SAT score of 600 and a B average in high school would be fair game for many other colleges. Academically competitive universities like Notre Dame, Stanford and Duke would be unlikely to consider them.
To try to get the Fighting Irish football program back up to a nationally competitive level, Notre Dame is at a crossroads. It can either continue to fish in a smaller recruiting pond than some of its competitors, thus continuing the slide into football mediocrity. Or it can find a creative way to go deeper into the college football talent pool, while at the same time preserving the university’s academic integrity. Although this latter approach would require courageous and visionary leadership, the model for getting it done already exists.
I propose the following. Using NCAA minimum standards, Notre Dame could offer scholarships to athletes who are academically at risk, including highly motivated students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. But these athletes would be barred from practicing, attending film sessions, and playing in games during their first semester in college unless they score at least a 900 on the SATs (or an equivalent ACT score) and graduate from high school with a 3.0 grade point average. They would then need at least a 2.0 to practice in the spring semester.
By putting athletes with academic deficiencies through a one-year academic boot camp, and guaranteeing them a fifth year of scholarship aid, Notre Dame could demonstrate its commitment to them as students and as athletes. If a similar model were adopted by like-minded schools, it could provide the philosophical foundation for a new conference, or at the very least ensure that athletes not only meet the NCAA’s APR requirements but get a real education as well.
The strength of this proposal -- and what would make it a good model for all universities to follow -- is that while it is grounded in the same logic as current NCAA initial eligibility requirements, it allows each university or conference to raise the freshman eligibility bar to fit its academic mission and student profile. Most importantly, implementation does not require a vote by the NCAA. If Notre Dame takes the lead, other schools might follow.
It is obvious that top ranking academic institutions like Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, UC Berkeley, Michigan, UCLA, and USC have to ease up on admissions policies for athletes if they want to compete in the hyper-commercialized, free-market industry college football has become. But it is educationally and morally unconscionable to throw athletes who are academically at risk into this industry as freshmen.
Allen Sack, a professor in the College of Business at the University of New Haven, was a defensive end on Notre Dame's 1966 national championship football team. His new book, Counterfeit Amateurs: An Athlete’s Journey Through the Sixties to the Age of Academic Capitalism,  will be published by Penn State Press next month.