Remove the Worm From the Apple

Another summer of scandals suggests anew the problems with big-time college sports, writes Steve Bahls, a college president.

August 8, 2006

It has been a torturous summer for some of the nation’s top college sports programs.
We’ve seen screaming headlines of a grading scandal at Auburn University, the shocking arrests on murder charges of two former Montana State University athletes and sharp scrutiny over so-called high school diploma mills that churn out would-be college athletes who lack the requisite academic credentials. Echoing among these stories is the Duke University lacrosse scandal, which continues to percolate in the national news media.

One has to wonder which campus will be next. If college and university leaders nationwide are surprised by the next sports scandal, then they are asleep at the wheel, and here is why. National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I sports -- the upper-tier athletics featured on prime time football and basketball telecasts -- have created campus subcultures in which prima donna players have little in common with their fellow students.

The segregation of athletes from students dramatically increases the chances of outrageous behavior such as the allegations facing Duke, Auburn and Montana State. When 18-, 19- and 20-year-old young men and women are thrust onto quasi-professional sports pedestals, some will mistake the limelight for the green light.

It’s not simply a limited group of unfortunate schools. Many Division I colleges and universities have been ensnared by sports scandals in recent years. From allegations of improper recruiting practices and hazing incidents to steroid use and academic misconduct, the list of recent Division I sports scandals is as lengthy as it is disgraceful. Why the common problems? The runaway desire for a national sports championship -- and the corresponding jackpots that accompany the likes of Final Four appearances -- has led too many schools to create a parallel campus universe for athletes that rarely, briefly, and then only by necessity, intersects with the world of their student peers.

The average Division I football and basketball player today comes to college with academic credentials that differ from those of their fellow students. Once they matriculate, athletes often cluster in a few choice majors -- like interdisciplinary studies or recreation -- more hospitable to the less than serious student. At many schools, athletes register before the average Joe or Jane, so they can skim off the cream courses recommended by their advisers.

Grade point averages in the big money sports often trail their non-sports campus peers, and graduation rates can be embarrassingly low.

These prized students often eat at exclusive “training tables,” with the phony justification that eating the same food available to regular students will not provide them with “the necessary nutrition.” Peruse the creature comforts of Division I athletics departments compared to those in philosophy, sociology or history. The former usually features state-of-the art facilities and technology; the latter is vastly more modest. 

When colleges exempt athletes from the rules applicable to other students, the institutions shouldn’t be surprised that the athletes feel exempt from expectations of responsible conduct applicable to us all. Combine that with the media hype involving Division I athletics and it’s no wonder that there is a worm in the apple of big time college sports.
If I sound bitter, it is quite the contrary. As president of a Division III college, I am delighted to see the educational opportunities college sports offer to young men and women who otherwise may not get that most precious opportunity. I’ve seen how athletes grow in mind, body and spirit through their participation in sports and I greatly admire the lessons learned on the playing field. Likewise, I relish the concept that college sports teach a hard work ethic, the value of teamwork and the spirit of camaraderie.

But I do worry that Division I sports is ill-serving far too many young people. And I challenge the NCAA to accelerate the reform movement promised in the recent past. What has happened to cries of turning down the volume in college sports?  The media won’t turn down the volume, so college presidents must exercise their leadership.

I strongly believe Division I sports can learn something from Division III, where the athletes play sans scholarships and typically without the promise of future sports riches. Most importantly, Division III athletes live and breathe not in the rarified air of a sports subculture, but, when they are out of uniform, just like other students on campus.

I don’t expect Michigan, Ohio State and UCLA to dismantle proud (and profitable) athletics programs, and I strongly believe that would be a foolish mistake. But I do believe the subculture of today’s big-time college athlete is a problem that demands open debate and sweeping solutions.

Here are five simple questions Division I sports administrators should ask of themselves: Are our athletes representative of the student body in terms of admissions and financial aid considerations? Are our athletes in revenue sports of football and basketball studying only in a select few majors? Is it uncommon for athletes to participate in other campus organizations or to take advantage of opportunities for international study? Are our athletes’ GPAs and graduation rates in line with the student body? Upon graduating, are our athletes prepared for graduate study and/or careers?

Earlier this year I passed out diplomas to the 525 members of Augustana College’s Class of 2006. Nearly one-third of the students who crossed the stage experienced the joys and challenges of participation in intercollegiate athletics. They included members of nationally ranked teams as well as numerous conference champions and All America award winners. An NCAA postgraduate scholarship winner was among the many Academic All America honorees in the graduating class.

This remarkable group of athletes is noteworthy in part for how much they have in common their classmates who don’t participate in intercollegiate athletics. Augustana athletes are just as likely as their peers to participate in volunteer projects, study overseas, or to be admitted to graduate study programs. Likewise, our athletes eat in the same cafeterias, register at the same time as their fellow students and study in the same majors.

When they differ in terms of academic performance, athletes tend to come out ahead of non-athletes. Augustana’s athletes not only graduate at higher rates than their peers, but they also exceed predicted GPA based on incoming academic credentials. In short, participation in athletics at Augustana College is a predictor of academic success.

I worry that this experience is not the norm on too many campuses today,. Instead, there is a troubling pattern where athletes have too little in common with the larger student body. Such distinctions invariably will lead to problems when athletes feel they adhere to different standards and rules than their student peers.

If our colleges and universities don’t address these problems, controversies and scandals will be repeated on campuses nationwide.


Steven C. Bahls is president of Augustana College, in Rock Island, Ill. He is a former dean of the Capital University School of Law, Ohio, and is both a lawyer and a C.P.A.


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