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How Division I-A Is Selling Its Athletes Short

June 15, 2003
New York Times - Opinion
copyright 2003


The role of Division I-A intercollegiate athletics is increasingly out of sync with the goals and values of America's higher education institutions.

This was one of the conclusions reached last week by the Tulane University board as it completed an intensive yearlong review of Tulane's Division I-A athletics program.

Even though some changes in the college athletics landscape are under way, they are not bold enough or happening fast enough. Tulane came close to being the first victim of the inequities and restrictions inherent in the N.C.A.A. system and the Bowl Championship Series alliance. And though we voted to continue our Division I-A programs, we believe other universities may not be able to do the same. It is not a matter of if programs will begin to fall because of the misdirected climate of college athletics; it is a matter of when.

At Tulane, we had to take a hard look at our athletics division — a clean program with one of the country's highest graduation rates for student-athletes — not because it was in trouble but because it is a student-centered athletics program being run in a national athletics climate that revolves around entertainment and big money.

We had to perform this review because ours is a program that operates under the increasingly burdensome N.C.A.A. Division I-A membership criteria that threaten to siphon even more resources from the academic mission of our university. And we had to look at our athletics programs and weigh the cost of running them in light of the disparity in intercollegiate athletics being exacerbated by the presence of the B.C.S. alliance. Tulane is a member of Conference USA, which is not a part of the B.C.S. This means that Tulane and other non-B.C.S. football teams have virtually no — or only limited — access to the highest-paying postseason bowls governed by the B.C.S. alliance.

In the end, the Tulane University board voted unanimously to remain in Division I-A athletics because we know that we are doing it the right way, and that the N.C.A.A. needs programs like Tulane's to remind it of what it was originally set up to do: provide a framework for college student-athletes to compete at the highest level while also receiving an education that will help them become productive citizens and leaders. With a football student-athlete graduation rate of 80 percent, Tulane led all colleges among those eligible for bowls last year in terms of graduation rates while also fielding successful teams — attributes that certainly fit the original mission of the N.C.A.A.

But, somewhere, that original mission got lost. As a society we tend to glorify those teams and colleges that excel on the field even though they have student-athlete graduation rates that are deplorable. In recent years there have been glaring examples of ranked teams participating in postseason play that had student-athlete graduation rates of less than 20 percent. How can this performance be justified, much less rewarded through participation in high-profile events like bowl games? What kind of message does this send to our students and the public about what we stand for? The N.C.A.A. should be moving more rapidly to raise academic requirements before our universities lose credibility. Additionally, the current proposal by the N.C.A.A. president, Myles Brand, to enact incentives and disincentives for participating in postseason play based on the academic performance of student-athletes is a step in the right direction.

At the same time, the N.C.A.A. continues to enact legislation that increases the costs and requirements for Division I-A universities, while the B.C.S. group has resulted in an even wider gap between the financial haves and have-nots. For the have-nots to succeed, too often academics must take a back seat to fund additional spending for athletics programs, coaches and facilities. And institutions are continuously cutting Olympic sports to support football and are sending mixed messages as a result.

As university presidents, we have allowed this cost escalation and change in focus to occur, using the unsupported belief that these investments more than pay for themselves in terms of increased applications, national visibility and donor contributions.

But it is time to act. It is time for universities to take a hard look at their programs. It is time for the N.C.A.A. to take an even harder look at its priorities and mission, and it is time for all of us to think about the real purpose of higher education and where athletics fits into that purpose. Are we here to provide weekend entertainment for TV viewers? To exploit our student-athletes by focusing more on their on-field performance than their classroom achievement?

We are selling our students short, trading our futures for short-term success and throwing away our principles to participate in a system that no longer works. This week, I have invited many of my fellow university presidents to actively challenge the N.C.A.A., the B.C.S. and the current system of intercollegiate athletics in this country. Myles Brand has agreed to join us throughout our discussions; our inaugural teleconference is scheduled for July 22.

And I am calling on everyone else who cares about higher education in this country to help us, to step forward, to be heard and to demand change.