Division I-A Is Selling Its Athletes Short
June 15, 2003
New York Times - Opinion
By SCOTT S. COWEN
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.