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College sports: Can’t hold on or turn loose

UNC System President Tom Ross recently appeared before the Knight Commission to address the need to reform some of the egregious problems with college athletics. Well-intentioned as Ross was, his suggestions won’t fix the underlying problems.
A large number of college athletes, especially in the money sports of football and basketball, shouldn’t have been admitted in the first place.
They may be competitive on the court but they aren’t in the classroom and Ross’ proposal to lighten course work for their first year isn’t going to make them better students. It will help the university win more games and perpetuate the myth of semi-professional athletes posing as college students.

The late Bill Friday, founding co-chairman of the Knight Commission, was a prophet crying in the wilderness. In 1989, he saw that colleges and universities were losing control of their athletic programs and until his dying day vehemently advocated that college presidents take back the control of their intercollegiate athletics programs, insist on rigorous standards for athletes and establish certification standards to show that athletic departments were fiscally responsible and ethical.
What may have been possible in 1989 is laughably improbable today. Any president who tried to stop the college athletics juggernaut would be committing suicide. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) pretends to set standards, establish regulations and play the traffic cop, all in the name of protecting the bests interests of athletes. But their actions look more like they are pimping for the networks while trying to give colleges some cover from their all-too-obvious greed.

The Atlantic Coast Conference is Exhibit A in the “greed is good” game. From its founding in 1953 until 1978, the conference boasted schools with geographic and collegiate connections along the Eastern seaboard. The lure of increased dollars prompted the inclusion of schools in larger TV markets because those schools would help generate larger audiences and greater advertising dollars.
Coaches say the increased exposure helps recruit better athletes; maybe so but the bottom line is winning and dollars. Now the conference has announced it is moving the ACC Tournament to Brooklyn, not for the fans but for larger TV audience shares. Soon the ACC will announce the formation of its own TV network. Ka-ching.
You can’t fault Tom Ross for trying to maintain some semblance of academic integrity while contending with this “Wolves of Wall Street” environment. Schools are facing problems of their own making. What are they to do with kids who can’t read but can drain a three-pointer? With alumni who demand not just winning records but big-name bowl appearances? Or with TV networks that entice them with more money if they can get more people to watch?
Many college administrators admit to hearing the whispers of the Bill Fridays reminding them their primary mission is education and they have a responsibility to students, their parents, taxpayers and some role in the future success of our state. They’ve got a tiger by the tail (no disrespect meant to Clemson) and they can’t hold on and won’t turn loose.
So our colleges keep kicking the pigskin down the field. It is far too late to even suggest meaningful reforms. But wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear one of our college presidents just once speak the truth about college athletics today?
Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly discussion of North Carolina issues airing Sundays at 5:30 p.m. on WFMY-TV and Sundays at 9 a.m. on Time Warner Cable channel 69 and channel 65 Contact him at www.ncspin.com.

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