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Volume 21 No. 34
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NCAA reform needs to start with courage on campuses

With March Madness upon us, it’s a good moment to reflect on the year-round insanity of college sports in all its manifestations, from the outrageous to the ironic. A central paradox is the conflicting agendas of coaches and universities. Case in point: Early in my presidency at Tulane, near the end of an undefeated season in Division I football, I made our coach an offer I thought he couldn’t refuse — and he refused. He was leaving for a program so exciting that the Winnebagos would start lining up on Wednesdays for Saturday’s game. That’s when I realized Tulane was somehow in the entertainment business, and we weren’t on the A list.

I’m not immune to sports as entertainment. As president of Tulane University, I used to walk around campus on game days with my hair dyed green in honor of Tulane’s Green Wave. The passion of fans is natural, even inevitable. But intercollegiate athletics, especially Division I football and men’s basketball, is as much a business devoted to wins, money and visibility, as it is entertainment. It’s a business often conducted at the expense of a university’s mission and values: hence the scandals at Louisville (bribery and corporate malfeasance), the University of North Carolina (academic fraud) and Penn State, Baylor and Michigan State (sexual abuse). Cynicism is growing; a recent NCAA poll shows that 80 percent of the public thinks universities put money ahead of their student athletes. 

Amid all the finger pointing, the responsibility for the ongoing madness lies with university presidents and governing boards. It is the responsibility of university leaders to stay true to their primary goal: Students first, period. In order to prevent abuses and to respond with appropriate rigor and compassion if they occur, the tone must be set from the top — creating a campus culture where communication, trusting relationships and codes of conduct are valued and rewarded — especially when it comes to athletics. 

It’s instructive to look at what happened at Michigan State, where Lou Anna K. Simon was a highly regarded president until the allegations against physician Larry Nassar became public. In a 2015 interview about college athletics, Simon described a culture of openness and accountability on her campus: “You have to strive for transparent communication in all aspects of your leadership. I want to know if there’s going to be a ‘surprise.’ … That’s why we work every day to build a culture of high performance and integrity.” Yet accusations from a young gymnast against Nassar (an “unnamed doctor”) had reached Simon’s office a year earlier. 

To be fair, Simon’s remarks could be the words of many a university president, who let legal and risk management experts handle any inconvenient truths lurking in dark corners. For most presidents, their biggest fear is that inappropriate activities are occurring unbeknownst to them, despite their stated intentions to do the right things. But the phrase “a culture of high performance and integrity” is an oxymoron when it comes to athletics programs, where academic standards and codes of conduct are frequently second to the payout of sports glory.

The recent pass that the NCAA gave UNC for its shadow curriculum rested on the technicality that the “paper courses” designed to keep Tar Heels players eligible were available to all undergraduates, not just athletes. The faculty involved (in 188 courses over eighteen years) has said their aim was to help predominantly poor black athletes stay in school, highlighting the common problem of recruiting academically under-qualified students and then not genuinely helping them achieve an education. But the buck stops with the university’s board and president; they turned a blind eye and opted for a winning basketball team over their own values.

Indiana basketball, led by coach Archie Miller, falls under the “Hoosiers for Life” decree.
Photo: getty images

Yet there are promising models for rethinking the relationship between athletics and the university. In 2014, Indiana University published a unique student-athlete Bill of Rights, spelling out a lifetime degree guarantee (“Hoosiers for Life”) covering time off for family emergencies, pursuit of a professional career or other reason; a four-year scholarship commitment; representation on the faculty athletics committee; and access to comprehensive health and wellness programs, rigorous academic support, and leadership and life skills development. 

After a scandal relating to drug and alcohol possession among athletes, Indiana President Michael McRobbie read players the riot act, reminding them that, as student athletes, they were students first, there to obtain a degree that would prepare them for a successful life. He told them: “As Hoosiers we want to win — but win the right way.” What McRobbie’s campus enshrines is not performance at the expense of integrity, but performance built on integrity.

Other presidents and boards would do well to follow suit. If we don’t find the courage and will to reform college athletics from within, outside forces will intervene: the government, by taxing the riches of Division I athletics or pursuing antitrust suits, and the courts, where college athletes are suing for compensation, health benefits and the education they never got. We can’t even begin to think seriously about systemwide reform, including conferences, the NCAA and the College Football Playoff, until university leaders have the guts to clean up what is in their own backyards.

Sanity begins at home.

Scott Cowen is president emeritus and distinguished university chair of Tulane University. He is the author of “Winnebagos on Wednesdays: How Visionary Leadership Can Transform Higher Education” (Princeton University Press 2018).