Commentary: The time is ripe for serious reform in college sports

One-year basketball internships are another sad tale of colleges losing their way.

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An atmosphere of anger and shame has settled upon West Virginia University, where high-ranking officials conspired to bestow a master of business administration degree on a politically connected woman who did not do the necessary work to earn that degree. Alumni are enraged at the cheapening of their diplomas.

So why is there no anger at hundreds of colleges and universities around the country where high-ranking officials conspire to grant admission to men and women who did not do the necessary work to earn that admission?

Why aren't the millions of college graduates, who rightfully gained admission to their universities, up in arms over the open-door admission policy that exists for superior athletes? Men and women whose college board scores and/or high school grades otherwise would not get a sniff of college life are welcomed enthusiastically because of their athletic ability.

Two answers come to mind:

1. This preferential treatment is such an old story that people don't even know that athletes once faced pretty much the same admission standards as other students, and that they actually were regular students and not mostly sequestered from the mainstream activities of the university.

2. People don't care because they perceive winning as more important than academic integrity.

Choice number two is probably more correct.

We received a fresh glimpse of the "student-athlete" side of college life recently with yet another scandal at the University of Southern California, a fine academic institution. Two of USC's most-celebrated athletes, Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo, have been implicated by third parties in accepting payments that are illegal under NCAA rules. Bush, now in the NFL, could lose his Heisman Trophy. USC also faces the possibility of having to vacate its 2004 national championship. As for Mayo, who has opted for the NBA draft after one season at USC, the school had to be aware of his history and his baggage when he enrolled.

These one-year basketball internships are another sad tale of the colleges losing their way. Once, colleges were embarrassed to employ this rent-a-player philosophy. Now they embrace it. Now they make no pretense of accepting athletes to educate them. They accept them to win games.

As for USC, despite its embarrassing circumstances, it will do nothing substantial in the way of changing its recruiting and admission tactics. In other words, as is the case at almost every Division I university, if an athlete is eligible under the bare standards of the NCAA, he's in. If Johnny Average tried to apply with similar credentials, he'd be laughed out of the admission office.

Not that the NCAA and its member institutions aren't somewhat embarrassed by the onslaught of scandals. They have long pushed hard for higher graduation rates as a mean of saving face. Most recently, the NCAA has issued an Academic Progress Report, which surveys the landscape of educating athletes.

We'd like to add a few suggestions to even further the process.

Allow athletes to be students. To begin this process, eliminate the nonsensical term "student-athlete." It's an insult to everyone's intelligence. Are band members "student-musicians?"

That's just a small step. The larger step would be to give these athletes their freedom. Allow them to know what it is to be a student, a real student who is not tied down with the full-time job of being an athlete. When collegiate athletics were conceived, they were a minor adjunct to college life, not an all-consuming obsession.

The NCAA gave lip service to this by limiting the number of hours a team can practice a week. But that's virtually meaningless.

Here's a short list of freedom issues for athletes, and we're just talking about the major men's sports of football and basketball where the greatest problems rest:

• Eliminate spring practice in football. Sure, coaches will be able to get less done. But, so what? It will be the same for every team. It allows the athletes to be students. If they're not quite as good as football players, what difference does it make?

• Practice for the upcoming season begins four weeks before the first game. No football games can begin until September, no basketball games until after Thanksgiving.

• Coaches are allowed no athletic interaction with their players in the offseason.

What's hard about that? Will these changes result in a diminished product? Probably, but, again, so what? It's the same for everybody.

Will these changes result in a better college life for the athletes? Absolutely, and that -- not winning games -- should be the primary concern of these institutions of higher learning.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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