WASHINGTON — After a round of high-profile scandals in college sports this year, including at the University of Miami and the University of North Carolina, an advisory panel said Monday that it would launch a wide review of practices ranging from student athlete scholarships to postseason play.
Although any recommendations made by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, formed in 1989 to address a decade of scandals in university sports, won't be binding, NCAA president Mark Emmert and several university presidents said Monday that they welcomed the review of an increasingly dysfunctional system.
"We are all disappointed and downright disturbed," Emmert said. "We need to hold institutions responsible."
Emmert, a former president of the University of Washington who took the National Collegiate Athletic Association post a year ago, said he couldn't remember another year when so many coaches were dismissed because of ethical lapses, and added that it was the result of "adults in the room" taking charge.
To critics of college sports, it's an opportunity to make long-overdue changes.
"Nobody's figured out how you solve the problems without undermining the magic of college sport," said Charles Clotfelter, a Duke University professor and NCAA critic who wrote a recent book on the topic, "Big-Time Sports in American Universities."
And to be sure, scandal touches other corners of society, not just college athletics.
"Any institution is going to have its degree of slippage and impropriety," said Scott Kretchmar, a professor of sports science at Penn State University. "But I don't excuse sport for that. It needs dramatic reform, not tweaking."
The list of recent problems is long.
Charges of academic misconduct brought down North Carolina's football coach, Butch Davis, and forced the retirement of the athletic director in Chapel Hill. Ohio State University football coach Jim Tressel resigned following allegations that players received cash and tattoos from a local business owner.
A Yahoo Sports story revealed that University of Miami football booster Nevin Shapiro, now serving a 20-year prison sentence for his participation in a $930 million Ponzi scheme, had showered players with gifts, including cars, money and even prostitutes.
"A lot of good coaches try, by and large, to follow the rules," Kretchmar said. But, he added, "The cynical side of the enterprise says it pays to cheat."
Kretchmar said universities would be better served taking dollars away from the win-at-all-cost side and putting them on the side of improving graduation rates.
But Clotfelter called it "suicidal" for university leaders to say that academics need to come first.
"At the core of this whole thing, universities want to be competitive," he said.
And to be competitive means participating in what Boise State University president Bob Kustra called the "arms race" — bringing in money, especially at a time when financially strapped states have cut deeply into higher education budgets, forcing universities to raise tuition and fees across the board.
"Money does solve a lot of problems, but it creates a lot as well," said Michael Martin, the chancellor of Louisiana State University.
The Southeastern Conference, which includes LSU, earned total revenues of more than $1 billion last year, most of it from TV contracts.
According to the Knight Commission, the average spending per student athlete is more than 11 times greater than it is for non-athletes in the 12-member SEC. And while average spending on athletes has risen, spending on other students has remained relatively flat.
The commission notes that sometimes there are legitimate reasons for this disparity, such as higher health insurance costs for student athletes. But, it said, "expenses like this cannot account for the lopsided spending patterns seen at some universities."
Tom Ross, who in January became president of the University of North Carolina, a 16-campus system with more than 200,000 students, said athletics and academics can co-exist.
"But it takes work," he said. For example, Ross said, it would help if professional sports leagues would impose sanctions on student athletes with professional aspirations, giving them a powerful incentive to play fair.
"Is there some way professional leagues could say, you violated an NCAA rule, you can't play for a year?" Ross asked. "To lose a year is a big deal."
With money driving the headline-grabbing bad decisions made by some people in football and basketball programs, Ross said, it's easy to forget that universities play other sports, and that those student athletes are also good students.
"The athletes tend to perform better than students on average because they tend to be more disciplined," he said.
Emmert said he supported allowing schools to increase athletic scholarships by $2,000 a year to help match the actual cost of attendance.
Ross said he's ambivalent about a potential adjustment. Ross knows the perspective of Goliath as well as David. Before coming to UNC, he led Davidson College, a liberal arts school of about 2,000 students near Charlotte that earned some attention in recent years for its success in the men's NCAA basketball tournament.
"It gives those that can afford it a huge advantage," Ross said of a scholarship increase. "Smaller schools would struggle to recruit against schools with means."
Clotfelter endorses a hotly debated idea in college sports: paying student athletes.
"Everybody in the system is professional from top to bottom — except the players," he said. "We can't pay them because they're amateurs. It's unfair."
Emmert disagrees. He said the NCAA's goal should be to "make sure that student athletes are students who happen to be athletes, not the other way around."
Professionalizing student athletes would be "throwing in the towel," Emmert said.
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