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Academics on Athletics. (Review Essay).

Onward to Victory: The Crises that Shaped College Sports, by Murray Sperber. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998. 578 pp. $32.50

Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big- Time College Sports, by Andrew Zimbalist. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999. 252 pp. $24.95

Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes, by Walter Byers with Charles Hammer, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. 413 pp. $34.50 ($21.95)

A hearty perennial of undergraduate education is the admonition that "The Truth shall make you free." I have seen this chiseled in granite over the entrance of a library. I heard it during a dean's welcome at freshman orientation, then again at discussions in a humanities course. Just to make sure that graduating seniors got the message, presidents repeated the theme in commencement addresses. Higher education leaders may believe this, but their message is muted because there are glaring inconsistencies within their own campus. Namely, one university office has been exempted from this academic zoning regulation: the Intercollegiate Athletics Department stands as a peculiar institution whose legacy is that discovering the truth, far from setting one free, imprisons one in a web of frustration and illogic.

This is important for research about higher education, because in recent years there has been a groundswell of excellent scholarly works dealing with intercollegiate athletics. The topic has both endurance and significance now that such disciplines as history, economics, law, literary analysis, and political science have been brought to bear on the serious study of college sports. Don't hold your breath for any strong connection between research and reform. As the scholarship on college sports gets better, the educational and ethical problems of college sports get worse.

Murray Sperber's Onward to Victory stands as Exhibit A in the argument that good research does not necessarily lead to sound policies or practices. In fact, Sperber's pursuit of truth in the past and present of college sports has made him an enduring figure who resembles Sisyphus. Has he been condemned for eternity to push the stone of critical analysis up the mountain of college sports, yet always to have the data come rolling back down? The latest example in Sperber's research quest is a history of the recent past of college sports. It follows from Sperber's earlier works: College Sports, Incorporated and Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football.

Sperber's excellent contributions include his reconstruction of the contracts and strategies of Don Spencer's Madison Avenue advertising agency in the 1930s through 1960s, which consciously drafted and then disseminated the images of college football stars in programs and publications across the country. So pervasive were these graphics by commercial artists, such as H. Alonzo Keller, that the heroic depictions on program covers seemed to have come out of a central casting office and then been disseminated nationwide. The pervasive iconography probably qualifies as an indigenous, calculated influential and lucrative commercial art form. And Sperber's ingenious research in the advertising files confirms the suspicion that intercollegiate athletics has been a market to be exploited by media and merchandise for a long part of our nation's social history. Back in the early 1950s, ads for Wheaties breakfast cereal asked consumers the rhetorical question, "Are sports champions made or born?" Quite apart from buyers ' response, the verdict is that college sports champions definitely were made in the copy writing and paste up offices. And, important to note is that such commercial ventures could not have flourished without the direct cooperation of college sports information offices. Athletic directors, presidents, and board members knew what they were doing-and knew what was going on in the press rooms, radio network offices, movie studios, and advertising agencies.

At times the promotion of college sports led to some high stakes conflicts between individual institutions and such larger collective entities as conferences and the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Coverage of television controversies involving the NCAA versus, respectively, the University of Pennsylvania and Notre Dame in the early 1950s is noteworthy in that it conveys the difficulties a single institution faced in trying to set its own policies and paths in college sports. The collective and cumulative strength of conferences and the National Collegiate Athletic Association relied on both informal peer pressure and coercive regulation to control not only games but also promotions and broadcasts. Sperber's research is especially good in focusing on the late 1930s and into the 1950s. Just about when one thinks one has reached the depths of scandal, Sperber uncovers new-or, rather forgotten or suppressed-episodes that are embarrassing if not shameful. The Black Knights of West Point come out tarnis hed. They are marked both by gilt and guilt-in a detailed account of their abuses of numerous privileges, stockpiling of players, and bending rules under the football coaching regime of Earl "Red" Blaik. Coaches used to invoke the claim that college sports were an American version of Wellington's observation that the Battle of Waterloo was "won on the playing fields of Eton." In fact, West Point officials arranged draft deferments, special exemption on transfer rules to stockpile athletic talent that was sealed off from academics or from military service. The All-American revision is that college sports, far from being a preparation for future leadership, became a self-serving end in itself.

There are plenty of data to share across the country. John Hanna, famous as the president of Michigan State University, is depicted as an academic leader who had much to lose and little to gain if big-time college sports were going to be subjected to serious reforms in the early 1950s. Sperber's analysis indicates that Hanna short-circuited any efforts the American Council on Education made to lead college presidents to substantial reforms in the wake of the basketball point shaving scandals in the decade after World War II. The importance of Sperber's profile of Hanna is that it erases the false dichotomy of college presidents versus coaches. In fact, presidential views were scattered all over the map and never coagulated into a consensus for reasserting educational priorities and values.

Football, long the major event, eventually shares the stage with the fame and scandals of college basketball. Heroes take a beating, for such legendary figures as Clair Bee-famous as a player, coach, and author of juvenile sports stories-is shown to be central to the New York City-Madison Square Gardens point shaving controversies of the immediate post World War II era. Despite initial disclaimers by coaches in the Midwest and South that this was a "New York problem," the scandals ultimately included such allegedly well-regulated programs as those at the University of Kentucky and Bradley.

The sportswriters cliches often ring true as historical conclusions. Notre Dame, for example, truly was--and is-"in a league of its own." After reading Sperber's account of the deliberate "Fort Notre Dame" policy negotiated in the 1930s, the conclusion is that you have to hand it to the priests in South Bend: if Sperber's story is accurate, they have long been committed to excellence in sports--but also, to that accomplishment as part of a larger plan to build an academically distinctive institution and to do so without conference affiliation. At the same time, the Fighting Irish had recurrent problems of abuse with ambitious coaches who became national celebrities. The sad postscript is that in the past year revelation of scandals involving donors and escapades by some players put even a bit of rare tarnish on Notre Dame's golden dome.

Is it too much Notre Dame? Probably it is the one institution that best qualifies to be called truly "national." But I am going to go against the grain and argue that collegiate football really is a regional sport with a nationwide presence. Developments in college football in the Southwest Conference or the Southeast Conference in the 1930s and 1940s had little interaction with Notre Dame. Even today some of the New Year's Bowl Games illustrate the regional isolation of "national" teams: one learns, for example, that the University of California has never played the University of Virginia, except perhaps in competition for National Science Foundation grants.

Why doesn't Sperber's well-argued and well-documented analyses lead to cogent reform? First, one doubts that university presidents, athletic directors, or NCAA officials have either the inclination or thoughtfulness to consider his findings as the basis for reconsidering policies. Even when university leaders claim to have read his works, their comments suggest that their understanding is simplistic and their acknowledgements are gratuitous. For example, one president of a major university notes in his book jacket endorsement that, "Sperber documents the erosion of the once-noble ideal of the 'scholar-athlete."' That endorsement sounds good, but misses the point: the "embarrassment and hypocrisy that now poison" college sports are hardly new. Rather, the research by Sperber and such authors as Ronald Smith, indicate that the abuses are deep-rooted and are actually at the essence of the intercollegiate athletics heritage in 1890 as well as 1950 and 1990. Heads up, Presidents!

There is, I think, another small but annoying feature to explain the diminishing-return research excesses. Even fellow faculty members grow weary of Sperber's research and writing style. For example, at the start of Onward to Victory, Sperber makes a good point in delineating the extreme camps of popular sports writers: the "Gee Whiz!" faction versus the "Aw, Nuts!" camp. Fair enough--until Sperber repeats this dichotomy and phrasing to the point of excess. The aim of writing is to be both accurate and effective, and such repetition sometimes is wearisome, so that Sperber wins the battle of argument but wears out even his sympathetic readers.

For part of his study he relies on content and trend analysis of Sport magazine as the key longitudinal source to track public opinion about intercollegiate athletics. This is plausible but limited, and sometimes downright flimsy. For example, I grew up reading Sport magazine and by age twelve found it trite and limited. Whatever insights it offered about college sports in the 1950s, it was pretty shallow elsewhere. Articles with titles such as heavyweight boxer Gene Fullmer's melodramatic, "Don't Call Me a Dirty Fighter," were followed by such graphic depictions of jockey Eddie Arcaro's biography as "Mister Banana Nose Wins the Big Ones." Are we really to believe that this is a source of profound policy analysis? Furthermore, Sperber's focus on that magazine's coverage of college sports tends to skirt over the larger cultural issue: college sports (namely, football and basketball) enjoyed some visibility with the American public--but on the whole it was fairly transient and mixed with professional spectator and broadcast sports ranging from major league baseball to horse racing.

So, one dysfunction is that Murray Sperber seems to be unable to leave Sport magazine behind at the right time. What can one expect from an author who makes certain readers know that he once met journeyman major league outfielder Walt Dropo? My hunch is that there is a perpetual thirteen year old within the mature scholar. Perhaps the saving grace of his writing style is that it does indicate that some of Sperber's most vocal critics (namely, coaches and athletic directors) are incorrect in dismissing him as one who has no experience with athletics. To the contrary, Sperber probably is the ultimate fan and participant who just happens to write. He seems to be saddened that the college games he loves are being sullied and exploited.

Andrew Zimbalist's Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big-Time College Sports make him a candidate for a dubious achievement award: namely, it carries out the academic syllogism that if economics is the dismal science, then the economics of college sports is the most dismal science. The book gets off to a shaky start, because the author feels compelled to provide readers a Cliff-Note summary of the history of higher education and athletics. This compression is not necessarily inaccurate, but it is simplistic, given the number of good historical treatments readily available. If you can gloss over the forgivable limits of the preamble, you will be rewarded when you reach the main event.

Zimbalist's work gathers momentum when he draws on his skills as an economist to dissect some recent developments.

Zimbalist's central point is that the structure of big-time intercollegiate athletics has institutionalized conflicts and contradictions. It ostensibly insures regulation of amateurism and fair play, yet actually carries out a deliberate financial strategy that rewards institutions at the expense of "student-athletes." This is no idle allegation. Zimbalist synthesizes important works by such prominent economists as Gary Becker and, elsewhere, Arthur Fleisher, Brian Goff, and Robert Tollison's 1995 work, The NCAA. And, after having summarized and built from these secondary sources, Zimbalist presents his own original research. It is impressive because it deals with the economics of college sports in both macro and micro perspective.

At the macro level, college sports is an orbit of shoe contracts, deals with television networks, and bowl sponsors--i.e., commercial promotion. Yet the NCAA's brochures and television spots emphasize its role in balancing academics and athletics. Zimbalist presents the formal public relations statements of the NCAA and its role in reform and regulation. He then follows with an alternative analysis of these claims, looking at latent functions as well as the organization's public claims. In sum, Zimbalist and numerous economists conclude that the NCAA's major accomplishment, apart from its self-professed mission, is to create an economic cartel for big-time college sports. Beneath the rhetoric of amateurism and concern for athletes as students, Zimbalist probed the internal workings of the NCAA and uncovered such data as the following: "What the NCAA saves on its enforcement budget seems to find its way into financing a life of luxury for the Association 's top executives. In the fiscal year ending August 31, 1997, Cedric Dempsey, the NCAA's Executive Director since 1994, had a total compensation of $647,332." Zimbalist proceeds to note that the NCAA refused to divulge Dempsey's fiscal 1998 or 1999 compensation, but they defended his salary as "dictated by the market." Zimbalist is at his best when he goes beyond summary into asking basic, essential economic questions that cut through cliches: "What is the market for executive directors of monopoly college athletic associations?" (p. 181). He answers that question by comparing the NCAA rationale with salaries of CEOs at large, national nonprofit organizations, including the American Cancer Society, the Red Cross, and university presidents. By such standards, the NCAA executive director's compensation is high--and, when perks are included, soars in comparison to that of leaders of other organizations.

Generous compensation is no recent fluke. Dempsey's predecessor, Dick Schultz, enjoyed both a high salary and allowances for flying a Lear Jet bought by the NCAA on more than three hundred trips. And so it goes. Meanwhile, during the same period that NCAA administrative compensation has ascended, the NCAA has suffered several scandals as well as having lost expensive law suits in the courts.

To supplement study of the overriding association dynamics, Zimbalist looks intensely at the rhetoric of NCAA operations and the campus level. Returning to the liturgy of "market driven" financial behaviors, he considers disparities in coaching salaries within big-time universities. The best case study: looking at the issue of disparities in basketball pay for men and women coaches at the University of Southern California. What is perversely refreshing is for academics to have to consider once again that sound research and logic do not necessarily lead to a happy ending. To return to my earlier theme: after reading Zimbalist's accounts of the finances of athletic programs and of bowl games and basketball tournaments, one has the hunch that only Lewis Carroll's system of logic and metaphors could bring meaning to college sports as one goes through the "looking glass" of incomes and expenses where nothing is what it seems to be.

Zimbalist concludes with several concise, thoughtful proposals for reform. It is the institutional equivalent of a "ten point plan" for--quitting smoking, for example--but in this case, the aim is to curb athletic abuses and to acknowledge some of the truly professional characteristics of big-time college sports. And, with each plank of his platform, he elaborates, provides data, and builds a logical case. The problem is--to return to my opening caveat about intercollegiate athletic departments and conferences--it is so reasonable that it is destined to be derailed or evaded by NCAA officials, athletic directors--and most of all by university presidents and board members.

Perhaps one can dismiss Murray Sperber and Andrew Zimbalist as academic nerds who are whining because they have been locked out of the college sports bonanza. If so, then an interesting counterpoint to their scholarly dissections of college sports is Walter Byers' memoir and expose, Unsportsmanlike Conduct. Byers' autobiographical account confirms the adage that fact is stranger than fiction. He served as NCAA Executive Director from 1951 to 1987 and reconstructs a world turned upside down. He claims to be concerned about the welfare of "student-athletes." Whereas Sperber and Zimbalist deal with systematic data and treat the campus as their beat, Byers provides a glimpse of another world in which he relies on personal anecdotes to cover the waterfront of the NCAA offices, punctuated with a succession of meetings and deals at airports, downtown hotels, television network corporate offices, and NCAA annual conventions. Most conversations seem to have taken place in smoke filled restaurants, over drinks. Here's a guy whose major legacy is to have catapulted intercollegiate sports into a television cartel and to pull off the amazing feat of mixing commercial promotion with regulation and compliance.

Byers' book is often unoriginal and transparently self-serving. The attractive title, for example, replicates Paul R. Lawrence's excellent and underappreciated 1987 book, Unsportsmanlike Conduct: The National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Business of College Football. Borrowing a title can be seen as a minor penalty--metaphorically, a fifteen yard loss. Byers' major offense is that his unoriginal title does not convey the essence of his own book. He could have gained some measure of honesty if he had opted to resurrect Norman Mailer's provocative title, Advertisements for Myself Why? Because his memoirs continually are slanted to depict himself as a reformer whose foremost concern is the welfare of student-athletes. As often is the syndrome with memoirs by executives who have retired from office, Byers' belated revelations are unconvincing because they surface too late to be influential.

Even though Byers' autobiographical account is self-serving, it does make an interesting argument that is embarrassing to the higher education establishment. Namely, he claims that university presidents have (to use a sports cliche) "dropped the ball" in pushing for reforms that would integrate academics and athletics. He contends that the NCAA under his leadership merely filled a void of leadership and regulation that university presidents and such groups as the ACE and regional accreditation agencies were either unable or unwilling to fill. As such, it is an example where autobiography makes a good companion piece to the historical analyses provided by Sperber in Onward to Victory. Byers' account of the academic leadership vacuum is consistent with Sperber's depiction of Michigan State President John Hanna and the American Council on Education task force. Yet Byers is not convincing in his recollection that his role was as bona fide reformer. He was the personification of the fox asked to guard the henhouse . Byers seems to have been more comfortable with Roone Arledge than Derek Bok.

Beyond the Big Time

To underscore the tragicomedy of the situation, note that most analyses and exposes focus on Big Time Sports--usually designated as NCAA Division I, especially Division I-A programs. On closer inspection one finds that the financial problems and even the educational-ethical conflicts are, in fact, pervasive and troubling. The financial strains and unbalanced budgets are most evident in Division I-AA sports--incipient big-time programs that want grants-in-aids, large crowds yet seldom can attract the coverage of network television broadcasts.

The most troubling evasion is the recurrent and facile claim that NCAA Division I athletics programs ought look to other categories for models and inspiration of reform. In short, there persists the fallacy of de-emphasis. In fact, what has happened is that NCAA Divisions II and III , along with the NAIA, have started to act increasingly like the NCAA Division I. Two years ago the Harvard Alumni Magazine cover story dealt with recruiting student-athletes at Harvard and other Ivy League colleges. The gist of the article was that coaches at the Ivies spend more time recruiting than coaches elsewhere because it is a tough, tight arena due to academic standards and competition with Duke, Stanford, and others with grants in aids. Yet, curiously, the SEC, Big Ten dismiss the Ivies as" small time." They are not.

Can you believe this? Even Amherst College's faculty complained last year that classroom work by their student-athletes appeared to be suffering because of the paradox of success: numerous Amherst men's and women's teams were competing in NCAA Division III championships. (Most deans and athletic directors would, of course, love to have Amherst's problems, whether they be academic, athletic, or financial). The serious point is that there is a body of research literature that now goes deeper than the predictable invocation of Division III as the counter or antidote to what ails Big Time college sports. In fact, the demands on student-athletes whether at Auburn or Amherst, are substantial.

The net result of the three works is that we have problems without foreseeable solutions. Given the failure of deliberate reform by such self-appointed and self-righteous groups as the Knight Foundation Commission, let's shift policy recommendations to transplants from the airlines industry: namely, what about deregulation?

A Modest Proposal: Deregulation

Reasonable reform efforts have pleased no one. Even the winners in commercialized college sports see themselves as losers. For example, a recurrent liturgy is for an athletics director or coach to complain, "The NCAA Manual is 700 pages thick. It is over-detailed and petty in its restrictions." In an amazing display of myopia and self-deception, they fail to address the issue, "How did this come about?" Did vigilant faculty squeal to the NCAA committee? That's unlikely. Rather, the enlargement of the enforcement squad and code has been a product of coaches complaining about other coaches.

The most compelling reason for minute, detailed regulations is that coaches cannot be trusted. For one variation on this theme: consider how about a decade ago the NCAA prohibited athletics dormitories. The rationale was that athletes should not be controlled in isolation from "real students." In truth, coaches and athletic directors push the laws to the limit, following the letter rather than the spirit. Year-round team meetings combined with summer conditioning, mandatory weight-training, off-season preparations, prescribed study halls for athletes only and dormitories that are only marginally sprinkled with nonathletes (e.g., a few token student managers) represent one widespread example of "compliance."

Why do we persist in seeing such conduct as a problem? Why not deregulate college sports? Why shouldn't Auburn be allowed to have thirty assistant football coaches if they wish to do so? What is to be gained by lamenting that a college coach is out of line for receiving a million dollars per year in compensation package? By embracing the principle that the exceptions make the rule, all groups would have the foundation to bring consistency and consequences to their practices. Regulations would be redrafted or abolished to reflect constituents wishes and customs. The interesting result is that each institution would have to rethink and renegotiate its campus priorities--and those of its athletic opponents.

One consequence of such deregulation would be that it might curb the predictable melodrama of sportswriters who claim to be shocked or suprised when they cyclically rediscover campus corruption. For example, in the past two years the University of Minnesota has gained national press attention for exposes of its abuses in providing bogus term papers for basketball players. Why is this news? Maybe it is the norm? Who has taken the time to remember the 1980s court case involving Golden Gopher basketball player Mark Hall? His victory in the courts led a judge to rule against the University of Minnesota, with the public scolding that they had no intention of ever serving the educational needs of this athlete. It was well ahead of recent allegations about Coach Clem Haskins and the amazing term paper machine.

Why continue to have faith in a legal and regulatory system that is inadequate because it is faint-hearted? Where is the IRS in all this? By what logic or periodic review does the NCAA qualify as a nonprofit educational institution with tax exemptions? Unfortunately, the answer is the same logic that allows the NFL to gain nonprofit status. Has there ever been an institution that had its regional accreditation threatened due to improprieties in its intercollegiate athletic programs? Do any NCAA Division I member institutions accurately depict intercollegiate athletics as a central part of their mission statement? Where is the Association of Governing Boards in its proper role to educate board members? They did sponsor a superb guide written by L. Jay Oliva about a decade ago, but for the most part, university board members have been either indifferent or ineffective in serious reform of the excesses of college sports.

The problem of intercollegiate athletics policy reform is that the structures and vocabulary are calcified. Substantial change is unlikely because negotiations and vocabulary are caught in a gridlock of predictable liturgies by presidents, coaches, athletic directors, and NCAA officials. Because scholarly research or journalism have done little to correct essential features, deregulation offers a ray of hope: it just might allow the system's greed to cause it to overextend itself and implode. If so, reform could then take place as reconstruction of a genuine "New Deal" for athletics and academics.

John R. Thelin is university research professor and a member of the Educational Policy Studies faculty at the University of Kentucky.
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Title Annotation:Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes; Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big- Time College Sports; Onward to Victory: The Crises that Shaped College Sports
Author:Thelin, John R.
Publication:Journal of Higher Education
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2002
Words:4315
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