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A Voice in the Wilderness


By Michael J. Abramowitz

YOU'VE GOT TO ADMIRE Father John Lo Schiavo.

The president of the University of San Francisco, Lo Schiavo this summer made what had to be the toughest, most controversial, decision of his career and did what the heads of any number of major universities should have done long ago. He said, "Enough." Enough cheating, enough corruption, enough deceit. He closed down the basketball program at his school.

This was no shoe-string operation that he shut down. Through the years, San Francisco has been practically synonymous with big-time college basketball success. USF was the proud home of the legendary Bill Russell, under whom it won two national collegiate titles. Today the school has seven graduates playing in the National Basketball Association. Since 1924, the team has notched 869 wins and only 467 losses. It has been nothing less than a powerhouse.

Yet all the success couldn't eclipse a growing list of irregularities and abuses. They were damaging, as Lo Schiavo realized, "the university's priceless assets, its integrity and its reputation." The recent revelation that an alum had paid star guard Quintin Dailey (since lured to the NBA by big bucks) for a summer job he never performed was only the latest in a string of disclosures of illegal alumni interference with the program and recruiting improprieties by coaches. The university, already the subject of two recent National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) investigations, was facing still further scrutiny from the governing body of college sports.

But shutting down the program? It was unheard of. USF is the first high-powered NCAA member to voluntarily drop a sport under such circumstances. Lo Schiavo's move was heretofore unthinkable in the context of today's big-business intercollegiate athletics. As the combative basketball coach of the University of Indians, Bobby Knight, commented: "I was shocked that a university president would be willing to do that," Lo Schiavo described USF's dilemma elegantly: "How can we contribute to the building of a decent, law-abiding society in this county if educational institutions are willing to suffer their principles to be prostituted and involve young people in that prostitution for any purpose, and much less for the purpose of winning some games and developing an ill-gotten recognition and income."

THAT SUMMARY pinpoints the problems facing all big-time intercollegiate sports, especially football and basketball. Abuses in the recruiting of high-school athletes, the forgery of academic transcripts, the neo-professionalism of the major football universities, the win-at-all-costs attitude permeating many coaching staffs and ranks of alumni--all these are tolerated obscenely in the name of higher education.

The whole business has become almost a cliche for corruption, and that's almost as disturbing as the improprieties themselves. Years of stern outcry--and little action--over college sports' problems have rendered the public insensitive to new reports of abuse. Who, except for a couple of sanctimonious sportswriters, cares anymore whether State University gets docked two or three years of television appearances for buying a car for Johnny Superstar? What casual reader, for that matter, raised his eyebrow more than slightly upon hearing of the abuses in the USF basketball program?

San Francisco's offenses were only the latest in a series of recent events giving intercollegiate sports and higher education a black mark. In the year preceeding Lo Schiavo's decision, perhaps the most abuse-studded 12 months in the annals of collegiate sports, the following events occurred:

* In spite of outraged educators, Texas A & M University hired a football coach, Jackie Sherrill, for $1.7 million, reportedly the largest financial package ever offered to anyone at an American University.

* In the space of 10 days, a former tennis coach at Arizona State and the track coach at Arizona committed suicide, apparently because of the pressures involved with sports at the two major universities.

* A former Boston College basketball player was convicted for taking part in a point-shaving scandal during the 1977-78 season.

Throw in the fact that 20-odd schools are presently on NCAA probation and that more than 30 are being investigated for alleged improprieties. Throw in that ABC and CBS television are paying the schools $263 million for the right to broadcast selected football games over the next three years. Throw in that the football and basketball programs at several major universities are more separate fiefdoms than subservient parts of entire schools. And the answer to the basic question posed recently by The New York Times--have big-time schools lost control of their sports?--seems an emphatic "Yes!."

There are some saving graces. Some athletes don't abuse their scholarships, and some use them to get solid college educations. And it's worth remembering that we're only talking about 80 or so schools with big-time football or basketball programs, not the approximately 1500 four-year public and private schools in the nation. To some extent, the problems linked to college sports only reflect society's perverse values. Why condemn the coach when he's merely trying to do what all the alums, students and other fans want, no less expect--to win? So come caution is in order in prescribing solutions. So is some skepticism: just try to get 80 fractious, selfish schools to agree on some sort of course of action.

EXTREME, ACROSS-THE-BOARD actions are basically un-workable. It's tempting to call for a return to blissful, pristine and pure amateurism, you'd just cut off gobs of TV dollars available today. But just try to tell that to Penn State or Southern Cal. It's impossible. The system's too lucrative.

Go the opposite way; professionalism, if you like. Pay the college athletes straight out and abandon this pretense of amateurism. As a memo drafted by the American Council on Education--a Washington-based higher education group--observed. "A paramount advantage of this...option is that it confronts the hypocrisy of the present-system and puts big-time programs on an honest and straightforward basis." True enough, yet not only would such a professionalism never come around, but it also seems a bastardization of what we seek from our institutions of higher learning.

The sad thing is, though, that middle-ground, pragmatic approaches bode little chance of success either. The NCAA has been trying them for years, and they haven't worked. Options like far stiffer penalties for recruiting violations, or tighter supervision of major sports programs are available, but they won't mean anything until the will to solve the problem arises. And while there are plenty of well-intentioned people around; while NCAA officers can slap meaningless probations on naughty little schools; and while there is a rule-book so heavy Quintin Dailey couldn't dunk it--this all-important will is hibernating.

People wonder why the NCAA isn't tougher or why it's so ineffective. They fail to realize that the organization is only a reflection of its members--most of whom have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. The last we heard of the group, it was booting the Ivy colleges out of Division I. That's hardly the stuff of which cleaning out the system is made.

The only way middle-ground approaches will work is if more John Lo Schiavos assert themselves. What was so refreshing about the San Francisco decision was that it came from outside the chummy, clubby atmosphere pervading college sports--beyond the tightly knit coterie of coaches, athletic directors, alumni, and sports writers and broadcasters. The will to roll back the abuses of the system can only come from those above the fray--from college presidents, boards of trustees, and perhaps even from the state legislatures who control the purse strings of the major state schools and their football factories.

Voices of reason are few and far between today in intercollegiate sports. The question for the coming days is whether Lo Schiavo's voice of reason will prove a watershed in the fight to bring sanity to the crazy, wacky world of big-time college sports. The likely danger is that it will be merely a muffled to the stifling, droning, hollowed voiced emanating from the television on cool, fall afternoons.

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