The outlook is not bright for big-time college athletics, author and sports journalist John Feinstein concluded last night at the Askwith Education Forum.
While Feinstein mentioned the recent academic violations of the Minnesota basketball program as an example of the NCAA's misplaced priorities--placing athletics ahead of academics--his best story took place 20 years ago when Clemson won the Orange Bowl. After the football game, Clemson's president was in the locker room high-fiving lineman William "The Refrigerator" Perry, claiming that his goal as president had always been to win the Orange Bowl.
"In this case, the president was the problem and not the solution," Feinstein said. "In big-time athletics in general, the president cannot control the coaches because the coaches are more powerful and make more money. And a lot of presidents don't even want to change the way things are."
But, if the future is hopeless at schools with major NCAA programs, why not praise the universities who look at sports the right way? That's the philosophy of Feinstein's latest book, The Last Amateurs.
Feinstein has established himself as the authority on men's college basketball by writing about the antics of former Indiana coach Bob Knight in A Season on the Brink to the Atlantic Coast Conference, which annually boasts the nation's most successful hoops programs. In The Last Amateurs, however, Feinstein has turned to the little-known Patriot League, where academics is more important than athletics.
Feinstein's book is full of uplifting stories. One involved Chris Spitler, who barely made the roster at Holy Cross, where he claimed to be the worst player in the worst conference in America. Spitler finished his senior year as the Crusaders' starting point guard and is now working at Goldman Sachs before he goes off to law school.
The Patriot League is modeled after the Ivy League, and they are the only two NCAA Division I conferences that do not allow their schools to give athletic scholarships. Feinstein said he chose to write about the Patriot League rather than the Ivy because its schools were less well known and lacked the glamour of academic, as well as athletic, prestige.
While both conferences are models of what college athletics should be, Feinstein commented that there is not much that schools like Harvard can do to reform the NCAA.
"It's impossible for one school to change a multibillion dollar industry," Feinstein said. "What the Ivy League provides is a window into a different world of college athletics. The players play because they love to play, not to be on SportsCenter, and that's what sports is supposed to be."
Feinstein's book hit home for freshman Sarah Barnett. Barnett played basketball in high school and the University of Maryland showed an interest in recruiting her until she tore both of her ACLs. So she stopped playing basketball, came to Harvard and is now on the women's tennis team.
"After the injury my priorities changed and I started to look at schools for their academics," Barnett said. "I really wanted to come to Harvard and when I got here I decided to play tennis. I love the academics here and I have found that the school also puts a lot of heart into its sports as well."
Feinstein also proposed a few reforms that might help the NCAA give more priority to education. Some initiatives involve extending scholarships to student-athletes for as long as they take to graduate and establishing a trust fund to set aside some of the NCAA's revenue for athletes when they graduate. But he is not optimistic that these reforms will happen anytime soon.
Feinstein said he enjoyed The Last Amateurs more than any book he has written since A Civil War, an in-depth look of the football programs at Army and Navy. And while the Lafayette-Lehigh rivalry is not the same as Harvard-Yale, his personal stories and endless humor will bring the Patriot League to life for any sports fans.
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