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Cleaning Up the Sports System

The flap over the latest effort by the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. to reform big-time college sports, and perhaps eliminate the hypocrisy that pervades the way they are run, proves that even some of the proposed reforms can seem hypocritical.

The dispute began after the NCAA’s annual convention narrowly passed a proposal, known as Proposition 42, that further tightens the rules governing athletic scholarships. Six years ago the NCAA approved another proposal, commonly referred to as Proposition 48, to set minimum standards in high-school grades and college-entrance-examination scores that a student athlete has to meet in order to be eligible for a scholarship. Any potential freshman who does not meet all the standards can still get financial aid, but he cannot play or practice with his team for one year, during which he has to get his college grades up to the minimal requirements. Proposition 42 would have eliminated that practice.

The critics of Proposition 42--including Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, who has refused to participate in two of his team’s games to illustrate his disapproval--warn that it will have harmful side effects on students from poor families. With no chance of financial aid in their first year of college, some student athletes may simply give up on education. Some critics expect that most of the athletes affected by the new rule will be black, as about 90% of the students affected by Proposition 48 are.

While many colleges that supported Proposition 42 may consider it a well-intentioned effort to close a loophole in Proposition 48, the way it was enacted is troubling. The tough new rule was adopted before the NCAA had carefully studied all the effects of Proposition 48, including the disproportionate effect that it has had on young blacks. At the very least, a more thorough assessment of the potential effects of Proposition 42 seems in order. That is undoubtedly why the commission of college presidents that oversees the NCAA asked that enforcement of the new rule be postponed pending further study.

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The NCAA should learn a hard lesson from this latest attempt to fine-tune the highly competitive money-producing system that college athletics have become. Much bigger changes are required if the system is to be cleaned up. Freshman eligibility should be eliminated entirely so that all incoming students can have time to adapt to college life. And colleges should face up to the fact that many of the young athletes who perform on their behalf make money for their school. They are in effect semi-professionals. That could someday mean providing them not just with scholarships, when they meet minimal standards in the classroom, but also stipends, when they meet the standards expected of them in athletics. This is a radical proposal, we concede, but it would eliminate perhaps the most hypocritical aspect of college sports--the exploitation of many student athletes.


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