Don’t Expect Colleges to Slay the Golden Geese

It is a sad day in intercollegiate athletics. University presidents are aiming to clean up football and basketball.

This distressing action seems to have been triggered by the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which recently issued a report that sports conditions on the campuses aren’t sanitary.

Gad, what a shock. The next thing you know, someone is going to whisper that pro wrestling isn’t on the up-and-up.


Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, president emeritus of Notre Dame, agrees with the Knight Report. Hesburgh says efforts must be made “to clear the scum from the swamp of college athletics.”

That would represent a lot of clearing. All the equipment deployed for clearing scum from the Persian Gulf might not be enough.

That job is supposed to take five years. Colleges have been talking about cleaning up athletics for more than 50.

In 1938, in fact, presidents of what was then the Pacific Coast Conference (now the Pacific 10), aghast at stories of football violations, hired an FBI agent named Edwin Atherton to conduct an investigation and file a comprehensive report.

It was agreed that all schools would cooperate on an amnesty basis. The Atherton Report, as it came to be known, took a year and a half. When the presidents read it, they decided on two things: (1) to hire Atherton as conference commissioner and (2) to burn the Atherton Report, still unpublished.

You can imagine the scam that went up in flames.

Atherton was one tough dude, impressively incorruptible. As a young reporter, eager to rock the Establishment, we remember dealing with him. He drafted a stringent code, aimed at controls on subsidization and recruiting.

His policy: If a player were found guilty accepting anything beyond that allowed, he would be declared ineligible. It was Atherton’s view that if the athlete’s career were jeopardized, coaches and alumni would be reluctant to lead him astray with unauthorized offers.

The plan didn’t last long. It was plainly in restraint of crooked recruiting. The presidents threw it out, claiming that a boy 17 or 18 shouldn’t be held responsible for yielding to temptations of his elders.

Instead, the presidents instituted a fines system whereby schools getting caught violating the code would be assessed in cash.

Nailed $500 for illegal contacting, USC paid off readily, figuring that when one’s coaches get a first-hand look at 60 prospects, 500 bucks is a bargain.

It soon appeared in the press that one could pick the forthcoming Rose Bowl team by checking the fines of the year before. Red-faced, the presidents threw out the fines system.

They replaced it with a new concept called “institutional integrity” in which each university was responsible for cleaning up its own dirt.

Obviously, this failed. As Red Sanders, late coach of UCLA, explained: “If the penal system in this state were based on self-examination, San Quentin would be empty.”

So the presidents returned to making the athletes responsible for their actions, and all the foregoing comedy serves merely as a fragment of what has been going on during the past half-century.

And the Knight Foundation Report? Those jaded by previous reports guffaw. Everything said by college presidents related to the subject has been said before.

This new pious rally is guaranteed to fail because it isn’t intended to succeed. And the presidents know it.

What happens in football and basketball, especially in recruitment, is essential to the system the presidents themselves have allowed to be set up.

Football and basketball are big business. They involve big revenues from television. The two sports at most universities carry the rest of the athletic program. What money is left spills into the general fund.

And, most important, the two sports serve as major rallying points for alumni and boosters, from whose pockets contributions are dredged.

Coaches are expected to win. To carry out this mission, they need talent. The scramble for talent is wildly competitive. And bagging it requires the kind of sleaze the Knight Report talks about.