College athletics, especially the high-revenue sports of football and basketball, are increasingly tarnished by academic fraud, dismal graduation rates and commercialization, a high-powered commission found in a report released Tuesday.
The Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics recommends sweeping changes to narrow what it calls "the widening chasm between higher education's ideals and big-time college sports."
The commission calls for athletes to face the same admission standards as other students. Teams would be banned from lucrative postseason games if they did not graduate at least half of their players.
The report states that, despite recommendations for reform issued a decade ago by the same commission, the danger of athletic success overshadowing academic values has grown rather than diminished. The authors describe the environment in college sports as "disgraceful."
"At the core of the problem is a prevailing money madness," the commissioners said in reference to football and basketball at the most competitive level.
Commissioners cited the huge influx of money from lucrative television contracts for basketball playoffs and bowl games, deals with shoe companies and the growing influence of other advertisers.
"With the money comes manipulation," according to the report. "Schools and conferences prostrate themselves to win and get on television. . . . So much for classroom commitments."
According to the report, just 48% of football players and 34% of men's basketball players in Division I schools earn degrees. Among African Americans the numbers are worse: Only 42% of black football players graduate.
Commissioners also cited instances of outright fraud. In the 1990s, they said, more than half the schools competing at the highest level were caught breaking National Collegiate Athletic Assn. rules. "Wrongdoing as a way of life seems to represent the status quo," the report states.
A first test for the proposed reforms will come Friday, when commission members meet in Chicago with officials from the six athletic conferences that make up college football's Bowl Championship Series.
The 28 members of the 12-year-old Knight Commission include current and former university presidents, representatives of higher education associations and business leaders.
"Almost all of us have been involved with these issues for a long time, and some of us know that we should have done more when we were directly involved," said William Friday, a co-chairman and president emeritus of the University of North Carolina.
Said Commissioner Hodding Carter III: "This isn't a naive set of principles thrown out here. We're saying the situation is getting worse, and the values we most treasure in our universities are under assault."
The commission's report comes 10 years after it proposed a "new model" for intercollegiate athletics to address a college sports system that was increasingly commercialized and out of sync with the values of higher education. The current report says those reforms did not go far enough.
The new report is based on a series of meetings with university leaders, faculty, athletic directors, coaches, athletes and others.
At its heart is a recommendation that student athletes be "mainstreamed," or treated like any other student. They would be more rigorously screened before they were admitted as freshmen and would have to meet the same standards throughout their college careers.
It also means that, by 2007, teams would have to graduate half of their players to qualify for conference championships and postseason games.
"We're not in the entertainment business, nor are we a minor league for professional sports," said Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, the president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame and commission co-chairman. "Your school is not worthy to be the champion of the country if you're not educating your kids."
The proposed graduation requirements have already met with some opposition from NCAA President Cedric Dempsey, also a commission member.
Dempsey said graduation rates for student athletes should be set on a school-by-school basis and should match those of the overall student population.
The NCAA has previously stated that 58% of its student athletes graduate, as compared with 56% of all students. But the commission stressed that percentages are significantly lower among basketball and football players.
The NCAA's reaction caused some to question the likelihood of reform.
"This committee was formed for public relations," said Mel Helitzer, a professor of sports administration at Ohio University. "I doubt that very much of it will get through."
Local coaches acknowledged that they struggle with situations in which talented athletes have borderline academic qualifications.
"Let's be honest; all of us are trying to be successful," USC track coach Ron Allice said. "All of us anguish when someone is on that bubble."
Allice and other coaches said they would support stricter academic standards if the formula for computing graduation rates were revised.
Currently, that rate suffers if an athlete leaves school early for a multimillion-dollar professional contract--which Allice considers unfair. At the same time, athletes who transfer from junior colleges and earn a degree do not count in the formula.
"I think the Knight Commission's concept is a good one," said Chris Gobrecht, who coaches the USC women's basketball team. "But there are some problems to work out."
There could be significant resistance to the commission's recommendation that schools avoid commercialization. The report says, for example, that colleges and not corporate interests should determine when games are played and how they are broadcast. Also, it says athlete's uniforms should not carry corporate trademarks or logos, such as Nike's "swoosh."
Carter, a former State Department spokesman and now president and chief executive of the Miami-based Knight Foundation, said he worries that student athletes have become "walking billboards."
But shoe companies such as Nike and Adidas spend millions to outfit teams. And schools say they need the money.
"At a time when we are so strapped for dollars and schools are really working hard to make ends meet, you'd be taking away a major source of revenue and help," Gobrecht said. "Even if it's not bucks, you've still got a lot of teams getting shoes and equipment. We don't go to the medical schools and tell them how to put money in their coffers."
With athletic departments spending billions of dollars each year, commission members have called for a ceiling on such expenditures on football and basketball, including a reduction in scholarships. They also want schools to bring coaching salaries into line with what professors are paid.
The commission also recommends changes in the way millions of dollars are divided among schools after the March Madness basketball tournament so that it is based on factors other than who wins or loses.
To advance these and other reforms, the report calls for creation of a coalition of university presidents to work with the NCAA in governing sports. It also calls for a watchdog group to monitor athletic departments.
Carter called for a timely start. "Frankenstein has already left the castle and is out there wandering around. We need to take action."
Although skeptics say the NCAA is unlikely to adopt much of what the commission has recommended, others hope that the report will lead to changes.
"It's a warning sign to get in control and pay attention, and that's good," said California State University Chancellor Charles B. Reed.
If changes don't occur, the report offers another recommendation:
"If it proves impossible to create a system of intercollegiate athletics that can live honorably within the American college and university, then responsible citizens must join with academic and public leaders to insist that the nation's colleges and universities get out of the business of big-time sports."