Opinion

The NCAA chooses money over academics

Maybe it’s time to take the “C” out of the NCAA.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association insists on referring to the participants in its sports as “student-athletes,” but apparently the governing body has little interest is ensuring that those athletes really are students.

That’s the upshot of a decision last week by the NCAA’s Board of Directors for Division I schools. The board balked at adopting a recommendation by two NCAA panels that would have given the association authority to police academic scams aimed at keeping athletes eligible.

Instead, the report by the Division I Presidential Forum said the majority of the board thought various half-steps recently adopted by the NCAA were enough to prevent such corruption and the NCAA should not have authority to assess whether courses taken by athletes are genuine courses.

The report said, “The concept was to add an overarching bylaw that would capture instances of systemic, willful disregard for academic integrity as it pertains to student-athlete eligibility and/or fair competition. Feedback from the membership on this idea indicated some but not significant support.”

“Comments trended toward concern that such a provision would be unnecessary and that recent changes in the infractions process will capture systemic academic malfeasance. As such, the (forum’s) Steering Committee decided not to submit the concept at this time.”

Adding the bylaw was recommended by a commission led by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and by the NCAA’s own academic working group, but the real rulers of college sports — those who protect the revenue gushers within the top athletic divisions — were having none of it. In essence, they upheld the disgraceful legal dodge that allowed the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to escape any NCAA sanctions after the university approved more than a decade of phony classes taken by roughly 1,500 athletes.

UNC successfully asserted that only colleges and universities and their accrediting agencies — not the NCAA — can decide whether courses meet academic standards. The claim has a surface logic. Obviously, an athletic association has not the resources nor the expertise to assess the academic rigor of real college courses.

But academic oversight by the NCAA wasn’t what was proposed. What was proposed was that the NCAA should have jurisdiction to assess whether courses that support an athlete’s eligibility are real courses. For instance, it could ask such basic questions as: Did athletes attend classes? Did a professor oversee grading?

In the UNC case, the answer to both questions was no, but the university escaped sanctions on grounds that the NCAA had no jurisdiction regarding academic quality. The proposed reform aimed to close that loophole by giving the governing body authority to cite obvious and egregious abuses of its requirements that athletes be academically eligible to compete.

The NCAA’s Board of Directors for Division 1 schools is acting here as if it is protecting schools from outside interference. But what the board really did was reject internal scrutiny. The member schools are the NCAA. Two panels supported by the association recommended closing this gap in oversight because it undermines the fairness of competition between NCAA members.

The board’s decision isn’t about preserving academic independence. It is about protecting the flow of revenue that comes from big-time basketball and football programs. Allowing the NCAA to require that athletes take genuine classes could take more athletes off the court and field. That could cost victories and dollars.

It is real classes vs. real money. The money, as its always does in major college revenue sports, won. And the integrity of big-time college sports, once again, lost.

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