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The Danger in College Athletics

By Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., ’49, President Emeritus

Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., ’49In December 1904, several weeks after a 12-0 loss to Yale, Harvard football authorities convinced 26-year-old Bill Reid, a former Harvard athlete, to leave California and return to Cambridge as head coach of Harvard football. Reid’s salary was said to be the highest coaching salary in America at that time—higher than that of any Harvard faculty member and approaching that of longtime President Charles W. Eliot. The mission of the newly appointed coach was to mold a football team that would defeat Yale.

In a diary in which Reid faithfully provided each day an account of all his activities on and off the field, we find evidence supportive of the suggestion that the abhorrent practices to be found in many of today’s college/university athletics programs may well have their roots in the intercollegiate athletics of nearly a century ago. Intense scouting and vigorous recruiting of prep-school athletes, concerns about the academic eligibility of his players, hiring tutors and conducting discussions with professors designed to keep his athletes eligible, along with the manipulation of game schedules and the hiring of game officials thought to be favorable to Harvard were all part of Reid’s agenda. Coach Reid put in place the system, and now, 95 years later, we’re witnessing the fruit of its evolution.

One need not be a coach, a sports writer, or even an avid sports fan to know that today intercollegiate varsity athletics are heading in the wrong direction on all too many of our college and university campuses. Scandals abound, particularly at Division I schools lured by the revenues associated with post-season football playoffs and bowl games and participation in the NCAA’s annual creation of “March Madness” basketball. The litany is long: widespread corruption in recruiting practices, exploitation of vulnerable student-athletes, admission of academically non-qualified students, trivial course offerings, forged high school transcripts, altered academic grades, payment for “no show” jobs, embarrassingly low graduation rates, overly long absences of athletes from campus and class, arrests of student-athletes for larceny, forgery, assault and battery, rape, gambling, point shaving and drug usage, the worrisome influence of boosters, AAU basketball and sneaker companies’ summer camps where street agents strive to steer skilled players to colleges and universities that are paying the agents’ bills, and coaches, some with only mediocre won-lost records, commanding salaries in the $750,000 to $1 million range. The shameful fact is that on many campuses intercollegiate athletics competition has become disconnected from the educational enterprise. In pursuit of athletics success, rules are selectively enforced and institutional policies governing admissions, academic standards and personal conduct are being regularly suspended.

Confronted with these realities and concerned with protecting the academic reputation and integrity of their respective institutions, the presidents of the six founding member institutions of the Patriot League (known originally as the Colonial League) signed a Statement of Principles in December 1986 that brought together a group of highly selective, academically strong colleges and universities with similar philosophies on the contribution of athletics within an educational institution. The League was founded as a football league, but with the passage of time its principles now govern nearly the entire spectrum of each member institution’s athletics program. Athletics at Patriot League schools are conducted within a context that holds paramount the academic programs of the institution and the academic and personal growth of the student-athlete; student-athletes are representative of the total student body of each institution in general academic achievement and overall educational experience; policies governing admissions and financial aid encourage balanced and fair competition on a continuing basis among the member institutions, and, most importantly, the presidents of the member institutions exercise full responsibility for the policies and standards of the league.

Eighteen years ago, the late Jim Valvanso, then North Carolina State University’s basketball coach, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “We’re not even really part of the school anymore. I work for the North Carolina State Athletic Association. That has nothing to do with the University. Our funding is totally independent. You think the Chancellor is going to tell me what to do? Who to take into school or not take into school? I doubt it.”

That statement clearly reveals what is wrong with much of intercollegiate athletics today. Presidential leadership and involvement in the athletics program of one’s institution are essential if the academic integrity of the college/university is to be preserved and respected. Institutions of higher education are fragile entities, and their futures are not to be left in the hands of athletic directors, coaches and boosters. Too much is at stake!

Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., ’49, served as president of the College from 1970-1994.

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