OSU’s Gee: ‘college sports most ignominious year’

The following is an opinion piece by Ohio State President Gordon Gee published in the COLUMBUS DISPATCH on the state of intercollegiate athletics.

Gordon Gee and Jim Tressel

I like to win. I also like to sleep at night. But after 23 years leading universities, I find it increasingly difficult to do both.

This has been the most ignominious year in recent memory for college sports. We’ve seen coaches behaving badly, academic fraud, and graft. Clearly, the system is broken, and fixing it will require more than sideline cheering.

Many athletic departments exist as separate, almost semi-autonomous fiefdoms within universities and there is the feeling that the name on the football jersey is little more than a “franchise” for sports fans.

As Bill Bowen and Sarah Levin point out in their new book, Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values, even at the best colleges and universities in the country, student-athletes are increasingly isolated. They do not participate in the extracurricular activities that are so important for personal growth.

They miss out on opportunities to study abroad or have internships. They spend too much time in special athletic facilities that are off-limits to the rest of the student body. And their world can too often be defined by coaches’ insatiable demands for practice and workout sessions.

True, this is the cost of staying competitive in college sports, where tens of millions of dollars are at stake. But should it be?

Over the years I have gotten to know thousands of student-athletes. They are as different as any group of individuals could be — with different skills, talents and aspirations. What they have in common, though, is a sense that they missed out on an important part of the college experience by focusing only on sports.

They also lose out by being stripped of their responsibilities as citizens of the university when we say that “all will be forgiven” as long as their performance on the field is up to snuff.

This must change.

In recent years, there have been a number of well-meaning and forceful efforts to reform college athletics, but they have not gone far enough. It is time for all those who are concerned about the future of our enterprise to get serious about addressing the crisis of credibility we now face. College presidents, working together, should commit themselves to the following reforms:

* All students who participate in intercollegiate sports should be required to meet the requirements of a core curriculum. The “permanent jockocracy” has for too long made a mockery of academic standards when it comes to athletes. We need to end sham courses, manufactured majors, degree programs that would embarrass a mail-order diploma mill, and the relentless pressure on faculty members to ease student-athletes through their classes.

* Colleges should make a binding four-year commitment to students on athletic scholarships. One of the dirty secrets of intercollegiate athletics is that such scholarships are renewed year-to-year. A bad season? Injury? Poor relationship with a coach? Your scholarship can be yanked with very little notice. Rather than cynically offering the promise of academic enrichment, colleges should back up the promise so long as a student remains in good academic standing.

* The number of athletic scholarships a school can award should be tied to the graduation rates of its athletes in legitimate academic programs. If a school falls below a threshold graduation rate, it should be penalized by having to relinquish a certain number of scholarships for the next year’s entering class.

A version of this proposal is part of a reform package now snaking its way through the NCAA.

* Graduation rates should be tied to television and conference revenues. If money is the mother’s milk of college athletics, then access to it should be contingent on fulfilling the most basic mission of a university — educating students.

*Finally, college presidents and others need to take a good look at the system we have created for ourselves, in which the professional sports leagues have enjoyed a free feeder system that exploits young people and corrupts otherwise noble institutions.

We have maintained the fantasy for far too long that a big-time athletics program is for the students, the alumni and, at public universities, even for the legislators.

It is time for us to call it what it is has sadly become: a prep league for the pros, who have taken far more than they have given back. We should demand nothing less than a system in which student-athletes are an integral part of the academic institutions whose names and colors they so proudly wear on game day.

Just one more thing.

Gee wrote the piece in 2003 while President of SEC member school Vanderbilt.

It was at that time that Gee eliminated the school’s Athletic Director position, taking over the athletic department himself. (The department was folded into the school’s intramural sports program.)

On Sept. 30, 2010, Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith received a contract extension from Ohio State President Gee that amounted to an annual salary of $1.2 million. That day, Gee said of Smith’s pay:

“There were a couple other institutions throwing everything but their endowment funds at him. We’re blessed to have him, and we wanted to make sure we had him for an extended period.”

Smith said at the time:

“It’s about market (value) for me. I talked to some of my colleagues around the country, and I studied it, and this (contract) puts me right in the market. I’m appreciative that Dr. Gee recognized the value that we bring.”

Following up on Smith’s claim about the “market value” of the same athletic director position Gee had eliminated while President of an SEC school, Ken Gordon of the COLUMBUS DISPATCH noted at the time:

Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds makes $750,000. A January 2009 report listed the average salary of an athletic director in the Big Ten Conference as about $441,000.

Sounds like Smith may have “studied it” with the same zeal he’s applied to the compliance of his Ohio State football program the past three years.

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