Gwen Ifill discusses the prospect of reforming college athletics with president emeritus Bill Friday of the University of North Carolina; athletic director Deborah Yow of the University of Maryland; and Joe Whitl, a former wide receiver at the University of Auburn and a former member of the NCAA's Student Athlete Advisory Committee.
ANNOUNCER: We're underway in Pasadena.
GWEN IFILL: The Rose Bowl, March Madness, the sights and sounds of college athletics. Today it is a $60 billion industry: Commercial logos adorn every possible open space, thousands of fans pack stadiums across the country every week. But a prominent commission of college presidents and others now says the business of college athletics is out of hand. A recently released Knight Foundation report catalogues the failings of what it concludes is a "disgraceful environment." The report says more than half of 114 division 1A teams have been censured, sanctioned, or placed on probation in the 1990s for breaking NCAA rules. Only 48% of top college football players and 34% of basketball players graduate. Among the rules broken, faculty members turning in coursework for athletes and changing failing grades to passing ones. Father Theodore Hesburgh, the President Emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, co-chaired the commission.
FATHER THEODORE HESBURGH: We're not going to continue this farce. We're not going to say that we are educational institutions with a proud heritage going back to 1204 and the western world. We're not going to throw that out the window because, first of all, there is a lot of money involved in basketball and football. That is our challenge in this report, that either you get this in order, or you're not part of the club, and you're not eligible to be the champion of the club, certainly.
GWEN IFILL: Most college athletic programs rely on corporate interests for support. CBS will pay the NCAA $6.2 billion for 11 years of broadcast right's for men's basketball beginning next year. Such television payments add up to nearly 90% of the NCAA's revenue. These dollar signs, the Knight Foundation reports, place enormous pressure on academic institutions to excel on the field, if not necessarily in the classroom. Among the recommendations for reform included in the report: Athletes should be required to go through the same academic processes as other students; practices and post-season activity should be limited so athletes can focus on completing their degrees; and institutions that do not graduate at least 50% of their players should be banned from post-season play. So can college athletics be fixed, or is the genie already out of the bottle? We get three views: Bill Friday is President emeritus of the University of North Carolina-- he served as co-chairman of the Knight Commission; Deborah Yow is athletic director at the University of Maryland; and Joe Whitt is a former wide receiver at Auburn University, a student, and a member of the NCAA's Student Athlete Advisory Committee.
GWEN IFILL: Bill Friday, the report that you co-chaired, the commission you co-chaired, the report that you came out with describes athletics today as an arms race. Explain what you mean by that.
BILL FRIDAY: We mean by that that the institutions are constructing facilities at a very high cost, and, as Cedric Dempsey, the head of the NCAA, has pointed out more and more we are spending more money than we're taking in on the revenue side. This is what we say has to stop.
GWEN IFILL: And is what you're saying also in this report is not only does it have to stop, but you find other ways of financing it or just less money should be spent?
BILL FRIDAY: Well, the whole report is cast as a group of recommendations, Ms. Ifill. What we're really saying is that if your graduation rates are as we report in here; and if your capital program shows that expenditures for athletic facilities are greater dollars than for libraries or classrooms or laboratories; and if your salary compensation for your athletic staff is three or four times that of the administration; and if commercial television is manipulating your playing schedule; then that institution with these conditions is in trouble. And that's what we're trying to say: Get together the men and women who are the responsible officials in inter-collegiate sports in this country and ask them to take the steps or prescribe the steps that will correct these conditions. And why? It is because the United States has the greatest university structure and system of institutions anywhere in the world. That quality and that reputation depends upon the integrity of these institutions. If you violate these and create questions, you then erode away that reputation and posture. That is very precious indeed.
GWEN IFILL: Debbie Yow, Bill Friday describes a system that the way he describes is seriously out of whack. What's your take on that?
DEBORAH YOW: It's such a complex issue, Gwen, I really think the process unfortunately was flawed. I'm from North Carolina, raised in North Carolina, and am a personal fan of Dr. Friday's. That being said, the process... the committee chose, the Knight Commission chose to omit the athletic directors of this country in Division I. No one in this country understands the issues of inter- collegiate athletics as well as the director of athletics, who should be, if doing their jobs properly, both the leaders and the managers of intercollegiate athletics. I also have an issue in terms of process with report in that it moves the recommendations and the process for dealing with those recommendations outside the scope of the NCAA
GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you about that. Is your problem the problems they identified for the solutions they proposed?
DEBORAH YOW: Well, I have problems with the process, with the language used in the report, and with a number of the recommendations, actually.
GWEN IFILL: What kind of language?
DEBORAH YOW: Language I found to be inflammatory as related to the current state of inter-collegiate athletics. To me there was a significant amount of negative profiling of inter-collegiate athletic directors, athletic administrators, the university presidents, and the coaches. There were examples related to the "disgraceful" environment of inter-collegiate athletics and referring to athletics as being a frantic, money-oriented modus operandi that defies responsibilities. I've been in inter-collegiate athletics as a coach and administrator for 26 years. Never before have we seen the kinds of checks and balances and controls on inter-collegiate athletic programs that we have today. That's fine, but certainly that sentiment is not reflected in the report.
GWEN IFILL: Joe Whitt, as a student athlete, how bad does it look close up to you on the field? Is it as bad as this report describes?
JOE WHITT: Well, the report, you know, it takes it a little far. The graduation rates are bad, but I don't think you're really trying to address the problem by cutting scholarships. You need to take some of the moneys from the CBS contract and take that money to better tutors, your life skills program, your academic services. Most universities have great athletic facilities, but when you come to the academic side, you know, those facilities are not as equal. If you really want to attack graduation rates, you attack it that way. You don't attack it by lessening the number of kids that you allow to come into your institutions.
GWEN IFILL: Are you saying that, as far as you're concerned, this is not a question of the money that's being spent? It's not too much money; it's just being spent the wrong way?
JOE WHITT: Well, that's exactly what I'm saying. A lot of the moneys that come in, you know, you're building different facilities, but you're not building academic facilities. That's what's really important. You want to concentrate on graduation rate, concentrate on graduation rates. Don't concentrate on lessening the chance for kids to get an education. And that's what you're doing when you cut scholarships. I remember when I went to the Knight Commission, one of the ladies made a statement that they wanted to cut football scholarships from 85 to 65. If you cut football scholarships from 85 to 65, what you are going to do is you're not going to eliminate the student athlete that is a marginal player, but a good student. You're going to eliminate that person - you're not going to eliminate the kid that's a great athlete and a marginal student because the coach is going to sign that kid anyway because he wants to win. If you cut scholarships, you're going to eliminate the kids you're trying to keep here. What you should do is to graduate everybody that you bring in.
GWEN IFILL: You've heard these criticisms. They add up to people saying that your report will be a little more than a doorstop, that they're going to be ignored. What is your response to all of this?
BILL FRIDAY: First let me say with reference to Ms. Yow's statement about athletic directors, we did have two athletic directors participate. We genuinely regret that Ms. Yow could not come and appear for the commission. We invited her. She had a conflict or some reason that she could not come and be with us. Now, as for the charge of going outside, if you read the report carefully, you'll see that the coalition we propose has within its prescription NCAA participation and specific language that says this group will meet periodically with the board of directors of the NCAA itself. So the machinery is in place. What we were doing here is proposing a structure that brings the leadership of the power conferences, so-called, together, along with people like Cedric Dempsey, who really know what's going on, and get down to work and get the work done. Mr. Whitt appeared before us. He was a fine witness for the student athletes who came. I enjoyed hearing him, and I think that he's put his finger on what the arms race is all about when he says that we are using too much money to build athletic facilities when we're not keeping up with the academic facilities, the libraries, the laboratories, the classrooms in the way we should in some places. Now, the facts as revealed in this study show you that there are not many institutions in the United States that make money out of intercollegiate sports even with all the money we have. Last year Mr. Dempsey reported that while we took in $3.1 billion, all 970 institutions, we spent over $4 billion. Now, that's the kind of imbalance that's got to be corrected.
GWEN IFILL: Debbie Yow, let's talk about some of the practical solutions which are suggested in this report-- for instance, banning post-season play for colleges which don't have a 50% graduation rate. That doesn't sound so difficult.
DEBORAH YOW: Well, Gwen, it's so complex. Let me say first of all that when I reference the need to have athletic directors involved in the Knight Commission, I was not talking about coming for testimony for one hour; I was talking about being part of the full deliberative process and the writing of the report. There could really be no comparison between those two opportunities. Secondly, I'll give you the 50% graduation rate is a great example of how misunderstood all of this is. The graduation rate that we're currently using is not truly a graduation rate; it is a graduation/retention rate. If I have a perfect 4.0 GPA at the University of Maryland playing women's basketball, my mother has cancer in North Carolina, I decide I have to transfer there, the day I leave the Maryland campus, I am counted against the graduation rate for the University of Maryland. Certainly, you know, that would not be fair to use that as part of any statistic that would prohibit the University of Maryland women's basketball team from competing.
GWEN IFILL: But do you agree that standards should be raised?
DEBORAH YOW: I agree that a number of the items in the report are interesting and intriguing. One of the most intriguing to me is the developmental leagues, and those possibilities for the NBA and the NFL, which already exist for minor sports like men's soccer.
GWEN IFILL: Joe Whitt, some of us who are reading these reports and hearing this debate wonder whether on college campuses student athletes are learning anymore. What's your take on that?
JOE WHITT: Yes, student athletes are learning. College first and you are a student athlete. So you are learning. But the one thing I would like to comment on is the same thing Ms. Yow said for the simple fact I believe student athletes should sit on the Knight Commission, as well. Anything that deals with student athletes, you should have a student athlete there. It's so important for you to be there on the conversation so that you can really put your viewpoint on there. You know, it's different when you bring a representative from that body and come to a group of student athletes and they report back. But when you have somebody sitting there or in the conversation, it's totally different.
GWEN IFILL: When you see the report, the items in this report about how students... rules are being bent for student athletes, money is being spent or student athletes are walking billboards for certain corporate interests, that doesn't trouble you?
JOE WHITT: It troubles me. Some of the rules that are being bent, it's really hard to say because, you know, the NCAA has so many rules. You know, as a student athlete, I can't give a high school kid a piece of paper sometimes, you know. Some of the rules are so small. But the major rules aren't being broken, and student athletes are really, really... want to get an education. You know, they come here, and they work hard on the field and off the field. They just need to get a chance. They need better tutors. They need better computers and just a chance to really get their degree because, as you know, most people aren't going to the NFL or the NBA. When they graduate from here, they have to get a job. You have to give them a chance.
GWEN IFILL: Bill Friday?
BILL FRIDAY: One out of 100 college students who participate in college sports ever make a living at it after four years of eligibility are used up. This is why responsible university trustees and presidents are trying to see to it that they have as full and complete an academic experience as we can give, and I feel personally that it's a moral obligation because once they leave the campus, if they haven't received adequate training and learning adequate to conduct a really profitable career, then we haven't done for them what we should have done. And that's the issue. The question here, if some institutions in America today graduating 17%, 18% -- that's not what we exist to do, and that's what we're trying to correct.
GWEN IFILL: Excuse me for interrupting you. We're going to have to leave the debate right there for tonight. Thank you very much for joining us.