Athletics: Comments from Issue 1

In 1986, the campus was stunned by the death of Len Bias.   He was an All-American Maryland basketball player, who had just graduated and been signed by the Boston Celtics.  He died in his dorm suite of an overdose of cocaine.   The consequences were significant, including resignations, criminal cases, NCAA investigations, and serious discussions about the relationship of athletics and academics on campus, especially when it was discovered that, although he had used up his athletic eligibility, he had not had the required number of academic credits to graduate.   Chancellor (equivalent to President) John Slaughter appointed a task force to make recommendations.  Consequences, both on campus and nationally, reverberated for years, some to the present day.

A quarter of the initial issue of the Voice was dedicated to opinion pieces by faculty on the case.   Below, we reprint two of these, which are still relevant today.    One is by then Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost William (Brit) Kirwan.   Kirwan is currently System Chancellor Emeritus.  He became a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics in 2006.  Ben Holman of the Merrill College of Journalism, and a future editor of the Voice, had a particular interest in sports journalism; we also reprint his commentary from the first issue of the Voice.

By William E. Kirwan
Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost

Not since the gambling scandals of the 1950’s has there been such intense discussion of the appropriate role of intercollegiate athletics within the university context.  Even before the tragic death of Len Bias, university presidents were attempting to establish reforms such as the much-discussed Proposition 48, freshman ineligibility, and shorter athletic seasons.

Len Bias’ death and the subsequent revelations about the poor academic performance of some student athletes have served to intensify these discussions.  Is there any reason to believe that, as a result of these proposals, true reforms will be made and the education of athletes will take priority over the drive for conference and national championships?   I, for one, am far from optimistic that this will happen.  However, I also believe that we now have a real opportunity to institute such reforms.   Moreover, if we fail to act, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

How did we—and by we I mean most major public and some private universities—arrive at the present state of our athletic excesses?   In my view, the primary catalyst has been television and the lucrative contracts the industry offers universities.  Big money is available to those who have successful teams.  This money permits universities to have football teams of 90 players, not just the 40 to 50 common in an earlier era.  It allows athletics departments to have extensive and impressively equipped facilities.   It also permits universities to field teams in dozens of non-revenue-producing sports, elevating many of them from the intramural or club level to the intercollegiate standard.  An empire has been built and the maintenance of that empire requires television revenues.  In order to fields teams that can play in prime time, universities across the country have compromised admission standards and retention requirements, and in doing so, have exploited many young athletes.

What can we at the University of Maryland College Park do to create a more rational environment for intercollegiate athletics? Despite our recent troubles, we are, paradoxically, in a position to exert national leadership.

The report of the Academic Achievement of Student-Athletes Task Force, prepared under the leadership of Robert Dorfman, Acting Dean of the College of Computer, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, provides an excellent plan of action.   Its recommendations, if fully implemented, would help develop an appropriate context for athletics within our academic environment.  Furthermore, the report captures what I believe is the fundamental principle that must guide our operations: a student should be admitted to the institution only if he or she has an adequate academic background to do work at the university level.

We are also fortunate that Chancellor John Slaughter, a strong believer in freshman ineligibility, chairs the NCAA’s President’s Commission.  This position gives him a forum from which to press for meaningful reforms at the national level.

If we implement the recommendations of the Dorfman Task Force, we will have strengthened the academic enterprise.  If our efforts to improve intercollegiate athletics are accepted by other universities, then we can be doubly proud.  My concern, however, is what will happen if other schools do not accept our call for change.  If our improved standards mean that too many of the best athletes go elsewhere and that the College Park campus cannot be competitive in Division A, what then?  Will we have the necessary resolve to maintain these higher standards, withstand pressure from alumni, from legislators, from those who want a major athletics program?  Will we accept a lower competitive level?  I hope the answer to each of these questions is yes.  The test may come soon enough.

By Ben Holman
Philip Merrill College of Journalism

The death of Len Bias has caused many of us on campus, some for the first time, to think seriously about the role of inter-collegiate athletics in our university mission.  Some of that thought has been translated into the highest level of sanctimony I have observed since my arrival on campus eight years ago.

It strikes me that the imperfections of our inter-collegiate athletics program are minuscule compared to the imperfections of our academic program—that is, if the programs are measured by the impact they have had on our society.  In my lifetime, sports have done more to move us toward the egalitarian, democratic principles we say we aim for than almost any other segment of our society.  What has happened on the fields of Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, RFK Stadium in Washington—or Byrd Stadium or Cole Field House on our campus—has demonstrated as nothing else has that citizens ought to be judged by their capabilities.

The absence of such evidence in our academic ranks is a testimony to our shortcomings here.  It is even more disturbing that as we strive toward academic excellence on our campus, we somehow have failed to have much impact on the social and economic adversities that we find in our surrounding communities in Baltimore, the Eastern Shore, or the depressed areas of Western Maryland.

If brief, athletics increasingly have provided a chance for almost any young American to realize his or her aspirations.   Meanwhile, academia increasingly seems preoccupied by tenure and rank, special interests, and attaining that asterisk in history.

The imperfections of our athletics program ought to have been of concern to the academic community long before Len Bias died.  And a vehicle for expression of that concern existed in the campus Athletic Council (of which I am a member).  Unfortunately, I suspect that few members of the faculty are even aware of the Council—or care about it.  As a result, the Council has remained ineffective, when it could have been a means for faculty to assist in the governance of the intercollegiate program.

The Task Force on Academic Achievement of Student Athletes, appointed by Chancellor Slaughter after Bias’ death, has made specific recommendations to strengthen the Council, and make it a vehicle for providing strong faculty oversight of intercollegiate athletics programs.

The Task Force recommends that the Council’s role “be expanded to include reviewing and making recommendations to the Chancellor concerning games and post-season scheduling, and [concerning] academic and non-academic support programs.”  It also recommends more faculty representation on the Council.

Chancellor Slaughter already has endorsed these recommendations, and the Council has begun to move towards their implementation.  But implementation will not succeed unless it is accompanied by a stronger commitment by more members of the faculty to a healthy inter-collegiate program that enriches our students, our university, and our community.

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