By KATIE McVOY
Associate Sports Editor
University President Emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh tells a story about what the president of the University of Chicago said when the university disbanded its football team.
"He said, `You know, it would be a lot easier if all of those schools would go out and buy four horses and then we could put our colors on the horses and the horses could race against each other. Whoever won could be the champion for that year. The beauty of it is nobody expects you to educate the horses."
As public distrust of the academic policies of Division I revenue athletics increases and as colleges and universities have seemingly decreasing graduation rates, racing uneducated horses may seem an apt metaphor for the future of collegiate revenue athletics.
Institutions like Notre Dame that pride themselves on strong academic principles in addition to successful athletic programs seem to be becoming obsolete.
Can a university like Notre Dame survive in a world of racing horses?
The Culture of Collegiate Athletics
In the 1980s, 109 universities and colleges were sanctioned by the NCAA or put on probation. Over half of the 106 Division I-A institutions playing at that time were included in that number — 57 to be exact. And out of those 106 academic institutions, 19 graduated less than 30 percent of their football players.
With numbers like these, it is hard to deny there has been a change in collegiate athletics. In its 2001 report, The Knight Commission on Collegiate Athletics found "at the heart of these problems is a profound change in the American culture of sports itself." It cited a move from the amateurism celebrated in the earlier parts of the 20th century to the professionalism rampant in collegiate athletics today.
In the last seven years, the capital expenditures for big college athletic programs has increased nearly 250 percent. With that increase in expenditure comes an increased need for revenue. With that need for revenue, colleges may start taking shortcuts — including cutting academics right out.
"I think one of the big problems with intercollegiate sports is the amount of money involved and that really gets back to television," said Hesburgh, who co-chaired the Knight Commission. "[Programs] go out and they really start cutting corners and they're admitting kids to college that couldn't get into high school."
In a report published by the NCAA concerning academic standards in 1997-'98, the average grade point average for an athlete entering in a revenue sport (men's basketball or football) was 2.95 and the most recent NCAA graduation report recorded that only 48 percent of Division I-A football players earn degrees.
The NCAA requires a minimum of 13 college prepatory courses as athletes head into college and a minimum grade point average of 2.5.
"That is embarassing, I think" said Notre Dame Assistant Provost for Enrollment Daniel Saracino. "That is something which we think is ridiculous. It's dangerous for a student who is a great athlete to just look to the NCAA for wisdom. … The bare minimum of 13 units and 2.5 is wholly inadequate."
The lowered academic standards and the commercialization of collegiate athletics seem to be seeping into high school athletics as well.
According to the Knight Commission, "high school sports today can reflect the worst of their collegiate counterparts. In addition to commercial influences, recruitment and transfer of high school players is far too common, leading to disjointed academic experiences and absurdly dominant teams in some communities. Academic compromises are made for high school athletes as well, leaving them with a diploma but ill-prepared for college level work."
This kind of environment — replacing the stress on academics with a stress on running a good business — seems to be in direct contrast with the NCAA, whose mission statement describes athletics as "an integral part of the educational program, and the athlete as an integral part of the student body."
Notre Dame's place
Despite this seemingly downward spiral of academics in Division I-A programs, several programs have managed to retain both their academic integrity and their athletic excellence. Programs such as Duke, which is in the top 20 universities rated by US News and World Report and competes for a national title in basketball each year, have found a balance between excellence in the classroom and on the field.
Notre Dame and Stanford have both managed to be in the top 20 for the Sears Cup in both the fall and the winter and remain in the top 20 schools rated by US News and World Report. Stanford is ranked first in both the fall and the winter Sears Cup rating; Notre Dame was rated sixth in the winter and 14th in the fall of 2001-2002.
"We've chosen a path that few have chosen and we want it all," said Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White. "We want the whole enchilada and we're not willing to ratchet down those expectations as relate to any of those realities, be it competitive academics, compliance, whatever."
Thus far, Notre Dame seems to have managed to maintain higher academic standards than many NCAA institutions and has requirements higher than those held by the NCAA itself. In a recent letter sent out to all coaches at Notre Dame, Saracino recorded the University's requirements for its student athletes. Student athletes interested in attending Notre Dame must complete a minimum of 16 college prep units — three more than required by the NCAA, citing the fact that a student with low numbers of college prep units cannot be successful at the University.
"A student who has 13 college prep units will not make it through Notre Dame," Saracino said.
In addition, the grade point average for entering athletes is higher than the 2.5 required by the NCAA. Although the Notre Dame football players may not boast a grade point average as high as the average Notre Dame student, according to Saracino, the average Notre Dame football player enters with a solid B-plus average and a firm academic background.
"We don't have remediation here," Saracino said. "So if a student doesn't have three years of math, we're not going to be able to make that up."
But in addition to high academic standards, Notre Dame expects to win on Saturday.
"It's not good enough to be close; you play it to win," said Notre Dame head football coach Tyrone Willingham. "That is success for me. It is success when I have young men graduate and do well academically at this institution; that is success for me."
White described it as the Notre Dame way — keeping academic standards high, retaining integrity and still winning on Saturday. Despite their determination to retain Notre Dame's high standards, however, people associated with the University recognize the frustration surrounding the recruitment of good athletes who are also good students.
"I think, in a way, our problem is getting good players," Hesburgh said. "You can't compete without good players. But we have to get good players who can compete at this university."
Saracino said, "Do I think there's some frustration? Yes."
But Notre Dame has a strong tradition both in athletic excellence and academic success and there are those who plan on keeping that tradition alive.
"I think as much of a challenge as some people have marked it, I feel it's a wonderful opportunity," White said. "And I think we stand for something and my sense is most people around the country know what it is we stand for. I think that becomes a beacon; that attracts a lot of talented young people."
Looking to the Future
Despite the strong determination to keep Notre Dame's academic reputation and its athletic success, one question still remains — a question regarding the future of the relationship between education and athletics.
"We're not here today just to talk about football and basketball and any other ball you want," Hesburgh said. "We're talking about an institution called university which was founded in 1204 in Paris. … I said this is an ancient institution, … it's ancient enough to be venerated and not just looked on as a sports club."
But can university be kept in Notre Dame's image or is it doomed to become a sports club?
Notre Dame has at least one thing going in its favor — the tradition of the Golden Dome.
"Without our history and our tradition, I think there are other schools that have those same noble aspirations, but without the history and the tradition we enjoy, it makes it virtually impossible to realize," White said.
Notre Dame has managed to keep up with the other football powerhouses in the last 20 years. In 1988, Lou Holtz led his team to a national championship and in 1993 he narrowly missed another one after a loss to Boston College.
And, of course, the number of athletes Notre Dame needs each year is limited.
"You're not looking for a large number [of football players each year]," Saracino said. "And to think that you can't find that small number of talented, bright students is insulting to student athletes."
Willingham summarized the thoughts of the University when he was asked why he thought he could win at Notre Dame.
"Unfortunately, sometimes I have to answer questions with a question," he said. "Why not?"
All Sports Stories for Thursday, April 25, 2002