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Bob Ryan

Some big-time problems here

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / August 30, 2011

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I feel like a defense lawyer going to bat for a close friend who I know is guilty of something.

The friend is a peculiarly American sporting pursuit known as big-time college sport, specifically football and basketball.

No other country does this, and that includes our good friends north of the border, where their college-related sport is essentially the equivalent of our non-scholarship Division 3. In most other nations young athletes participate in their chosen sport by becoming members of private clubs, by becoming professionals at a very early age, or by taking part in a government-sponsored program.

America is the only country in which our higher institutions of learning are invested in providing elaborate forums to promote sport. Giant outdoor stadiums and elaborate indoor arenas on college campuses, and even athletic scholarships, are unique to the USA.

And we have been doing this for a very long time. Football has been institutionalized since at least the 1880s, with schools from what later would be called the Ivies leading the way. From the start, it never has been conducted in a gentlemanly manner. Pay no attention to what Grantland Rice famously said about what happens when the Great Scorekeeper comes a’ callin’. Winning, not taking part, always has been paramount.

The NCAA was formed with 62 charter members in 1906, the stated purpose being “to protect young people from the dangerous and exploitative athletic practices of the time.’’

The real purpose was to enable those institutions who cared about college football to have some mechanism by which they could keep an eye on each other. The reason the current NCCA rulebook is so thick, and the reason the NCAA exists at all, is because no one trusts anyone.

Human nature never has changed. Humans instinctively will protect that which they love, however flawed the object of their affection may be. The fact is that every segment of the college football industry repeatedly has embarrassed itself for more than 130 years. I am speaking of college presidents, athletic administrators, coaches, players, and “boosters’’ such as Nevin Shapiro, whose activities have been so much in the news at the University of Miami.

And they have been supported to this very instant by enablers known as fans and media, and that certainly includes me, Robert Peter Ryan, a fan and devotee of big-time college sports for almost 60 years.

I grew up on two major items on the vast American sports smorgasbord - major league baseball and college sports. In my case, the direct spectating involvement was more college basketball than football, although I was exposed to some very interesting football events when my father was an assistant athletic director at Villanova in the early ’50s.

Scandal in college sports is nothing new. The phrase “tramp athlete,’’ a description of individuals who routinely went from school to school in search of a better deal, dates from the ’90s. The 1890s. The NCAA formulated what it called a “Sanity Code’’ following World War II, the purpose of which was to “establish guidelines for recruiting and financial aid.’’ It quickly fizzled, the reason, of course, that few schools really wished to have any of their excess curbed by a higher authority.

The system we now have is close to intellectually indefensible. What does the presence of a 100,000-seat stadium or a 20,000-seat arena on a college campus have to do with higher education? Facilities enabling all students to enjoy some recreation in their spare time and to improve their overall physical fitness make sense and need no defense. Anything else is utterly unnecessary and antithetical to the purpose of a university.

That would be my devil’s advocate argument against big-time college sports.

But that argument is a ship that long ago left port. You be the one to tell the people of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oregon, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, West Virginia, Virginia, South Carolina, California, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado, not to mention our New England blood brothers in Connecticut, all places where big-time college sports are a very serious civic matter, that henceforth their beloved college football and/or basketball teams will be downgraded to a Division 3 or club level.

Yeah, you tell ’em. I’ll pass.

We are Americans. We want this in our lives. We love the pageantry, the competition, the tradition, and, in many cases, the opportunity to exercise bragging rights, all of which are provided by big-time college sports. I mean, I cannot possibly imagine an American sporting calendar without the regular college football and basketball seasons, the bowl games, and, most of all, the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament, culminating in the Final Four. Once they kick the ball off or throw it up, I love it all.

What produces this is a classic sausage factory. You know it and I know it. It should come as no great shock that money talk dominates, but we don’t seem to be much bothered by that. Fans interested in wins and only wins for their favorite team are likewise not interested in academic fraud or NCAA infractions involving “impermissible benefits,’’ or even the legal status of the athletes in question. How many people in Louisiana do you think are not desperate to see starting LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson, who is alleged to have participated in a recent bar fight, in uniform Saturday against Oregon? Six? Seven?

What with shady recruiting charges (Oregon), free tattoos (Ohio State), money, yacht outings, hookers, and you-name-it allegations (Miami), it’s been a bad stretch for college football. NCAA president Mark Emmert commissioned an emergency council of NCAA elders to address the climate, something that’s only been done 118,564 times before, and all with the same results. This one will be no different.

Here’s when I’ll know the college people are serious about changing things. I’ll know when they hire detectives to see where the players are living, what they’re driving, and who they’re associating with, and I’d do the same for their blood relatives. Even before that, I’d eliminate offcampus housing for athletes. They would have to live in dorms, every last one of them. If this sounds too much like a police state, so be it. It’s not as if the athletes of the last three or four decades have earned anyone’s trust.

Now in case you haven’t heard, the Big Boys are getting a little academic religion. There is in place an index called the four-year academic progress rate (APR). Currently, a Division 1 basketball team needs a four-year average of 925, or it faces a loss of scholarships. The NCAA is expected to approve a hike to a minimum of 930.

If the new standards had been in place this year, Ohio State and Syracuse would not have been allowed into the 2011 NCAA tourney. Connecticut, which had a 930 APR in May of 2010, had fallen to 893 by May of 2011. Under these guidelines, the Huskies would not be eligible to defend. But there will be a 3-5 year phase-in period. How fortuitous.

So already there’s a compromise, and you can bet there will be a few more. It would be wonderful if all those big-time college football and basketball teams were populated by fully qualified, devoted, academically curious, law-abiding student-athletes who really want to be in college (and who are not killing time before they get to the NFL or NBA) and who really deserve the scholarship opportunity.

Oh, wait, we have that already. It’s called Division 3, except there aren’t scholarships, and there are generally plenty of good seats available. The fact is we want to see the Big Boys, and millions of Americans only care that they put on a uniform and give us a show. And, yup, I’m right there.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.