NCAA Plans To Rescue Tarnished Sports Programs

College sport has a plan to save college sport. That's the message from the National Collegiate Athletic Association after a two-day retreat in Indianapolis. The gathering of university presidents and other officials follows a rash of high profile college sports scandals.

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College sport has a plan to save college sport. That's the message from the National Collegiate Athletic Association after a two-day retreat in Indianapolis. A rash of high-profile sports scandals at colleges brought together university presidents and other officials. Among their proposals in a rescue plan: boost academic standards for college athletes and streamline the NCAA rule book.

As NPR's Tom Goldman reports, conference goers are promising quick action.

TOM GOLDMAN: Scandals have touched the reigning national champions in football - Auburn - men's basketball - Connecticut - and other prominent schools in those sports: Oregon, Southern Cal, North Carolina, Ohio State. From recruiting violations by coaches to improper benefits for players, it's created enough of a critical mass to prompt more than 50 university presidents to travel to Indy where, to varying degrees, they channeled actor Peter Finch and his mad-as-hell moment in the film "Network."

Mr. GRAHAM SPANIER (President, Penn State University): Presidents are fed up with the rule-breaking that's out there.

GOLDMAN: Penn State's Graham Spanier called the retreat the most substantive conversation on intercollegiate athletics he's experienced as 20 years as a university president, topped only by NCAA President Mark Emmert, who led the meetings, and said afterwards it was the most consequential discussion in his 30 years in higher education, a discussion, he said, where there was a strong and clear agreement...

Mr. MARK EMMERT (President, NCAA): That we needed to have change in a number of key areas, and we needed to have it quickly.

GOLDMAN: As in over a period of months, not years. So, with the clock ticking, here are some of those key areas.

Mr. EMMERT: We all agree that the NCAA rule book needs some serious editing. The rules are, in some cases, too complex, unenforceable in some ways, convoluted in some ways, even irrelevant.

GOLDMAN: Emmert says a rule book focusing on serious infractions, like paying athletes to move to another school, providing inappropriate benefits, academic fraud, combined with tougher penalties will put a healthy fear in those contemplating breaking the rules. Another key area: ensuring student athletes are just that. Proposals include raising academic requirements for incoming freshmen and transfer students from two-year colleges.

And perhaps the most controversial idea: raising the standard for a team's academic performance and linking that to postseason play. Penn State President Spanier talked about it in a phone interview.

Mr. SPANIER: If you're a basketball team and your numbers are historically too low, not enough people are continuing in school - they're flunking out, they're not graduating - as good as you might be, you're not going to play in the NCAA tournament.

GOLDMAN: There was consensus on not paying players, a hot-button issue in college sports. But topping off athletic scholarships to pay the true cost of attendance at a university, that is a possibility.

Mr. DAVE RIDPATH (Ohio University Professor): To me, the things we're talking about are pretty radical.

GOLDMAN: Which is saying a lot for Dave Ridpath. He's an Ohio University professor and a long-time NCAA critic.

Mr. RIDPATH: I mean, when you would mention something like increased academic standards, many times you're automatically accused of being racist or not wanting to help out athletes. These are issues that verboten a mere few years ago, and the fact we're talking about them, I will say, is pretty encouraging.

GOLDMAN: Ridpath is a member of the Drake Group, a faculty organization dedicated to - in his words - bringing academic integrity to intercollegiate athletics, something he says the NCAA has not been serious about, but he hopes now may be.

Mr. RIDPATH: I mean, if one proposal that they're talking about actually becomes part of the fabric of intercollegiate law, I would be totally impressed, because typically these meetings are just a lot of talk and no action.

GOLDMAN: Mark Emmert said yesterday, quote, "I think you're going to see some pretty remarkable things in the coming months." Meantime, the beat goes on. Tomorrow in Indianapolis, Ohio State goes before the NCAA Infractions Committee to answer to allegations that players accepted improper benefits, and that head Coach Jim Tressel, who has resigned, knew about it and didn't tell authorities. The scandal, still under investigation, has rocked one of the nation's most storied programs in college football.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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