Friday, September 18, 2009

Myles Brand, R.I.P.

By Richard Vedder

As regular readers know, I am not wild about the NCAA. It is a cartel that has contributed to the excessive emphasis on intercollegiate sports in America, and its practices have enriched adults (e.g., coaches) at the expense of younger persons (e.g.,college athletes). Myles Brand, who has just passed away, was the president of the NCAA for years. Yet Myles improved the NCAA a bit from some of the shameful ways of the past, and tried to make supporters of that cartel realize that intercollegiate athletics are part of a larger academic setting, and ignoring that fact hurts not only universities but college sports as well.

Myles was a philosopher who became a successful administrator, leading two major American universities (Oregon and Indiana) before taking over the NCAA leadership. He is the person who first pointed out to me, at a meeting in Denver, some of the problems with published graduation rates, and that athletic graduation rates were not all that different, in many cases, from those of the general university population. Intercollegiate swimmers and cross country team members, for example, do reasonably well academically, and critics of intercollegiate sports should acknowledge that fact.

Myles was the person who pushed to implement more rigorous academic standards within the NCAA. Relative to the myopic coaches and athletic directors who largely ignore the role of athletics within the broader higher education milieu, Dr. Brand was a strong reformer. I always respected him as a person of integrity who, in a modest but tangible way, made American college sports a bit less scandalous and dubious than otherwise would be the case. He did not do anything to erase some of the huge problems, and was perhaps too accommodating to the "good old boys" who still largely run intercollegiate sports, but he was better than any other alternative that likely could have been elected NCAA president.

I have read a lot from NCAA types suggesting that they don't want to have a university president running "their" organization. I think it should be mandated that the organization be run by a bona fide academic, either a sometime university president or a scholar of some repute in an academic discipline (or, both). Indeed, I would go further, and insist that all or most of those voting on NCAA matters come from the academic side of universities, and that attendance by athletic directors and coaches at major meetings be limited in size to assure academic primacy in the affairs of the organization. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen.

I suspect the modest reforms that Brand brought to the NCAA upset many jock groupies, alums, and athletic directors and that they will try to resume a path towards even greater commercialization and support moves away from closer relationships to the academic enterprise that forms the core missions of all reputable institutions. If the Barbarians are successful in the post-Brand NCAA, I suspect that scandals will ultimately put an end to anti-academic excesses, and perhaps lead to congressional threats of removal of anti-trust and tax exemptions. But the damage to higher education could be large --intercollegiate sports can have negative as well as (allegedly) positive spillover effects. Myles Brand's contribution was less what was done during his tenure, but what was NOT done --he kept the inmates from running the asylum.

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