Sports never too big to challenge

When the NCAA last week leveled potentially crippling sanctions on Penn State for failing to respond to sex-abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky, the hand-wringing, soul-searching, and finger-pointing began anew.

One phrase in particular delivered by NCAA president Mark Emmert hit home for me. He cautioned that one of the grave dangers in a sports-loving society is that sports themselves can become "too big to challenge." It took me back 30 years to the campus of Boston College, when I was a student during a heady time for the sports-crazy Big East school.

Long an ice hockey powerhouse, BC began investing heavily in its other sports programs. The payoff came quickly, with national rankings in basketball.

And over at Alumni Stadium, guiding the Eagles football team, was a newly signed, scrappy little quarterback named Doug Flutie, who would soon make BC a household name.

The women's basketball team also had been elevated to Division I status the year I came, fulfilling my dream of playing at the highest level of collegiate sports.

But there was a dark side to this newfound prominence.

Boston College, a Jesuit institution with a strong academic reputation, had its pick of valedictorians from the most competitive Catholic high schools in the Northeast.

It also enrolled students who could barely read. But they could play ball.

I came face to face with this sad reality in my sophomore year, when I lived in a dorm with the freshman football players.

One player, Donald, struggled with English composition and asked for help. He showed me his assignment, a book report on a dime-store mystery that began "the book I like because."

Stunned, I crafted what amounted to a grammatically correct, elementary school-level book report. Some time later, Donald showed me the results: scribbled in red pen across the top was the grade A- and the words "A vast improvement."

A double whammy. Not only was one of my classmates suffering from reading comprehension and writing deficiencies, but a professor was participating in this fraud. I marched a copy of the paper to a dean's office.

He dismissed my concerns, trying to explain that there were two different standards for admission: those for top athletes, and those for everyone else.

Sometimes it takes an institution's overseers, such as the NCAA, to deliver an ironfisted blow that shakes a school to its foundation. Sometimes it takes a courageous and, yes, sports-loving professor to blow the whistle.

The latter was the case at Boston College.

The year after I transferred to Oberlin College, a sociology professor dared to prove the college was not "too big to challenge."

Michael Malec, in a six-page letter to the school newspaper in 1983, ripped the administration for creating a two-tier system for athletes, diverting them into the less demanding "night school" and pressuring professors to shuttle them along with passing grades regardless of the level of their work.

"If academic integrity is the ‘soul' of the university," wrote Malec, "then the following question is important for Boston College: At what price is the university willing to sell its soul?"

When major newspapers followed up on the story, Malec, whose academic focus is the culture of sports, was forced to defend himself as not being an "anti-sports fuddy-duddy."

Malec's challenge came just months after the basketball team made it to the Elite Eight finals of the NCAA tournament. The following fall, Doug Flutie solidified the college's name in the American sports lexicon when he performed his "Miracle in Miami," the 63-yard, last-second pass that gave the Eagles a 47-45 win over the University of Miami.

For speaking out, Malec was given a first-of-its-kind formal letter of reprimand by then-president Father J. Donald Monan.

I found Malec last week at his office at Boston College, still teaching after 45 years, and asked what had become of his crusade in the decades since.

He said that change came slowly, but that academic standards were tightened and a new emphasis placed on developing true student-athletes with resources devoted to assessing and addressing any learning problems. The school also demands higher SAT scores and higher grade-point averages of incoming athletes.

Malec said he'd like to think he had a little something to do with it.

"The admission of athletes is now under the admissions office, not the athletic department," he told me.

But still, he said, as Penn State illustrates, you can have a few individuals in powerful positions who have the ability to be larger than the institution, who protect the school's image rather than its students — or child-abuse victims.

"This is not unique to Penn State or to college football," Malec said. "It's part of the nature of large, powerful institutions, of coaches or priests, people in positions of respect. There can be hubris and arrogance."

He thinks the message will be heard across big-time sports programs. "They will heed the message in the long term," he said.

But as far as controlling the "athletic arms race" that pushes coaching salaries skyward and demands ever-increasing investments in sports infrastructure?

"It's still there," said Malec, who is now working on a chapter of a book on the culture of tailgating.

As an example, he pointed to his recent tour of BC's athletic complex, where a tour guide beamed and said, "This weight room is second only to Nebraska's."

Donald, the freshman player who first exposed me to the crueler realities of college sports, like most college football players, never made it to the NFL. I don't think he even made it through Boston College. I did hear he was eventually diagnosed with a learning disability and finally given the educational support he should have had as a child many years earlier.

And Malec's formal letter of reprimand? It was rescinded long ago.

 

Amy Worden is an Inquirer staff writer. E-mail her at aworden@phillynews.com.