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Did the NCAA Learn `Reform' From Russia?

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IN the week before Desert Shield became Desert Storm, there was one headline among all the foreboding news that struck a hopeful note. It announced ``the avalanche of reform measures'' adopted at the National Collegiate Athletic Association's annual convention held in Nashville, Jan. 7-10. At last, a reader thought, the watchdog of college athletics, the NCAA, was going to do something about steroids, drug trafficking, point shaving, alcohol abuse, academic fraud, recruiting bribes, coed rape, and the exploitation of black athletes.

But when the reader progressed to the story's fourth paragraph, he learned that the new reform measures had little to do with the offenses listed above. How in the world would reducing the number of assistant football coaches from nine to eight prevent a coach from offering a $100,000 recruiting bonus to a high school star? Or how would eliminating team breakfasts and lunches improve the pitiful 17 percent graduation rate of black basketball players? Even the one new measure that seemed to make sense, abolishing athletic dormitories, would not go into effect until 1996, plenty of time for the NCAA to change its mind.

Changing its mind and reforming itself are two things the NCAA does frequently. In the last decade alone, the NCAA has had two other ``reform'' conventions.

In June 1985, the Presidents Commission, an NCAA organization comprised of college CEOs, adopted the so-called ``death penalty'' for recruiting violations. Yet it has been invoked only once - against Southern Methodist University - despite a long list of candidates.

Puffed up by the victory, the Presidents Commission convened the entire NCAA in June 1987 to reduce the ever-increasing costs of big-time college athletics.

If 1985 was the NCAA convention of triumph for the Presidents Commission, the 1987 Convention was its humiliation. All eight proposed reform measures were defeated by embarrassing margins, and several that were passed in 1985 were rescinded before they ever went into effect. Robert Atwell, president of the American Council on Education, said at the time, ``It was the end of the so-called reform of college athletics.

Had sportswriters included this recent history in their convention coverage, the public would have seen that Nashville hardly rivaled the cathedral doors of Wittenberg.

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