CAN THE DRAKES CLEAN UP COLLEGE SPORTS?


In today's Writers' Bloc, Robert Lipsyte introduces an unlikely and disparate group of "revolutionaries" that are taking on the even more unlikely and thankless task of trying to save college sport from itself.

Can they possibly make a difference? And do you even want them to?

Not as easy as cake | By Robert Lipsyte

The Cinderella team I'm rooting for will make it to San Antonio, but may never get any attention at all. The players are small, slow and are still struggling to operate as a unit instead of a pack of freelancers. They don't appear to have a coach.

Years ago, I dubbed them the Drakes, because they were formed at Drake University in Iowa, and because they reminded me then of a gaggle of quacking ducks. I also thought they were the most interesting and hopeful development in the complex and hypocritical shadow world of "sports reform." They actually had some ideas that went beyond firing an embarrassing coach after a sex scandal or a murder.

The five-year-old Drake Group will be holding its annual meeting in San Antonio with plans to crash the dance. They are threatening "civil disobedience." Since most of them are college professors, I suspect it will be as scary as a teach-in.

But the Drakes are a problem for us, because they demand that we hold two conflicting views at the same time. One is that the NCAA basketball tournament may simply be the most exhilarating event of the sports calendar. Two is that it may also embody everything that's wrong with our games. Love and hate are always on the top of the bracket.

Freshmen, especially those who don't read real good, should not be playing. Graduation rates for "scholar-athletes" are shameful. The methods that brought many of the best players to their colleges are almost as despicable as the methods that keep them eligible. The impact of all this on higher education and, ultimately, the morality of the nation is worth exploring.

The games are unquestionably exciting and unpredictable, as are the players, and the passion of the crowd is contagious. It's the only reality TV show I enjoy. But the Drakes keep reminding me there are snakes in the garden. Freshmen, especially those who don't read real good, should not be playing. Graduation rates for "scholar-athletes" are shameful. The methods that brought many of the best players to their colleges are almost as despicable as the methods that keep them eligible. The impact of all this on higher education and, ultimately, the morality of the nation is worth exploring.

Yet, taking the Drakes seriously is not easy, because they are hard to stereotype. While most of them are university professors, they tend to be sports fans, and many of them played and coached at some level. They range from the Fulminator -- English professor Murray Sperber, for years the gallant and endangered anti-Knight at Indiana University -- to the Facilitator -- Terry Holland, the distinguished former athletic director and basketball coach who twice took Virginia to the Final Four.

If the Drakes share a distinguishing characteristic, it is a certain sense of betrayal. At some point, almost all were true believers in the goodness and purity of sport. The perfidy was personal. The two most obvious victims were Linda Bensel-Meyers, the Tennessee whistle-blower, and Dave Ridpath, the Marshall scapegoat.

On a hike into the hills beyond Knoxville, Bensel-Meyers confided to me that she had been a serious Tennessee football fan and had raised her three sons to bleed Orange. No wonder they and her husband went ballistic when Bensel-Meyers, who supervised first-year composition at the school, finally went public about a pattern of plagiarized term papers and altered grades among athletes. She seemed most outraged because the athletes were being denied a chance for a decent education.

This was after years of trying to get coaches and athletic administrators to rectify the problem. Everybody patted little Linda on the head and told her to get back to her book on 16th-century rhetoric.

The Drake Group
The Drake Group at a conference in 2000.

After Bensel-Meyers' office had yet again been broken into and trashed, I asked the then-president of the University of Tennessee if that didn't warrant an investigation. He chuckled and talked about the sloppy habits of the university's cleaning staff; how many times had he come to work and found papers on his own desk rearranged?

He eventually left under a cloud of his own, but on a campus where streets are named for coaches and players, Bensel-Meyers didn't stand a chance. She is now teaching at the University of Denver. The rhetoric book is almost done, as is a Tennessee tell-all called "Guarding the Plantation."

Ridpath, a former high school wrestler, Army officer and college coach, is just the kind of lapsed true believer who makes the most dangerous rebel. As Assistant Athletic Director for Compliance and Student Services at Marshall University, Ridpath took the brunt of the blame for the West Virginia mid-major's latest round of violations, which had to do (ho-hum) with a pattern of easy, high-paying jobs offered to athletes by a prominent local booster.

The jobs began long before Ridpath got to Marshall. The booster told me he always thought he was doing the program a favor. Those boys worked their butts off for the school. The booster told me he wasn't at all pleased at how Ridpath was treated, and he didn't much like his own name being dragged into the mud, while the coaches and athletic administrators danced away.

Ridpath was not fired, which is interesting. He was moved to Director of Judicial Programs at Marshall. Now he is suing for an apology, $350,000 and the removal of the term "corrective action" from his file.

"I bought into the whole package that athletics was all pure and good," Ridpath told me. "I was the kind of guy who thought Proposition 48 was a great thing to help black kids, until I figured out it was not about education. It was about getting athletes into college. I was na´ve about a lot of things."

Until recently, the question posed to me the other day by fellow Bloc-head Jeff Merron -- "Does the NCAA (Brand, et. al.) pay any attention at all to the Drake Group and its manifestos? Aside from their worthy ideas, are they making any real inroads in college sports?" -- would have merited my usual unequivocal, "Beats me."

But I'm beginning to sense some stir and jitter out there. The sheer weight of bad publicity (pick your own favorite felonies and scholar-ho's) is squeezing the NCAA at least toward some image makeovers. The Drakes are in a position to push the dialogue in a progressive direction, to tweak the agenda.

NCAA president Myles Brand knows he has problems and he has been saying some of the right things about standards. But he is the head of an organization that distributes some $425 million from this Tournament to member schools, mostly in the power conferences that run the NCAA. Brand is a man who will do the right thing if forced, but is first of all a pragmatist. Remember that Brand is celebrated or reviled as the Indiana president who fired Bob Knight and that he is celebrated or reviled for having enabled the coach for years.

Myles Brand
NCAA president Myles Brand represents the Madness in a different light.

The Drakes, as a loose federation of loose cannons, make each other braver just by wearing the same jersey. Just take a look at this eclectic roster, some of them one-issue playmakers.

Jon Ericson, founder of the group and a former provost at Drake, believes that the key to reform is the disclosure of athletes' test scores, grades and courses, hitherto kept hidden through federal privacy statutes.

Kathy Redmond is a survivor of rape by a Nebraska football player and founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes.

Bruce Svare, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at SUNY-Albany, founded the National Institute for Sports Reform and believes that "athletic scholarships are the root of all evil," because their pursuit has poisoned the sports well all the down to the peewee leagues. Svare is also an active youth sports coach.

John Gerdy, an All-American basketball player at Davidson and a pro in Europe, thinks one clue to the poor graduation rate may be the sheer lack of educational attainment among Division I basketball coaches. In a recent study, he found that only about 30 percent of them had masters' degrees compared to 98 percent of faculty (the majority, of course, have Ph.D's).

Marc Isenberg is founder of A-Game, an educational company focusing on the dangers of sports betting. He's been trying to get the NCAA to talk about the estimated $3.5 billion in illegal gambling on the Tournament, and its possible involvement with on-line wagering.

Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker, has been pushing for increased health and welfare benefits for scholarship athletes. After Huma's Collegiate Athletes Coalition was repeatedly dismissed by the NCAA, Huma accepted support from the United Steelworkers Union. That quickly became controversial, because any hint of unionism is seen as a threat to the status quo of unpaid performers on one-year contracts.

So far, the Drakes have yet to come up with a stud, a franchise player like Jack Scott or Harry Edwards, who will evoke the Athletic Revolution of the '60s. But it may have an even more powerful weapon; it has engaged the faculty. Professors have generally been quiet out of disinterest and a genuine (and justified) fear of the athletic department. Those big guys are smart and connected and can make your life tough (ask Sperber).

While university presidents will talk on and on about the importance of sports on their campuses, particularly as a bridge to the non-academic local and political communities, most professors still believe they were called to teach youngsters to think, not to give an intellectual veneer to a beer-and-circus culture. Once the faculty is truly aroused and challenged, it may become impossible to continue to keep the illiterate eligible.

If the Drakes do make any real inroads, will they hurt this glorious Tournament?

In the long run, they can make it better -- certainly cleaner and more stable. What thrills us -- the pulsing arenas and the Cinderella upsets, the buzzer beaters and the cheerleaders and the painted faces and the sheer joy of energy unleashed -- comes from the game itself. It does not come from the sewer of greedy colleges, con man coaches and college kids who can do everything with a basketball but read its label.