Curtain on US 'sports students' farce rises

September 3, 1999

BOSTON

American universities continue to be embarrassed by major scandals in their high-stakes athletic programmes, most recently at the University of Minnesota, where one humiliation has followed another.

First it turned out that athletics department officials had arranged for an employee to complete more than 100 class assignments for as many as 20 basketball players to ensure that they maintained their academic standing and could compete. The revelation forced several star players out of the national championships.

Then it was reported that basketball and football players at the state university had sexually harassed as many as 40 female tutors and other women at the university but that athletics department officials had intervened with the campus police to avoid a prosecution of the men.

These problems occurred despite the fact that Minnesota has suffered seven athletics scandals since the 1970s, including payoffs to players, embezzlement, sex abuse charges and violations of the rules of the body that governs most US intercollegiate sports.

Now the case has become symbolic of what is wrong with US university athletics, which earn millions of dollars from merchandising and television rights for large institutions such as Minnesota.

The situation "is nothing short of a crisis for higher education", Joe Wyatt, chancellor of Vanderbilt University, wrote in an appeal to his counterparts at other universities. "If we don't deal with the issue of academic accountability ourselves, well-meaning but possibly misguided solutions may be forced on us."

The most widespread problem is the low graduation rates of university athletes, who critics say are recruited for their ability on the field and then discarded when their eligibility ends. At Minnesota the men's basketball players have the worst grade-point averages of any team in their conference; barely a third of them graduate. That apparently led officials to look the other way while a then secretary in the athletics department's academic services office - whose role it is to help athletes stay in university - completed more than 100 assignments for up to 20 basketball players over a five-year period. When a professor concluded that one player had not written a paper he had submitted, the athletics department claimed the secretary had merely typed the paper. Outraged by this, she disclosed that she had written it and scores of others.

Four players were suspended, one athletics department official sacked and two law firms hired to investigate. They found evidence of "massive cheating and a general attitude in some quarters of hear-no-evil, see-no-evil", according to Mark Yudof, the university president.

The investigation into sexual harassment confirmed that there was "favouritism towards student athletes and insensitivity towards female victims by university officials", including 12 cases in which coaches became involved and one in which they intervened to change the outcome.

A final report from investigators is due in September, and the university may suffer further sanctions from the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The university has refused to release the full report of its handling of sexual assault and misconduct allegations and faces lawsuits from newspapers, state agencies and two alleged victims.

Meanwhile, a new basketball coach has been hired with a financial incentive to raise the graduation rate. But this only amounts to 3 per cent of his salary, which critics say means the university is not serious about changing the status quo.

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