CHAPEL HILL – Former President and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation which funds the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, Hodding Carter, III says shifting the oversight of athletics back away from the office of a college’s or university’s president like UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp recently suggested is not the answer.
“He’s wrong on almost every count,” Carter says. “First, of course, the reason that the recommendations came down—and they were a long time ago—was precisely because everything was being run by athletic directors and being run into the ground in some instances in terms of the integrity of the university.”
The Knight Commission was formed in 1989 in an effort to make sure colleges and universities are functioning in the way they were designed and not falling victim to the negative effects of Big Time College Athletics. Carter says the decision to put the president ultimately in charge of the athletic department wasn’t recommended by people outside the system who didn’t know what they were talking about.
“They were largely people who were themselves college presidents and chancellors,” Carter says. “Well, and of course the two who led it were Bill Friday—who knew something about academics—and Father Ted Hesburgh of Notre Dame.”
During an athletic forum with members of the national higher education community and sports media last week, Chancellor Thorp said it has taken him all five years of his tenure as chancellor to become ready to run the athletic department.
He said that his comments were made knowing he’s leaving Division I athletics and knowing that his successor—Dartmouth College’s interim president, Dr. Carol Folt—will need to know what he knows coming in.
However, Carter says there’s no way that a person in that position could not know that athletics was going to be such a major part of the job.
“Whether or not it has worked as was planned is of course a function of whether or not the presidents have the guts and the sense to go forward and run the athletic side the way they try to run the academic side,” Carter says. “If they fail, they may wish to blame the system, but they ought to be blaming themselves.”
He says that’s not to say that the role of Chancellor is easy, but the person in that position can make the choice whether or not to make athletics as big a part of his or her university as it is.
“Once you drink the Kool-Aid and decide Big Time Athletics is a proper function for your university, and he has decided that, then it is your responsibility to see to it—as with everything else with the university—that it is run straight,” Carter says.
Carter says the Knight Commission put this process in place because the old system was a “total failure”, and it’s important to understand that the new system is not the perfect answer. However, he says one process could greatly help the system that is currently in place.
“Take the athletic department—or the director—out of a separate little institution over here on the side sort of running itself, and bring that person directly up into the chancellor or president’s office,” Carter says.
And, he says without following one simple formula, no system will work.
“What comes first is the student; what also comes first is integrity; and that is an absolute requirement,” Carter says. “If you don’t say that, it doesn’t matter what the system is, it’s going to be, in terms of integrity, a failure.”
“Since the NCAA and many offices of presidents across the country are not straight when it comes to the kids and their futures, then you might as well go ahead and say, ‘hey guys, you’re a separate little think called pros playing for us and we really are going to cheer you on, and we’re going to pay you as well.”
The idea of Big Time College Athletics is not new, although national interest is constantly growing. But Carter says it’s important to realize there’s no way to instantly change the way things are functioning in college athletics.
“It is like a huge tanker—you know you always use this cliché, but it happens to be true—you cannot make abrupt changes in direction no matter how hard you change the wheel,” Carter says. “You can apply, however, steady pressure over time to change the direction, and that’s what’s got to be done.”