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"We are trying to superimpose an entertainment industry on top of an academic structure, and it won't work. It never has worked."

Bill Friday surveys the state of college sports (full interview) 

UNC-system President Emeritus Bill Friday

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

UNC-system President Emeritus Bill Friday

UNC-system President Emeritus Bill Friday was pushing for reform in college athletics before Terrell Pryor knew what a tattoo was or Marvin Austin could tell time on a gaudy watch. As the founding co-chairman of the Knight Commission, a watchdog group of college presidents and other leaders who seek to put sports on the college level in balance with academics, Friday has worked on these issues for two decades.

We sat down with Friday, 91, in his humble office on the UNC campus earlier this week where the walls are adorned with family photos and a signed Doonesbury comic strip celebrating the recently passed "50 percent rule," which bans teams that fail to graduate at least half of their players from postseason play.

"I want you to remember one thing," he said. "I don't pose as an expert. I don't pose as a knowledgeable scholar or anything like that. I've just got a lot of scar tissue, and I know what the war is. I'm really sad about it. I'm not, /I told you so,' or anything like that. I just see a great thing being so tarnished that people are beginning to turn away, that's what you don't like. "

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: You helped found in Knight Commission in 1989 in the wake of the SMU Pony Express scandal. From you seat, with investigations ongoing at Miami, Ohio State and UNC, among others, is college athletics better or worse off now or then? Who is at fault?

BILL FRIDAY: We're a lot worse off, no question about that. The conversation that really started the Knight Commission was really almost by accident. Mr. Creed Black, who was president of the Knight Foundation at the time, had got a group of college administrators together in Washington to talk about something else, and at one of the breaks I just asked him, "Why don't you take a look at college sports? It's time for someone to follow behind that famous Carnegie study [in 1929]."

He told me later, he said, "I spent the last nine months asking a lot of people if you were right," he said. A lot of them said if you asked me two years ago we would have said no, but now we think you should. Well, now, that was 20 years ago and they were thinking it was a serious problem then.

(Notre Dame President) Father (Theodore) Hesburgh and I made a pact to do something no other commission had ever done and that was to listen. We literally spent the first year listening to everybody we could imagine who had anything to do with college sports. We started out with the power college coaches, as they call them, in basketball. We had Dean (Smith) and Mike (Krzyzewski) and Bobby Dobbs and John Thompson. They were all there together, and then we did the same thing in football. We worked our way from there to athletic directors, players, fans. We took about 12 months to complete this. Out of all that, and interestingly enough one of those things that one of those coaches said that really surprised me, he said, "This is the first time anyone has ever asked us what we felt about this."

Three things came out of that process in the first two years: One was to reassert presidential authority. The second one was to set up processes to guarantee academic integrity, and third to do the same thing with fiscal integrity [and] the flow of money. Then there was a fourth recommendation, which said that every five years a team would go into the institutions and see how well one, two and three were being performed.

This got along very well, and we began to enact in the NCAA quite a few changes, minor most of them, but the process was beginning. Then came television money, and what you've witnessed in the last decade has been the enormous power of millions of dollars to do what you have seen done, which was to I think create a situation that's probably the worse one that college sports has ever been involved in. Even yesterday's New York Times editorially called for President (Donna) Shalala to abolish the fall football season to demonstrate that an institution can deal with the problem, and then it said editorially that they did not expect it to happen, which says two things: They fear that no one president can go it alone, and secondly they don't figure that any conference will really take seriously the disaster that we all are facing.

This is the sad part about it. Everybody acknowledges that things aren't the way they should be, that we are in a dangerous situation, but nobody is stepping forward now to say that here's what we need to do.

Now [ACC Commissioner John] Swofford did advance several things at the last conference meeting, you see editorially people are beginning to say. You've got to start somewhere. For example, I would do what Dean Smith long ago advocated—and it's been proven, I think, in recent episodes here—I would reinstall the freshman eligibility rule. That would be the first thing I'd do.

The second thing would be, I would abolish football in midweek at colleges. It's too disruptive. Now I know that it makes some money, but if we are talking about student athletes and academic privacy you have to do this.

Third, I would take a good hard look at the length of the season. It begins early and runs well after Christmas now and bowl games.

Fourthly, I would make sure that the 50 percent rule was in place in every conference and that this was publicly accounted for.

Fifthly, and this I think is going to happen, this has gotten to be such a big business involving billions of dollars, not millions, billions, and these operations do not have any direct relationship at all to the basis of tax exemption for the university. So sooner or later we're going to have to face the question of taxation, and this can mean either federal taxation or state taxation, but it's a question that isn't going to go away. These are things I would do now to begin the process.

The other is there's got to be a careful examination of the debt burden that's being carried here. No. 1. I don't think students should have to carry the burden to pay for these exorbitant stadiums like they are doing at the University of Charlotte. I think it's a $300 fee. Well, these young people will never see that stadium, unless they come back as an alumnus which will be infrequently at best. It's a huge expenditure. Here again, it's a matter of the cost of this operation.

And now to the one that's most conspicuous, that's the salary of the coaching staff and all this. I know that college sports do not enjoy the antitrust exemption the way baseball and football does for example, the only way you can really begin to attack this problem is to start prospectively. So where you have a vacancy, just make clear, if you've got the fortitude and courage and nerve to do it, that you aren't going to pay at this level. Dean Smith started to work here as a coach for $9,700 a year, and you can demonstrate that in other coaches all around. There are bright, able, experienced, young coaches that can do what needs to be done, be successful, without making these huge salary commitments. I've seen it happen. I would certainly be an advocate of that.

The other question is of course academic requirements. You can't bring young people in to the university and into whatever institution you are talking about who have enough academic preparation that they are going to succeed. One statistic most people forget is that one out of 100 of these young men and women make a living in sport once they leave campus. One out of 100. So if you bring them here and you use them up, their eligibility is gone, and they haven't gotten a degree, what in the world have you done to benefit the life of that young person? I think institutions have an obligation to do that. Those are some of the things, where I am.

You mentioned that it takes a lot of fortitude and mental strength and sticking to the principles of what an institution of higher education should be. Do you see among the college landscape now the people in power positions who are ready to do that? Who's standing in the way of these changes and do you see them being overcome

I don't think it's a factor of anybody standing in the way so much as it is the lack of commitment by a conference to face up to this now. Mr. Swofford raised the curtain. He said here are things that this conference should do. I don't think any single president could do it alone, although I would admire him greatly if he tried, and Ms. Shalala's got a great opportunity. You can demonstrate the coaching situation at Chapel Hill for example, when it comes to salary and that applies to the athletic director as well as coaching.

See, what we're all saying, and the reason Father Hesburgh and I put 12 years into this, the underlying principle here is the integrity of the university itself, that's what you are worried about, because when I see charges of academic malfeasance, cheating, this goes to the reputation of the university itself, and this is what I think nobody can tamper with. I don't think anyone has that privilege. When you come to work here, you uphold the traditions academically first, last and always. This is what's going to put such a handicap on institutions in the future.

Now, to say that something has got to be done and done soon all you have to do is look at the landscape. There are 12, at least, major universities in this country right now under scrutiny, including mine. This has caused a lot of heartache and when you hear charges of academic cheating, and you hear charges of distortion, you don't have an option, you have to deal with that, you have to deal with it now. This is why I've put the time I've put into it. It's none of my business now. I'm not a university administrator, but I am a member of the Knight Commission ex-officio and Father Hesburgh and I have talked as recently as last week because he's very much concerned about this.

You've got a case of an obsession with sports all over the United States, and no one has really been able to say, but there are points of excess, there are points of abuse and we've passed some of those now, and if we are going to preserve the good name of the universities of this country we've got to deal with it and we've got to do it right now.

In the Knight Commission's first report, one of the key recommendations was that college presidents should be in control of athletics. Do you think that college presidents have used that power that was given to them in that report enough?

You have to do that institution by institution. There are traditions in all of these institutions, established practices that they follow. What Father Hesburgh and I were saying, this isn't being followed well, therefore we make this recommendation because, after all, this is the chief administrative officer of the institution. He's the end of the line when it comes to decisions. Now that you are multimillion-dollar organizations, it cannot be ignored, so that's why we did it.

When you hear a president like Gordon Gee at Ohio State when asked if he is going to fire Jim Tressel say, "I just hope he's not going to fire me" doesn't that speak to college presidents not being in control?

Well, I would never make such a statement. No, and I think Mr. Gee later said that he was sorry that he had said that. No. Keep in mind that I, like every other person who has ever been associated with a public institution, understands, appreciates and supports the role of college athletics. It's very important. We have over 700 athletes on this campus alone in various sports competitions. All of these are good. What you are witnessing now is a loss of control by the institutions over those very sports. We are trying to superimpose an entertainment industry on top of an academic structure, and it won't work. It never has worked. What you are seeing on the college scene right now is the consequence of not controlling that very enterprise.

In his recent book, Big Time Sports in American Universities, Duke professor Charles Clotfelter argues that we can't seek reform without taking seriously the meaning and pleasure that many people draw from college sports and that college sports provide fundraising opportunities for the institution at large. Do you agree? What other positives can we credit to sports? What are some of the benefits of having a college sports program that does maintain integrity and is a clean program. What's, in your view, possible if the system were reformed?

Let me tell you two things. The Knight Commission wanted to know whether or not winning and losing influenced giving. We commissioned a very famous economist from Cornell University, and he conducted a study on that subject and came away saying, no, it had no influence one way or another. In some isolated cases you'll hear that, but by and large that's not the reason people give. It's part of it, of course everybody enjoys a winning team, but it's not the sole motivation of my alliance with my alma mater. The commission negated that.

That's an interesting question because yesterday I was listening to an old alumnus and he said, "You know, it used to be so much fun when we'd go to ballgames and we'd see our classmates and we'd have a great time, we'd even have brunch out somewhere. Now it's completely different. It's an orchestrated enterprise with a gigantic 90-foot screen somewhere in the ballpark with guns going off and smoke screens. It's a production. It's gotten so, with all the competition for these athletes that we've lost our sense of direction."

And I think any knowledgeable person would say that to you, any person who really cares. I realize there are some people involved in sports that are so strong with it that they want to control it. They think money should be allowed to control it, and they want to dictate who the coach will be, and that's the end of it. Well, an institution that permits that to happen reaps the consequences you see now. You simply have to maintain the privacy of academics in any of these relationships. That day will come. It's coming back.

What's got happen, I think, is that some conference has got to say, like Mr. Swofford started his discussion, just say, for example, "Starting next season, freshmen will not be eligible for varsity competition." I don't think that would cause an earthquake. It's what we did years ago, you know, and we got along very well then. But I just think the 50 percent rule is the first step testing the water and now we'll see what happens.

On the 50 percent rule, I think that's a case study in how you get a reform passed, and it obviously takes a decade to get it through. Could you talk about for other advocates of changes in college athletics how that serves as a guide?

I've forgotten what the year was, but the No. 1 team in the nation this particular year didn't graduate but 31 percent of its players. Now what does that say symbolically, you see? I think somebody calculated that if the rule were applicable last season there would be 12 teams that went to bowls last season that would not be able to go. My answer to it is, 50 percent is a pretty low figure. Dean Smith graduated 99 percent of his athletes. Roy Williams has done equally well. Why can't you? If he really is prepared to do college work, he's going to graduate, because he realizes this is his one chance. Because, he's going to be, by and large he's going to be, part of that 99 percent. He's not going to play anymore after this. He might play for fun, but he's not going to make a living with it.

You know what's so interesting is to watch in these pro leagues when boys who were all those great stars, they don't even play the second year. Keep in mind that I like every other person who has ever been associated with a public institution understands, appreciates and supports the role of college athletics. It's very important. We have over 700 athletes on this campus alone in various sports competitions. All of these are good. What you are witnessing now is a loss of control by the institutions over those very sports. We are trying to superimpose an entertainment industry on top of an academic structure, and it won't work. It never has worked. What you are seeing on the college scene right now is the consequence of not controlling that very enterprise. I mean Heisman candidates, this kind of thing. See, when it's a pro, this is a profession. It's hard; it's a different world. This is what's so hard for these young people to learn.

No one is really in complete control of college sports, that's where you come back to this question of integrity with the process. Everybody who is thoughtful about going to college and being at an institution, I don't know of one who would ever want it said about his institution, my football players cheated. That's just not the way we live. That's what's got to be eliminated and that's what will be eliminated.

You've been beating this drum since before all of these recent scandals, did you ever see something like this on the horizon, particularly on the Chapel Hill campus?

No. We went 50 years with not even the remotest suggestion of this kind of activity. When I was first in office in the 1950s, I ran into what was called the Jackie Moreland case, a Louisiana boy who was a great basketball player. Then came the Dixie Classic. Then came the [Jim] Valvano era. Then came Frank McGuire here with Chancellor Aycock. Once you've gone through this kind of experience several times you develop certain capacities to know what you are looking for, but now it almost singularly rests on money, and I never thought I'd ever see the day when universities would be so completely dominated by the power of money in any one division of its life. I think that's universal. [Wake Forest] President [Thomas] Hearn before he died, and he was right about it, he was a member of the Knight Commission, he used to say what you are witnessing here is a national obsession with sports. It goes during the week with the college and on the weekend it shifts over to the pros. If they don't like football, they've got three other sports, baseball, basketball, golf. When I watched that golf match yesterday and that young man pocketed over $1,500,000 going home, that's what Tiger Woods did to golf. Look at the pay scale now. I believe the average baseball player makes $2,500,000, that's an astronomical sum of money. We'll see.

Knight Commission Executive Director Amy Perko talks about the need to bring spending for athletics back in line with academics. How far out of line are we, how much would need to be done to bring that back in balance?

No, I don't. I've never taken a look at it, but you remember what she said also paralleling that is the division of television money, two and three. There's merit in that. Television will have to look at that, you know, because if you get 700 institutions voicing something that's a lot of people. I think all of these are things that are in for a major shakeup. Maybe, just maybe, the Miami experience now will be the one that does it. You hear all kinds of stories about that situation. The smallest number that I know about this particular group of athletes these is that there are at least 12 involved, but that's hearsay and being a lawyer I don't like to traffic in hearsay. The reason the Times took its position is this. Suppose Ms. Shalala did what they advocated, said, OK, we're not going to play, football is out. Think of what that does to the budget here, you see. The networks will say, oh boy, we've lost 12 games here. That's the power of money, you see, the merit of the issue gets lost. I was asked by the Times reporter last week, do you think they are going to do to Miami what they did to SMU, the death penalty. I said, no, I don't have any way of knowing, but unless and until the NCAA shows that kind of strength it's going to be so weak that it will not really make a difference.

This is what everybody is waiting to see. Everybody is looking for somebody now to step across the line and say wait a minute. You've got ESPN, ESPN 1, 2 and 3, ESPNHD, whatever they've got. Look how much money they've aggregated. I was once asked about this, and I said, suppose you were the president of ESPN and you wanted to enter into a contract with the ACC, what happens. We furnish the theater, the actors, the audience, the playing field, the director, the assistant director, what do you do? You bring the camera and a commentator, and you sell all the broadcast time and you negotiate with me and I get my piece of it, but that's it. And worst of all, he says you can't play until three o'clock Saturday afternoon. Some people say these are always agreed times, [but] no they're not.

I would abolish Thursday night football. You saw what it did here. Why would the University of North Carolina close down at three o'clock in the afternoon to play a football game? That's the question we get asked, you see. Now when you back away from the heat of the moment and all the pressure and you begin to look at the university in the cold dead of a winter day and say why did we do this? It's pretty hard to answer. There's one reason, money.

Look at the University of Rutgers now. They are spending more money on athletics that almost every aspect of the academic enterprise. The Times did a good piece on that, but that's getting off your beat.

The question here is will the ACC make an aggressive move now to assert itself in this melee. It's certainly time for the presidents here to get together and decide which way they are going to go because Miami is in this conference, Florida State is in this conference, Boston College is in this conference, we're all in it together now. The time has come for the conference to decide which way this conference will be identified in the future. The issue is clearly drawn

Someone else made you the president of ESPN, so why don't I make you the president of Miami or the NCAA: Do you think the death penalty is what's needed or a year off from football is what's needed down there?

You've got to be realistic about it. There are institutions that are in monumental debt, but I would set a course. It's like the suggestion I was saying about a coach, you can't deal with a contract you already have, but you can set a standard. You can prove it by saying, Dean Smith worked for $9,700 a year when he started, see. So what you've got to say is, we're looking to the future, these are the things we are going to do, and that way you begin to serve notice. That's what's needed desperately somewhere in this country, for a conference to step up now and say we understand the widespread public concern about what's going on in college sports, and it is widespread. We are a conference composed of very highly regarded, highly respected universities, [so] it's time for us to say now how we are going to act, don't wait on anybody else. Let's say now we are going to show the courage and step forward.

I think we are at a low point, I really do, I think the only way we can go from here is upward. I hate to say that because I'm a great respecter of the institutions we have, I think they are truly great. The institutions in the United States are world renowned, they are respected all over the world, and why we have allowed this to get away from us the way we have, we have only ourselves to blame. I could have done more. I've been out of office 25 years, but I'm sure there are things I could have done when I was in office, when I had authority, that I could have done to help this, but we just sort of let it happen. But now is the time.

What's the risk if someone doesn't act, how far could this spiral out of control and how much could it hurt academic integrity?

You get into questions of cost, you see, after awhile. There are 119 institutions in the I-A category. Last year, according to the NCAA, fewer than 25 of those institutions broke even. We're already in a situation of financial stress, you see. If you don't do something about it, it just grows worse. People don't have a tendency to self-direct, someone has to assert authority, you know. There's where in a public institution and you start incurring huge debt, then if it could become an obligation of the entire state. Then you've got other people to worry about here. They didn't have a chance to vote on this. I'm not talking about here, I'm talking about all over the country. It's a problem all over the United States.

Those problems, they didn't exist 10 years ago, you weren't doing these kinds of things. This is what I mean by letting it get completely out of hand. I could still, you remember Sonny Vaccaro? He sat right there in that chair six months ago, he came to see me. When the commission was going, he asked to appear before it. This was 15 years ago. Father Hesburgh and I were sitting there that day. We kept wondering what he wanted to do. We had 19 college presidents sitting there that day.

Finally we asked him, "Mr. Vaccaro, what do you wish to say to us?" I can remember just watching him, he sat up in the chair like this, he pointed at us just like this.

He said, "Last year, when I brought that shoe money to you, you took it, and you'd take it again this year if I brought it to you. That's what I want you to know. It controls you." You could have seen the faces around that room because every one of us was big-time football players including us and Notre Dame. You immediately thought about coaches' subsidy. What do they give them, $300,000, $400,000 a year? It's like it's nothing. Somehow that's got to be brought under control. You can't do anything retroactively but prospectively, the institution can say those contracts have got to be with us from now on. You can do that.

What we are really talking about here is a matter of will. Have we got the will and the courage to begin to redirect and redefine? There are other things that should be done, some ahead of those I suggested, but my point is let's start doing something. The public is becoming cynical, the public is losing faith, the public looks at it now as something sort of out here, and, you know, there's just not the good feeling there used to be.

What can we learn from the career of Walter Byers, the NCAA's first president and father of the first TV contracts, the NCAA tournament and student scholarships who later authored Unsportsmanlike Conduct, an expose on college athletics that questions among other things, the idea of amateurism?

My relationship with him was over the Moreland case, and he would not give me the evidence in the case to act on. He said if I came to St. Louis he'd show me, but I said you have to present things to people you are going to make accusations on, you have to show it to them, and he wouldn't give it to me. We didn't have a happy friendship. But, he did do a lot of good things for college sports. What he was seeing is what's been borne out. He saw the impact of money, the big-time emphasis, the inability of universities to control themselves and he spoke out about it.

The NCAA, I've spent a lot of time with them. Mr. (Myles) Brand, we were very good friends. He was on the right track. He saw what had to happen. We miss him. Mr. (Mark) Emmert he hasn't had enough time yet to do anything, but I think the fact that he assembled all those presidents together in the month of August tells you of his sense of urgency. You don't do that kind of thing in that time of the year, but he moved very aggressively and apparently they got some energy going and it was the very next week that the NCAA adopted the 50 percent rule, so we'll see.

I would hope, fervently hope, that our conference would lead the way. This is a group of very fine institutions. They know what to do, they know how to do it, and it's just a matter of taking that first step. The commission made the first move with the 50 percent rule. Now those conferences can find the things that suit them, like freshman ineligibility or Thursday night football, seemingly small things, but in the doing of them you assert the authority that needs to be exerted. Because, now it's television telling the university when they want to play.

That'll be the next big move. This thing took on a real dimension for me last week when someone called and said, "Do you realize that the five major conferences now control five billion dollars of television money, billion, with a b?" Now think of how it was 10 years ago. A billion dollars? That's a lot of money, so they are going to exercise the power of that money. It's time. In fact, it's past time. Maybe we can use the 50 percent rule as a springboard. Let's take the next step.

The reason that's significant, you see, is it carries a monetary sanction. If you take away the cause of the problem, you'll get some action. You start passing regulations that deal with the money flow, you'll get an action quickly.

When's the last time you went to a college football game?

Sometimes when you show up a football game, some people will say, "Oh, look at that hypocrite over there." So I just stay away. I can't remember, it's been so long ago. I've been to one basketball game in 15 years. That's my choice. It's not anybody else's. I grew up in a different tradition. I knew Dean Smith and worked with him, I admired the man. I lived in the complex with Charlie Justice. When the Knight Commission got to work, he actually called me and said, 'You are doing the right thing, keep after it.'

Be sure and make the point that I said that the one positive force over these last two decades has been the Knight Commission. It's been going almost alone, but it didn't leave the job. It's stayed with it. Now it's in the position with the 50 percent rule and other things that are really giving the sports public the knowledge that it needs. We're beginning to create a different climate, that's where my hope rests.

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