Bonnie Frankel has a cold, an “emotional cold,” she thinks, from watching herself become a heroic symbol, so she probably won’t jump into the swimming pool until tomorrow at the earliest. Joan of Arc was burned for following her inner voice, so Frankel, who is not put off by the comparison, is willing to wait a few more days to get wet.
Bonnie Frankel is a 48-year-old senior at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles. She was unable to compete on the varsity track team because she had originally enrolled in college in 1962. Under National Collegiate Athletic Association rules, the five-year period of eligibility at Division I schools begins the first day of enrollment. Bonnie had dropped out of school in 1963, but by 1967 she was out of luck anyway.
She was in Dallas last week when the N.C.A.A. convention passed what will be known as the “Bonnie Frankel Amendment,” extending the athletic eligibility of women who entered college before 1981, when the N.C.A.A. took formal notice of female athletes by staging championships for them.
Bonnie Frankel, cold and all, seems interested in competing for more than herself; she would like to help other “older women” and eventually extend her reach beyond sports. So we may have reason to be grateful to the N.C.A.A. for encouraging her. It is difficult to be grateful to the N.C.A.A. for much else these days. More and more people are coming to realize that it is the prime promoter as well as the main regulator of a system that is corrupting both American sports and higher education.
An Oklahoma State philosophy professor, Edward G. Lawry, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 1991, may have framed the issue best: “The N.C.A.A. has been central in organizing and shaping high-entertainment sports, such as football and basketball, into a billion-dollar industry that depends on stiff competition, extraordinary athletic accomplishment and athletes’ sustained impulse to greater achievements. This emphasis promotes celebrity-athletes, not student athletes.”
Lawry concluded that the only solution to the abuses that the N.C.A.A. pretends to police is to either “abandon ‘big-time’ sports in college or to abandon the need for athletics programs to be concerned with academic matters.”
Lawry’s article was sent to me by a former college president who has rubbed up against the N.C.A.A. in several of his previous posts. He requested anonymity because he is up for a new job. He said he had been “caught up” in the conventional wisdom that sports promotes a school’s “name recognition” and he went along with “hiring a basketball coach and some poor black kids to play for him.” But if he had to do it all over again, he would “let the program flounder” and pour the money and energy into “scholarships, admission strategies and the physical look of the campus.”
He added: “Intercollegiate sports distracted us from what was important. We were doing good things in academics, and that was our mission. And another thing. I support women’s sports, but if women just want to become like men, I have no interest.”
He had unkind words for the Knight Commission, the Women’s Sports Foundation and the Center for the Study of Sports and Society, all of which exist, he feels, to afford a kind of mildly reformist affirmation of the N.C.A.A. He had even unkinder words for sports broadcasters, the sports sections of newspapers and sports magazines, all of which attack the N.C.A.A. from time to time, but generally endorse its goals by covering college games as big-time entertainment by big-time entertainers.
Sports Illustrated, for example, which has investigated college sports but usually cheers it on, went over the top in its Jan. 11 cover story about Jim Valvano, the TV commentator who is battling life-threatening cancer.
Valvano lost his job as athletic director, then basketball coach, at North Carolina State, and the chancellor resigned, in the wake of a scandal exposed by Peter Golenbock in the book “Personal Fouls” (Carroll & Graf, 1989; Signet, 1990). The Sports Illustrated writer, the usually splendid Gary Smith, sentimentalized Valvano and skipped easily over the seriousness of the charges that led to his departure from N.C. State. In an outrageous aside, Smith suggested that Valvano’s cancer was caused by Golenbock’s book. Following such theory, could it have been caused by his single-minded obsession to win games?
The N.C.A.A. investigated Valvano and N.C. State, and as in most of its investigations of important sports factories, it found minor glitches in an otherwise functioning system. As Golenbock wrote, “The N.C.A.A. rule book is a foot thick, and mostly it talks about prohibitions of players taking freebies. There should be a foot-tall chapter on dos and don’ts. No more shortcuts like doctored grades and sham courses . . . tutors writing papers for athletes. No illiterate athletes beyond freshman year.”
So be grateful the N.C.A.A. got one thing right so far this year. The rule change didn’t come in time for Bonnie Frankel to run track at Loyola Marymount, but just in time for the varsity swim season. She says she can learn to swim as fast as she ran. After graduation, she plans to go to law school, and there’s no telling how that Joan of Arc fire will power her once Bonnie Frankel gets her feet wet.