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Byers's Remorse

A review of Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes, by Walter Byers

It's a man-bites-dog story. Walter Byers, an ambitious young newspaperman, is hired by the struggling NCAA as its executive director. He lays down the law, turns college athletics into a lucrative business, and becomes one of the most powerful men in sports. But in retirement, Byers becomes one of the NCAA's harshest critics.

What prompted this St. Paul-like conversion? In Unsportsmanlike Conduct, a combined autobiography and manifesto, Byers explains that his change of heart occurred in the early Eighties, when the big football schools filed suit to end his organization's exclusive control over television contracts (the Supreme Court ultimately ruled those contracts were an illegal monopoly). As the case wended its way through the courts, Byers realized he'd created a monster. 

Byers now calls the NCAA a conspiracy against college athletes, and maintains that amateurism, the organization's cornerstone belief since its founding in 1906, has been twisted into an excuse for hypocrisy. Amateurism allows a free market for coaches, but imposes both a salary cap and a reserve clause on players. Byers warns colleges to stop exploiting their student-athletes, or the government will do it for them; one of these days, a smart lawyer with a sympathetic client and a compelling story might bring down the whole house of cards. 

His prescription for reform includes letting athletes earn money on the side, hire an agent while still in school, and transfer to another institution without penalty. He also believes colleges should award scholarships to athletes on the same basis as the rest of the student body. The establishment finds these proposals dangerously radical, but in reality they're quite modest. They don't address the real problem: that colleges function as a farm system for the NFL and the NBA. 

Byers, who's had a first-hand look at college sports' seamier side, is understandably cynical. He maintains that cheating is widespread because it pays to break the rules. And he cites a roll call of schools--Michigan State and UCLA, to name a couple--that flouted the rules on their way to building an athletic powerhouse whose reputation attracted funds for laboratories and professors. Byers goes on to accuse college presidents of being two-faced, talking a big game about reform in public but working behind the scenes to preserve the status quo. 

College officials aren't Byers's only targets of criticism. He also takes aim at some of college athletics' icons. Bear Bryant was a serial rule-breaker, whom none dared criticize after he became a coaching legend. Joe Paterno preached integrity, but wasn't above spreading lies to keep poachers out of his Pennsylvania fiefdom. But his harshest criticism is aimed at the priests who run Notre Dame: he portrays them as bare-knuckled businessmen whose word isn't always their bond. 

In addition to the litigation over TV contracts, Unsportsmanlike Conduct describes other battles Byers fought during his 37-year tenure. He's still seething over his long-running feud with UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian. Byers insists that the NCAA played by Marquess of Queensbury rules, while Tarkanian fought dirty, stirring up anti-NCAA sentiment among sportswriters and even politicians. It's not quite that simple: Tark was undeniably slimy, but the NCAA is notorious for favoritism and Byers's men came down hard on UNLV. 

On a lighter note, Unsportsmanlike Conduct puts a human face on the reclusive Byers, a man sportswriters loved to portray as a starchy yahoo. The stories of Byers's early days in sports are a delight: investigating a gambler's tip about a crooked basketball referee, cobbling together a Big Ten highlight film for an infant television syndicate, negotiating contracts in restaurants and writing them on backs of envelopes. Byers even admits to a fondness for a night on the town. 

Unfortunately, the book is marred by Byers's insistence on resurrecting the Culture Wars of the Sixties. In an astounding burst of illogic, he blames today's lax academic standards on draft-dodging campus radicals who bullied college deans into admitting "at risk" minority students. The author seems oblivious to discrimination: he takes a dim view of affirmative action, and is condescending toward women's sports. 

While Byers maintains that principle transformed him from emperor to reformer, less noble motivations might be at work. His own words betray a desire for hands-on control over college sports. When the networks showered schools with money, college presidents and conference commissioners demanded a piece of the action; Byers's autocratic rule was doomed. No wonder he didn't find it fun anymore. 

Unsportsmanlike Conduct wasn't written for the casual sports fan. It's Byers's effort to buff up a dodgy reputation and stir up debate over amateurism. But if you're interested in a closer look at the inbred world of big-time college sports, or want to join the debate over whether college athletes are exploited, this book is a good place to start.

Copyright © 2003-06 PAUL RUSCHMANN. All Rights Reserved.
Posted February 2003