Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene No Katzenmoyers

Vandy hopes to take the NCAA to school

By Randy Horick

MAY 3, 1999:  Maybe it was because the Oilers/Titans nearly drafted him last week, but I dreamed about Andy Katzenmoyer the other night.

In my dream, the Big Kat--a swift, surly linebacker who is physically and temperamentally reminiscent of Dick Butkus--appeared as a contestant on Wheel of Fortune. Andy never came within sniffing distance of the puzzle's solution, but he was uncovering letters as regularly as the next schlub.

Then it came time to buy a vowel.

"Uh, Pat, I'll take a P."

"Not here on national television, big fella."

"No, I want to BUY a P."

"There's no delicate way to say this, Andy. P is not a vowel."

"Oh. My bad. Gimme an R."

I woke up in a cold sweat.

There was never much doubt that Katzenmoyer, who matriculated from Ohio State to the NFL with a year of eligibility remaining, would leave college without a sheepskin. The more intriguing question was whether he could remain eligible if he stayed in school.

You may recall that Katzenmoyer's participation last fall was an iffy thing. He had to sweat through four grueling summer school courses--including Aids Awareness and Theory of Recreation--to avoid flunking out. Ohio State coach John Cooper, the tutoring squad, and thousands of Buckeye boosters were sweating along with him.

In the end, Katzenmoyer's fate hung on his brutal final exam in Golf. He aced it, and you could almost feel a northerly breeze as the state of Ohio exhaled.

Perhaps it isn't completely fair to perch the multiple failings of the student/athlete ideal on the broad shoulders of one Buckeye, but Katzenmoyer is about as representative a poster boy as you'll find for the dual nature of college athletics today. On the field, he's emblematic of a standard of excellence to which others aspire--and which makes college football a draw that can command crowds of 100,000. In the classroom, Big Kat exemplifies the standards that many colleges willingly accept in order to achieve their athletic success.

This standard was wonderfully articulated a few years back by a former president of the University of Georgia, who pronounced his official satisfaction that some of the school's academically challenged enrollee-athletes learned to read and write. Even at Georgia, such an admission was considered a little too candid; the president was politely asked to pack his things and, while he was at it, make no further utterances that might provide fodder for jokes about the university. (The ultimate extreme, of course, was provided by Oklahoma State, who went Georgia one better by sending Dexter Manley to the NFL unable to read.)

To varying degrees, plenty of schools have been embarrassed by their own Katzenmoyers and Manleys. Even worse, plenty of others have been utterly unembarrassed.

The phenomenon isn't universal, but it's common enough that I propose the addition of a new word to our language:

katzenmoyer--(n) a college athlete who halfheartedly pretends to be a college student while training to become a professional athlete; (v) to grant a scholarship to a katzenmoyer with little concern for his/her ability to graduate.

Which brings us round to one of the more interesting and less noted sports developments in Nashville last week: a proposal floated by Vanderbilt that would make NCAA members that pay only lip service to academics pay a hefty price. We could call it the Katzenmoyer Rule.

Vandy's intriguing idea--the brainchild of Athletic Director Todd Turner and Chancellor Joe. B. Wyatt--would require schools to forfeit a scholarship each time an athlete flunks out, is dismissed from a team, or leaves a program while not in good standing academically. Under the plan, the school could not fill that scholarship again until the katzenmoyer's four-year eligibility period ended.

The result, hopes Vandy Athletic Director Todd Turner, is to spur schools to help their athletes progress toward a degree and improve their graduation rates. Perhaps he is casting an eye toward Knoxville, where the 11 percent of Big Orange football players who graduate is comparable to Ken Starr's approval rating.

"Looking at graduation rates, it might appear that we (the NCAA) are not supporting our mission to educate kids," says Keith Gill, an associate Vandy athletic director who helped draft the idea. "Agood way to do that is to correlate the number of kids you graduate and their academic progress with the number of scholarships you can give out."

Even more notable is that the Vanderbilt proposal sidesteps the entire knotty question of entrance requirements and Proposition 16.

For years, reformers have sought to reduce katzenmoyering by raising the minimum GPAs and test scores required for admission and forcing those who don't qualify to forego a year of eligibility.

In the process, the academics have been smacked with charges of incipient racial bias. (Never mind that this argument is burdened with a bias of its own, in its implicit premise that inner-city African American high school kids are somehow incapable of earning sufficiently high grades and SAT scores.)

Perhaps a more creditable complaint is that pre-certification unfairly penalizes some athletes who can succeed academically if given an opportunity. The current NCAA rules, for example, are katzenmoyer-friendly while whapping guys like Temple basketballer Rasheed Brokenborough, a partial qualifier who lost a season of eligibility even though he became an honor student and earned his degree in four years.

The Vanderbilt plan neatly renders the whole test score issue moot--and eliminates a whole lot of regulatory rigamarole besides, since schools no longer would have to go through the byzantine NCAA Clearinghouse to certify the eligibility of their players. That alone, Gill estimates, would save $3 million for the NCAAand countless hours for member schools. Besides simplifying regulation, the plan will discourage the viewing of athletes as commodities who can simply be replaced if their grades don't pan out.

No one should pretend that a katzenmoyer rule will somehow make katzenmoyers obsolete. Those intent on finagling the regs will load athletes' schedules even more heavily with electives like Fundamentals of Recreation. Or they'll become more assiduous in seeking out professors who reliably hand out Bs for enrollee-athletes who show up for class and nod at the right moments--like the speech prof at my old alma mater who gave high marks to an NFL-bound lineman whose entire address consisted of: "Muh name's Bo Lee...Uh play fubball...I got a brother...He plays basketball...And thut's all."

Maybe katzenmoyering should have been called "gippering," since the tradition goes back at least as far as the Notre Dame legend, who eschewed study halls in favor of pool halls. As long as college sports provide popular entertainment, someone will always work to gain an edge through deviltry.

The only reliable way to purge big-time college athletics of slimy activity is to adopt the favorite tactic of the DEA: confiscate the money. Cancel the fat TV contracts. Slash the budgets.

But almost no one really wants to see college football and basketball treated like lacrosse and diving. It's downright un-American. Short of that radical solution, this modest proposal from Vanderbilt could go far toward restoring to big-time college sports a dusty, almost forgotten word: I-N-T-E-G-R-I-T-Y.

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