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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Done Right, College Athletics Worth It

What can Cal State San Marcos learn from Penn State and the London Olympics as it pursues membership in the NCAA? The Olympics exemplifies the highest values of competitive sports.The Penn State scandal reveals college athletics at its worst.

This newspaper's editorial board claims college athletics has "strayed from the original purpose of ensuring that young people immersed in academic pursuits also kept up with their physical fitness," suggesting intramural sports could replace intercollegiate competition at little cost and no loss of benefits to a university.

Christine Scolamieri, chairwoman of CSUSM's Athletic Director's Council and a volunteer from the local business community, disagrees. "Athletics is a gateway to showcasing CSUSM's educational mission and programs," she wrote in a Community Forum piece, "providing a rallying point of pride for North County."

I've seen college sports programs up close, first as a student on an athletic scholarship that paid for my education, and later as an administrator at three state universities with varying levels of competition.

At Western Washington University, an NAIA school that offered no athletic scholarships at the time, my job was to oversee moderately selective admission requirements. Athletic recruits got no special deals.

The basketball coach once promised to paint my front porch if I admitted a seven-footer with low grades. When I interviewed the blue-chip recruit I asked him which subjects were hardest for him in high school. He replied, "mostly readin' and writin'." After explaining there'd be a lot of that at Western, I suggested he go to a community college to practice up on them. The porch got painted, but not by the coach.

Western later joined the NCAA Division II, winning the national championship this year. It made me wonder if admission exceptions were any easier to come by these days.

When I went to work at Indiana State, a Division I school and alma mater of NBA great Larry Bird, I was told athletes were admitted routinely if they met NCAA eligibility standards.

Cal State San Marcos had no intercollegiate sports when I arrived there in 1997. By the time I retired in 2003 the university had gained a golf team and membership in the NAIA. Statewide CSU admission standards continued to be enforced. A limited number of exceptions were allowed, but not based on athletic ability alone.

If done right, intercollegiate athletics can bring a wealth of benefits to a school and community, well beyond physical fitness and the inflated egos of administrators and alumni.

Cal State San Marcos should look to UCSD, an NCAA Division II school, to see how it's done. High profile Division I schools, like Penn State, often lose their way.

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