How Walter Byers built, fought, lost, and wrote

Byers in 1986. (AP: Cliff Schiappa)

Byers in 1986. (AP: Cliff Schiappa)

Longtime NCAA executive director Walter Byers passed away this week at the age of 93, and his New York Times obituary says that late in his career “he viewed the college sports landscape with increasing cynicism.” Granted I never spoke to the man — as near as I can tell no one did on the record after about 1997 — but I must say this strikes me as incorrect.

Anywhere that lawyers gather to contest the future form and very existence of the NCAA in 2015, there are two histories of college sports close at hand. (Literally.) Taylor Branch wrote one, of course, and Byers authored the other, in 1995.

Both histories were written in anger. Branch will tell you he’s angry that oligopolists are piously mouthing empty platitudes about amateurism while maintaining a cartel that allows them to profit off the sweat of young brows. Byers, conversely, wrote what on the surface is a far more conventional post-retirement jeremiad. At the age of 73 he yelled at a cloud, and did so at some length.

The former head of the NCAA plainly believed the world was going to hell in a hand basket. (His chapter titles included “Enforcement Under Attack,” “Commercializing Christmas,” “Riots of the Sixties,” “Rules Are Not for Enforcing,” and “The Flight from Accountability.”) There’s nothing categorically objectionable about such a belief, of course, and in fact if you truly view the world as going to hell in a hand basket you’re certainly going to be correct on one or two discrete instances within your field of vision. But jeremiads can be a tough sell. “Unsportsmanlike Conduct” was lost in the shuffle when it was first published, and indeed subsequently went out of print for over a decade.

Now look. It’s no mistake that the University of Michigan Press has reprinted the title four times since 2007. (It’s also available in a Kindle edition.) Byers’ book won its newfound currency with its behind-the-scenes recounting of how the term “student-athlete” was born.

We crafted the term student-athlete, and soon it was embedded in all NCAA rules and interpretations as a mandated substitute for such words as players and athletes. We told college publicists to speak of “college teams,” not football or basketball “clubs,” a word common to the pros.

In any discussion of how to give the NCAA a footing in reality, the coinage of “student-athlete” has come to function as college sports’ Rosebud, the deep dark secret that holds sweeping explanatory power. This grassy-knoll obsession with the term is lamentable — in real life there are no Rosebuds — and it is entirely Byers’ fault. In his book he wrote up his invention as both a eureka moment and as an exceptionally cunning expedient: “It was then that [colleges] came face to face with a serious external threat….That threat was the dreaded notion that NCAA athletes could be identified as employees by state industrial commissions and the courts.”

Clearly there was an irresistible man-bites-dog story here — even the former head of the NCAA believes that amateurism is nothing more than a convenient fiction — and, plainly, Byers felt deeply about the issue. But surely the history of college sports for the past 60 years would be precisely the same even if Byers hadn’t come up with “student-athlete.” No state industrial commission retreated and no court reversed itself when presented with the awesome power of the hyphenated euphemism. Indeed in the years since Byers’ retirement the NCAA has maintained its stance on amateurism while actively considering whether to dispense with “student-athlete” entirely — eloquent proof, if any is needed, that the euphemism is not essential.

Byers’ most important legacy is not that he coined a phrase but that he fought so vigorously for two things that can win broad agreement in 2015: 1) academic standards for college athletes; and 2) a naturalistic conception of how amateurism can blend peaceably with professionalism. He lost both fights.

How suing over academic standards came to be standard procedure
Kevin Ross attracted national attention in 1982 when he completed his athletic eligibility as a basketball player at Creighton and promptly enrolled in a Chicago grammar school, Westside Preparatory, in order to learn to read. It came to light that his coursework at Creighton had included ceramics and first aid. Ross gave a first-person account of his travails to People magazine, did a guest shot on “Donahue,” and threw every piece of furniture in his Chicago hotel room off an eighth-floor balcony (explaining afterward that he imagined the furniture to be Creighton’s administrators). He eventually sued Creighton for negligence and breach of contract.

Former Creighton basketball player Kevin Ross at Chicago's Westside Preparatory School, 1982-83.

Former Creighton basketball player Kevin Ross at Chicago’s Westside Preparatory School, 1982.

The coverage that Ross garnered came at a time when similar questions were being raised concerning the quality of education given to athletes as various as Dexter Manley at Oklahoma State and NC State’s Chris Washburn (who scored a 200, or zero, on the verbal portion of the SAT). Outrage was manifest, and the call went out for rigorous standards. The NCAA complied, and Proposition 48 was adopted in 1983. Prop 48 required entering freshman athletes to attain a 2.0 high school GPA in 11 core courses and post a score of at least 700 on the SAT or 15 on the ACT.

Inevitably Proposition 48 — and its rather unimaginatively labeled refinements, Propositions 42 and 16 — triggered further litigation, both on the class-action front (Cureton v. NCAA) and as individual torts (e.g., Pryor v. NCAA). John Thompson famously walked off the court during a Georgetown-Boston College game to protest the new standards, and Temple coach John Chaney was no fan of the new initiatives either. Thompson, Chaney and their allies viewed the standards as racist in effect if not in intent. For his part Byers marshaled data in his book that he said showed that whites were not simply replacing African-Americans on-scholarship — rather, in some instances, African-American athletes who had met the new standards were taking spots at the expense of others who had not.

At the time the question of standardized testing’s fairness elicited tremendous vehemence from participants on both sides of the debate, and surely it’s curious that this dispute has been more or less silenced entirely since the NCAA adopted the so-called sliding scale in 2003. (Athletes still have to record a satisfactory score on a standardized test, but the required score is now determined by the student’s core-course grade point average.) But with charges of academic fraud now pending at North Carolina, it’s likely that we will see this pendulum once again swing toward academic rigor, if only in lip service.

Walter Byers’ career and the example it affords suggests that such a swing will be severely circumscribed. Within the span of a few years in the 1980s, institutions of higher education were sued for failing to provide a suitable education to athletes before being sued for setting educational standards too high. As often happens when the subject at hand is college sports, the only certainty is litigation and the only winners are lawyers.

Byers’ other great push was in support of mere normalcy where strictures on amateurism are concerned. In 1984 he wondered aloud to Sports Illustrated whether it would really be so awful “for athletes to get, for example, a new car. Well, is that morally wrong? Or is it wrong because we say it’s wrong?”

Forging an NCAA reform vocabulary: The Harry Shearer problem
When the NCAA moved into its new headquarters in Johnson County, Kansas, on April 28, 1973, Roone Arledge arranged for the ceremonies to be televised by ABC. Byers was a product of his moment, and one distinguishing characteristic of his time was the birth of sports as a highly profitable media property.

The reliable and seemingly inexhaustible demand for sports on television has created obscene wealth in numerous countries around the globe, and wherever that lucre’s been generated there have been disputes over how to share it. This brand of controversy is endemic, though the contours of the dispute with respect to college sports in the United States — amateur participants, huge revenue streams — are ritually held to be wholly unique and thus demonstrably egregious.

Perhaps this uniqueness has been somewhat overstated (Irish hurling, anyone?), but it is true that within the span of Byers’ career college sports crossed a boundary line. Byers served as the NCAA’s executive director from 1951 to 1987, and by the time he reached the end of his career, the money in college sports was big enough to have created some insistently disquieting disparities between athletes and well-compensated grown-ups.

A couple weeks ago Harry Shearer broke my heart by walking away from “The Simpsons,” but I have to salute him nonetheless for making a laudably insightful distinction between economic norms and comparative disparities: “As an actor on an insanely successful TV series, I am by any standards of the human species obscenely overpaid. It is also true that as an actor on one of the most insanely successful television series of all time, I am getting royally screwed. Both things are true.”

As athletes in one of the most insanely successful media properties of all time, college players in revenue sports are treated obscenely well. And they are getting royally screwed. Both things are true, and the question of how to talk about these two conjoined truths has long bedeviled observers. Take Shearer. If we document the rich history of such disputes in his industry and say that Harry Shearer is exploited and even liken his condition to slavery in the United States in the 1800s, we’re not so much wrong as unsuccessful polemically.

And Byers was nothing if not unsuccessful polemically. He was a stickler for methodical preparation, and he knew exactly which gauntlet he was throwing down with his book’s subtitle: “Exploiting College Athletes.” In 1994, shortly before “Unsportsmanlike Conduct” was published, Byers even went so far as to preview some of its most incendiary sound bites (“neo-plantation mentality,” etc.) before an audience comprised of what one can only assume were somewhat bewildered and nonplussed attendees at a Kansas City Sports Commission dinner.

By all accounts an excessively and even furtively private person, Byers turned down countless interview requests over a period that spanned decades. Yet in the course of researching his book he apparently saw no contradiction in requesting — and receiving — audiences with over 40 movers and shakers from college sports, higher education, and sports media in the 1970s and 1980s, everyone from Arledge and Dennis Swanson to John Wooden and then-Harvard president Derek Bok. Before Byers did his due researching diligence, I was unaware that the legendary Arledge, for example, got his start on an NBC puppet show, “Hi, Mom.” (Though Byers left it to his co-author, Charles Hammer, to conduct the interview with longtime NCAA nemesis Jerry Tarkanian.)

Byers’ dismay over the state of college sports was customarily interpreted as a mea culpa, but I actually found “Unsportsmanlike Conduct” to be much more in the vein of “See, I told you so.” Repentance and introspection were not Byers’ long suits. His objection to modern college sports was in part philosophical, to be sure, but it also blended in seamlessly with a larger and more fundamental brief against modernity in general. In Byers’ telling, many things were just plain better in the old days….

And, yes, we drank some whisky in that time. I’m not talking about knocking over bar stools on the way to the men’s room, but rather enjoying the fun times when people forget their business demeanor, loosen their ties, and don’t record the dialogue.

If in the view of today’s pretentious social and political arbiters a couple of drinks and occasional silliness renders you forever ineligible to make sensible judgments, then it disqualifies many of the people I admire — including those who engineered the phenomenal growth of college sports and television.

It was a grand moment when Frank Kriedel, the madcap Manhattan Hotel executive, and Fritz Crisler, then a debonair Princeton football coach, rode a fire truck down Broadway in New York City during the early morning hours.

He also references Toots Shoor and “crumb bums” — Byers was Jimmy Breslin in cowboy boots.

Yet, somewhat surprisingly for a guy who celebrated the virtues of whisky and late-night fire-truck rides down Broadway, he manifestly possessed the Coach Wooden gene for fastidious precision. (“The Wussler conversation had started at 2:27 P.M.”) This precision most certainly encompassed grammar, as seen where Byers pointed out that, strictly speaking, we should be referring to “athletics directors,” not “athletic directors.” I confess this part of Byers speaks to me, as does his eye for detail as a critic. Noting how conference commissioners gave up the once jealously guarded prerogative of policing their own institutions and opted instead to act as highly-compensated sales staff for their leagues’ media properties, he wrote with mordant concision: “Promoters and diplomats have more fun than prosecutors.”

Byers has often been compared to J. Edgar Hoover, inasmuch as both figures were precociously young when they ascended to the top positions within their respective forbiddingly secretive bureaucracies. But an even better comparison might be Richard Nixon. When I finished “Unsportsmanlike Conduct” I was reminded of Nixon’s pre-presidential (and thus patently political) autobiography, “Six Crises,” for the simple reason that both books are highly revealing in ways their authors simply could not have intended. Most notably, both men were animated by an all-consuming desire to show up all those insufferable East Coast snobs that they had to treat with in their respective professional lives. Any time Byers yet again references tough negotiations with those snooty NBC types, one can picture Nixon going off on another rant about the Kennedys.

Sadly, the man who had to fight off lawsuits on behalf of the NCAA for decades chose to spend a portion of his final years embroiled in a legal battle with his daughter concerning the family ranch outside of Emmett, Kansas. Few people outside of the federal government have ever provided employment for more lawyers, directly or indirectly, than the onetime NCAA executive director.

Byers thought the world had gone to hell in a hand basket, and maybe it has. But one fact that can be stated without fear of contradiction is that there never was a prelapsarian state of grace in college sports. Long before there was television and the dollars that it would bring, there were corners being cut and lies being told in order to get the best players enrolled and eligible. Byers tried to do something about that, and he failed. His acknowledgment of what ails college sports didn’t constitute cynicism, merely the articulation of a vision that’s yet to be realized. Byers lost the two most important arguments he entered into, but it just so happens he was right both times.