I took special interest the other day in the death notices about Walter Byers, who in 1951 awakened the sleeping giant of the NCAA and turned it into a monster that now gorges on greenbacks at the expense of its young players he referred to as “student athletes.”
A United Press reporter, Byers left wire service journalism to take a job as an assistant sports information director with the Big Ten Conference before joining the overall collegiate governing body that had maintained a near sonambulant existence for half a century. It didn’t even have a permanent office until he established one in Kansas City.
One has to suppose that those guiding the NCAA at that time liked it that way or they would not have hired a man whose curriculum vitae would have better suited a city editor’s assignment on a small town weekly. He had never played athletics and never graduated from college. Yet he ultimately ruled the governing body with steely determination and in near secrecy for 36 years.
He even ultimately came to disbelieve in the Frankenstein he had created — one which produces billions of dollars in revenues and exerts nearly unchallenged oversight over the athletic activities of most American colleges and universities in four classes.
So why bother writing about a 93 year-old man who had remained out of the public eye since 1987 when he took his cowboy boots and toupee into retirement leaving us to wonder if he even watched the basketball tournament he turned into March Madness or any of the rest of the collegiate games he helped hand over to the television moguls? He has seldom been heard from since.
Because there are those who are victims of his martinet-like retaliation for real or imagined disobedience in the selection of athletes who will never forget him — not for his rigid adherence to a code of conduct but for his hypocrisy in the way it was enforced. My school was one of those who suffered.
In 1960, Indiana University, hardly a football powerhouse, was penalized by Byers for the recruiting efforts of alleged alumni to help a new coach, Phil Dickens, turn things around. Whether IU had any knowledge of these activities was never shown, but that is incidental to the real tragedy. Because shortly after he was hired, the Big Ten’s commissioner, Kenneth “Tug” Wilson, penalized Dickens before he ever coached a day for minor recruiting infractions and suspended him for a year.
That was 1957. By 1958 and ‘59, Dickens had brought signs of life into the IU football picture.
What he ran into was the buzz saw of Byers’ efforts to bring the NCAA’s members into line with his idea of compliance, especially in the Big Ten. What better way of doing that than taking on the conference doormat in football. It was easy and the big boys like Michigan and Ohio State and Notre Dame, equally as guilty, would get the message without suffering the damage.
Using his former boss, Wilson’s, earlier actions against Dickens as a starting place, he ordered the most extreme steps ever taken by the NCAA against a member school. He not only suspended the football team from championship play for four years, he did the same for every team fielded by the university, from basketball to swimming. There would be no postseason play or televised IU games of any kind.
It was an outrage, of course, causing huge financial hardship. Why IU went along with it without challenging it in court, I'll never understand.
My personal involvement stems from the fact that in 1956, as the editor of the Indiana Daily Student newspaper, I had led a campaign against Dickens’ immediate predecessor, Bernie Crimmins, who had been given a five year contract extension despite an abysmal record. That campaign drew nationwide attention and ultimately resulted a year later in Crimmins’ firing.
Had we at the IDS not done this, none of what occurred might have happened.
The NCAA that Byers built, leaving the Amateur Athletic Union and other sports governing bodies prone in his wake, has become a Byzantine mess of intrigue and unfairness — an organization that exploits its players while restricting their activities through a rule book that requires a battery of legal minds to interpret. It is in desperate need of reform as we all know.
Actually “student athletes” never really existed before or after Byers took over.
Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at: : firstname.lastname@example.org .
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