Through the Trifocals: Illinois & the NCAA

The University of Illinois has had a frustrating long-term relationship with the NCAA that may be continuing unabated. Illinisports discusses this relationship, especially how it has affected the Deon Thomas case and the Chief Illiniwek controversy, in this article. This is part I of XIV parts.

Two recent events have compelled this writer to study the nature of the relationship between the University of Illinois and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). One, a recent website poster offering the Bruce Pearl version of events in the Deon Thomas affair misrepresented the truth so completely that a review is necessary. And two, the NCAA's attack on Chief Illiniwek leaves Illinois in the position of having no recourse but to eliminate the Chief against the wishes of a majority of Illini fans.

It is easy to direct our venom onto individuals when searching for answers to these and other problems. You know, the guy in the black hat, the "lone gunman". Everyone prefers to find one and only one enemy to hate because it is simpler. So we look toward the individuals who are most visible. But problems such as these are much more complex, and the true villains are difficult to isolate because they are usually hidden by numerous protective layers of intrigue and propaganda.

Bruce Pearl did a tremendous disservice to the University of Illinois and Deon Thomas by his actions in helping put Illinois on severe probation back in 1990, and this can be proven by an analysis of the facts. But it would be wrong to see him as the sole villain. After all, he did nothing without the support and encouragement of his university and the NCAA. And it was the NCAA that handed down penalties on Illinois based on faulty information that will be discussed later.

Likewise, many Illini fans are ready to blame the University of Illinois for its role in eliminating their beloved Chief Illiniwek, as it appears will happen in the near future. They promise to withhold financial support and to stay away from sporting events that have long featured the Chief at halftime. But while the UI is certainly not totally innocent in this long-term debacle, the recent actions of the NCAA force the hand of the UI at a time when a concensus was being reached that might have resulted in a more peaceful and tolerable conclusion.

Thus, the common thread in both of these events, as well as a long history of difficulties between the NCAA and the University of Illinois, is the adversarial relationship between the two. And this adversarial relationship began at a time when the NCAA was in its formative stages and continues unabated now and likely into the long-term future. So we must study the nature of the NCAA to understand its perspective on this situation.

It is easy for a life-long Illinois fan to write about the NCAA with prejudice. But this report will try to report on what we know about the NCAA, both its good and bad qualities. Some will declare "sour grapes", but this writer knows the NCAA behaves in a manner that is typical of most major corporations, organizations and governing bodies. It is allowed to behave this way through laws developed by the U. S. Congress and reinforced by consistent rulings from the U. S. Supreme Court. It is possible to report on this behavior without undue bias, and this article will attempt to do that.

Those who wish to receive only a superficial and brief synopsis of past events are susceptible to the deceits of the power elite. One cannot merely study a "Cliff Notes" to glean the truth of Illinois' relations with the NCAA. One must delve deeply into areas otherwise hidden from view to expose truth. It is hoped readers will use this article to stimulate further research so they cannot be duped by those who are quick with the glad-hand, the big smile, the fat wallet, and the attractive propaganda.

To understand the NCAA, one must understand Walter Byers, the man who created it in his own image and ran it with complete power and authority from 1951 to 1988 and beyond. Unfortunately, there are few sources for information about him because he disdained the limelight and was diligent in his efforts to keep his true beliefs and work secret from the public.

The primary sources for this article are threefold. One, Jack McCallum wrote an article on Byers entitled, "In The Kingdom Of The Solitary Man" (Sports Illustrated, October 6, 1986, p.64). Two, Don Yaeger wrote a book called Undue Process: The NCAA's Injustice For All (Sagamore Publishing, Inc., Champaign, Illinois, 1991, 277pp.). And Walter Byers co-authored his own book with Charles Hammer called, Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletics (University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan, October, 1995). The first two sources are most germain to this discussion since both McCallum and Yaeger are investigative reporters who weighed both sides of the issues with no preconceived biases or self-serving motivations.

The NCAA actually began at a meeting in late 1905 with the formation of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States as a response to the 18 deaths and 149 serious injuries from the previous football season. Its first main act was to create an Intercollegiate Football Rules Committe on January 12, 1906, to regulate collegiate football, the first of what would eventually become a massive volume of several hundred pages of rules to govern and control all aspects of college sports.

The organization that would, seven years later, be called the National Collegiate Athletic Association had little power at first. Those who attended meetings did more socializing than governing. But after World War II, rumors of rampant cheating in college athletics forced the NCAA to take a second look at its role. And this is where a young Walter Byers took over and created a massive, wealthy organization that today holds total power over all collegiate sports in the United States.

Parts II through XIV will appear on in the upcoming days.

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