It’s not often that I’ll talk about Vanderbilt’s athletic programs. It’s not often that anyone will talk about Vanderbilt’s athletic programs, actually. Let’s just say that they aren’t something to write home about.

The football program has won only one of its last 28 SEC games. Vandy’s men’s basketball team went 11-18 last season. On the other hand, the women’s basketball team went to the second round of the NCAA regional tournament, and men’s tennis was second in the nation. So we’ll call them “mixed results.”

The good news for Vandy is that you won’t hear about their athletic programs through the usual means, either. Namely, scandals. The last time a “major” scandal rocked the south via Vandy was 1991 when the women’s basketball coach was charged with unethical conduct. If you don’t recall that one, don’t hurt yourself trying to find another: before that, it was 1953.

The school recently announced a major change in its athletic programs. Ironically, it’s not a move to improve the programs, or a switch to another conference. No, instead Vanderbilt is getting rid of its athletics department. Not the teams, just the department.

In the wake of athletic scandals that have shaken the foundations of schools like Ohio State, Georgia, Fresno State and many other major athletic schools recently, Vanderbilt has made the first move to prevent such things from happening. All its athletic teams will be centralized under direct university control. The former athletic director’s position will become the assistant to the chancellor for athletic and academic reform. The name says it all.

In a world where colleges are seemingly forced to give up either their major college athletic status or their morals and values, Vandy has chosen not to give an inch, but instead to wage a preemptive strike against scandals. Thank you, Vanderbilt, and congratulations.

With the current setup at most schools, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Administration and athletics are entirely separate entities. Ohio State, for instance, says it shouldn’t be forced to give back its BCS National Title because the administration did not know of Maurice Clarett’s illegal activities at the time. Plausible deniability – that’s what the administration gains from such a setup.

Vanderbilt Chancellor Gordon Gee used to be president of Ohio State, and acknowledged that if he had made such a consolidation there, he would have been out of a job faster than Maurice Clarett could spell Vanderbilt (granted, that could take a while).

Every school in the country should follow Vandy’s example. The major change that they have made is an example and a statement. It says that they would rather adhere to the moral and ethical standings prescribed to a world-class academic institution than illegally win games. These are schools, not professional athletic teams, which is what they become when players are allowed to get paid and don’t have to worry about academics.

And there is mounting evidence that players are getting paid and don’t have to worry about academics. A study reported in yesterday’s New York Times states that student athletes are becoming so caught up in their athletic endeavors that they are becoming isolated from their academic peers, even at highly selective colleges and universities.

The study found that even Ivy League schools are admitting recruited student athletes with lower high school GPAs and SAT scores than the rest of the applicant pool. These students then continue to slack, showing lower college GPAs than non-athletes, with comparable high school GPAs, achieve.

Such numbers represent an absolutely unacceptable moral shortcoming on the parts of both athletes and administrators. Once upon a time, students were students first, regardless of whether or not they were athletes. Now, it seems colleges are willing to sacrifice academic performance for a couple of touchdowns or an ankle-breaking crossover. And with those SATs and GPAs, morals are going out the windows as well.

Most schools don’t understand that when their athletes take the field, it’s more than a game, or a streak, or a national title on the line; it’s an academic reputation, a moral uprightness and a respectability that their student-athletes should be playing for. Vanderbilt apparently understands this.

They may never have a national powerhouse football team, or a Final Four-caliber men’s basketball team. Even their tennis teams may slip out of the rankings. But at the end of the day, I would be willing to wager a National Championship that their student-athletes will have high GPAs and be better prepared as individuals.

It may well be another 50 years before you hear of a Vanderbilt player or coach involved in a scandal. That’s what happens when you make athletics subject to university administration – you put the student back in student-athlete.

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