Read the full transcript of our interview with Bill Friday

Bill Friday was pushing for reform in college athletics before Terrelle Pryor knew what a tattoo was or Marvin Austin could tell time on a gaudy watch. As the founding co-chairman of the Knight Commission, a watchdog group of college presidents and other leaders who seek to balance college-level sports with academics, the UNC system president emeritus has worked on these issues for two decades.

We sat down with Friday, 91, in his humble office on the UNC campus earlier this week, where the walls are adorned with family photos and a signed Doonesbury comic celebrating the recently passed “50 percent rule,” which bans teams that fail to graduate at least half of their players from postseason play.

“I want you to remember one thing,” he said. “I don’t pose as an expert. I don’t pose as a knowledgeable scholar or anything like that. I’ve just got a lot of scar tissue, and I know what the war is. I’m really sad about it. I’m not, ‘I told you so,’ or anything like that. I just see a great thing being so tarnished that people are beginning to turn away. That’s what you don’t like.”

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: You helped found the Knight Commission in 1989 in the wake of the SMU-Pony Express scandal. With investigations ongoing at Miami, Ohio State and UNC, among others, is college athletics better or worse off now or then? Who is at fault?

BILL FRIDAY: We’re a lot worse off, no question about that. Three things came out of that process in the first two years: One was to reassert presidential authority. The second one was to set up processes to guarantee academic integrity, and third to do the same thing with fiscal integrity. Then there was a fourth recommendation, which said that every five years a team would go into the institutions and see how well one, two and three were being performed. This got along very well, and we began to enact in the NCAA quite a few changes, minor most of them, but the process was beginning.

Then came television money, and what you’ve witnessed in the last decade has been the enormous power of millions of dollars to do what you have seen done, which was to I think create a situation that’s probably the worst one that college sports has ever been involved in.

This is the sad part about it. Everybody acknowledges that things aren’t the way they should be, that we are in a dangerous situation, but nobody is stepping forward now to say that here’s what we need to do … You’ve got to start somewhere. For example, I would do what Dean Smith long ago advocated, and it’s been proven I think in recent episodes here. I would reinstall the freshman eligibility rule.

The second thing would be, I would abolish football in midweek at colleges. It’s too disruptive. Third, I would take a good hard look at the length of the season. It begins early and runs well after Christmas now and bowl games. Fourthly, I would make sure that the 50 percent rule was in place in every conference and that this was publicly accounted for.

Fifthly, and this I think is going to happen, this has gotten to be such a big business involving billions of dollars, not millions, billions, and these operations do not have any direct relationship at all to the basis of tax exemption for the university. So sooner or later we’re going to have to face the question of taxation, and this can mean either federal taxation or state taxation, but it’s a question that isn’t going to go away.

Do you see among the college landscape now the people in power positions who are ready to pursue reform? Who’s standing in the way of these changes and do you see them being overcome?

I don’t think it’s a factor of anybody standing in the way so much as it is the lack of commitment by a conference to face up to this now. Mr. Swofford raised the curtain. He said here are things that this conference should do. I don’t think any single president could do it alone, although I would admire him greatly if he tried, and [University of Miami president Donna] Shalala’s got a great opportunity.

Now, to say that something has got to be done and done soon, all you have to do is look at the landscape. There are 12, at least, major universities in this country right now under scrutiny, including mine. This has caused a lot of heartache and when you hear charges of academic cheating, and you hear charges of distortion, you don’t have an option … you have to deal with it now.

In his recent book Big-Time Sports in American Universities, Duke professor Charles Clotfelter argues that we can’t seek reform without taking seriously the meaning and pleasure that many people draw from college sports, and that college sports provide fundraising opportunities for the institution at large. Do you agree?

Let me tell you two things. The Knight Commission wanted to know whether or not winning and losing influenced giving. We commissioned a very famous economist from Cornell University, and he conducted a study on that subject and came away saying, “No, it had no influence one way or another.” In some isolated cases you’ll hear that, but by and large that’s not the reason people give. It’s part of it, of course everybody enjoys a winning team, but it’s not the sole motivation of my alliance with my alma mater. The commission negated that.

Yesterday I was listening to an old alumnus and he said, “You know, it used to be so much fun when we’d go to ball games and we’d see our classmates and we’d have a great time, we’d even have brunch out somewhere. Now it’s completely different. It’s an orchestrated enterprise with a gigantic 90-foot screen somewhere in the ballpark with guns going off and smoke screens. It’s a production.”

You’ve been beating this drum since before all of these recent scandals, but did you ever see something like this on the horizon, particularly on the Chapel Hill campus?

No. We went 50 years with not even the remotest suggestion of this kind of activity. Once you’ve gone through this kind of experience several times you develop certain capacities to know what you are looking for, but now it almost singularly rests on money, and I never thought I’d ever see the day when universities would be so completely dominated by the power of money in any one division of its life. I think that’s universal.

I think we are at a low point, I really do. I think the only way we can go from here is upward. I hate to say that, because I’m a great respecter of the institutions we have, I think they are truly great. The institutions in the United States are world renowned, they are respected all over the world, and why we have allowed this to get away from us the way we have, we have only ourselves to blame. I could have done more. I’ve been out of office 25 years, but I’m sure there are things I could have done when I was in office, when I had authority, that I could have done to help this, but we just sort of let it happen. But now is the time.

What’s the risk if someone doesn’t act? How far could this spiral out of control and how much could it hurt academic integrity?

You get into questions of cost, you see, after awhile. There are 119 institutions in the I-A category. Last year, according to the NCAA, fewer than 25 of those institutions broke even. We’re already in a situation of financial stress … There’s where in a public institution and you start incurring huge debt, then it could become an obligation of the entire state.

Those problems, they didn’t exist 10 years ago, you weren’t doing these kinds of things. This is what I mean by letting it get completely out of hand. What we are really talking about here is a matter of will.

Be sure and make the point that I said that the one positive force over these last two decades has been the Knight Commission. It’s been going almost alone, but it didn’t leave the job. It’s stayed with it … We’re beginning to create a different climate, that’s where my hope rests.