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NCAA must maintain academic integrity

Earlier this month, as fall sports teams were beginning to practice on college campuses, two decisions were made that will do more to influence athletic programs than will anything that happens in those practices.

On Aug. 7, the NCAA board of directors agreed to give 65 universities affiliated with the most powerful athletic conferences the ability to set certain rules including the value of scholarships without the input of the 286 Division 1 schools playing in less robustly financed conferences. A day later, a federal judge issued a ruling that supports players' right to be compensated for use of their name and likeness, whether the NCAA likes it or not.

Both rulings favor not only the schools in the big conferences, but also the richest schools within those leagues and, especially, schools with wealthy boosters. Oregon appears better suited for this new environment than Oregon State is. And Oregon State is in a better position than, say, Boise State, which despite recent success in football is not in one of the so-called Power 5 conferences and faces a daunting road to ever make the new four-team college football playoff.

While the rules are certain to shift competitive balance, that should not be the chief concern about this new era of college athletics. University presidents must be diligent in coming months to safeguard academic integrity and the financial stability of their athletic programs and overall institutional budgets.

Many, including The Oregonian editorial board, who have supported increased financial support for athletes make a logical argument: As universities reap ever more revenue from sports programs, more of that money should go to athletes who often come from disadvantaged backgrounds and struggle to pay for necessities - and less to palatial stadiums and other ostentatious buildings catering exclusively to athletes. More money appears to be headed toward athletes, though both the judicial and NCAA decisions still could be overturned, but that doesn't automatically mean the extra dollars they get will come from funds previously designated for sports facilities.

Make no mistake, the decisions made in coming months will influence colleges' images and academic missions, even if not as directly as they will athletic programs. At this point, it's not even clear who will make the rules. The court ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken told the NCAA what it could not do restrict athletes from receiving payments but not what it had to do. It also granted the NCAA permission to cap payments at $5,000 per year. Oregon State President Ed Ray, a former chairman of the NCAA executive committee who has been active in discussions about rule changes, said he thinks it makes the most sense for each conference to establish its own rules. But conferences are likely to establish maximums, which not all schools will choose to reach.

That approach could put immense pressure on university presidents, who will be caught between athletic boosters who want teams to be competitive and the academic community, which rightly will want to preserve its mission. Ray is comfortable with that tension, despite being just 50 miles from a rival with much deeper athletic pockets. "I think each university needs to own its own situation and be accountable for it," he said.

The first decision will be determining who qualifies for enhanced scholarships. Discussion has focused on revenue-producing sports, primarily football and men's basketball. But offering richer scholarships only to those athletes could violate Title IX gender equity legislation. One compromise with potential would be to offer cost-of-living stipends only to athletes on full scholarships. Most athletes receive partial scholarships except for those playing football, men's and women's basketball, and women's gymnastics, volleyball and tennis.

Regardless of how cost-of-living stipends are distributed, schools must continue to enhance and enforce academic standards so that athletes remain students even if they are paid more like professionals. After all, the NCAA has said the justification for these changes is to "help all our schools better support the young people who come to college to play sports while earning a degree."

If schools succeed on that count, it will be easier for everyone including those more interested in universities' academic mission than sports to support the NCAA changes.