Byers, Walter

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BYERS, Walter

(b. 13 March 1922 in Kansas City, Missouri), athletic association director who guided the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to a dominant role in marketing intercollegiate sporting events and regulating competition.

Byers is the son of Ward Byers and Lucille Hebard Byers. He played football for Westport High School in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1939 he entered Rice University in Houston, Texas. In the following year he transferred to the University of Iowa, where he majored in English and journalism. After military service, he was employed as a news reporter for the United Press International (UPI). After short stints in St. Louis and Madison, Wisconsin, he became a sports editor of UPI in Chicago. In 1946 and 1947 he was UPI assistant sports editor in New York City, where he also served as foreign sports editor.

Byers moved quickly from a career as a sports journalist to sports administration. In 1947 Commissioner Kenneth L. "Tug" Wilson hired him as director of the Big Ten Conference Service Bureau in Chicago. At the same time he served as an executive assistant to Wilson, who was also secretary-treasurer of the NCAA. In 1951 Byers was appointed executive director of the NCAA. He served in this position for thirty-six years.

During his tenure, Byers was responsible for administering the rules governing intercollegiate sports. Competition produced both winners and losers; winners were profitable, losers were not. Institutional sponsors adopted rules and regulations to equalize opportunity. Compliance with and enforcement of the rules required organizational supervision. In intercollegiate sports these organizations were conferences composed of similar institutions in a particular region, and associations representing institutional sponsors. The associations included representatives of the professional interests involved in sports. In the United States there were strong traditions of professional cartels, academic amateurism, and institutional autonomy. Under-girding the entire sports structure was the matter of economic viability or financial support.

Founded in 1905, the NCAA was an association of professional athletics administrators, including athletics directors, coaches, institutional presidents, and faculty representatives. It had a long history of conflict and reconciliation with the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), and other organizations representing amateur sports. Douglas MacArthur, Avery Brundage, and Robert F. Kennedy had each attempted to restore order to amateur intercollegiate sports. The post–World War II emergence of college football and basketball as popular and financially successful sports, and communications technologies that opened mass entertainment markets, strengthened the NCAA's financial position.

Byers's responsibilities at the NCAA included administration, legislation, regulation, enforcement, and financial management. Beginning as a one-man operation in 1947, he secured new staff and consolidated operations. He directed the moving of the headquarters to Kansas City in 1952 and to Shawnee Mission, Kansas, in 1973. In 1969 the headquarters staff included twenty-one people in Kansas City, New York, Washington, and Phoenix. By 1988 the staff at Shawnee Mission included sixty-five people in five departments.

Legislation and litigation accompanied the strengthened NCAA position in amateur athletics and became a standard occurrence in Byers's career. In the 1960s renewed jurisdictional disputes prompted the NCAA to break off relations with the AAU and to withdraw from the USOC. The Amateur Sports Act of 1978, which limited the powers of the AAU and defined the authority of the USOC, indicated the nationwide media and political power of the NCAA. Byers spent about $1 million and twelve years in legal battles with Coach Jerry Tarkanian of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which included his 1978 testimony before a congressional committee investigating the NCAA's enforcement process. A 24 June 1984 United States Supreme Court decision held that the NCAA's $283-million football television contract was in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. However, it did little to check the NCAA's success in managing sports entertainment programming.

NCAA committees tightened and extended the rules for intercollegiate competition. In 1968 the Manual was a 118-page document. By 1988 it was 430 pages long. The annual publication was a detailed code of conduct governing recruiting, eligibility, and rule enforcement in college sports. With continual modification, these rules were shaped to maintain comprehensive and exclusive NCAA control over intercollegiate sports.

Byers was a dedicated believer in compliance and enforcement. He stated, "Intercollegiate athletics is a symbol of the real world because it has true accountability." Rules for the recruitment and eligibility of athletes were major problems in college sports. The Sanity Code of 1948, which required ordinary entrance requirements and "normal progress" for athletes, proved unenforceable. On 8 January 1954 Byers acknowledged, "We are in the enforcement business, apparently to stay." In 1956 the NCAA endorsed grants-in-aid or athletic scholarships, which provided some accountability but had little effect on the need for enforcement. Citing widespread violations in 1984, Byers lamented that violators showed no remorse, coaches didn't cooperate, and presidents had little power or will to act. He estimated that 30 percent of the major sports schools were cheating "in a big way." By 1988 the Compliance and Enforcement Division staff of twenty included fifteen field investigators.

Throughout his tenure, the NCAA's budget ballooned enormously. The NCAA's 1947 budget was $100,000. In 1952 Byers negotiated a football television contract for $1,194,000. The college basketball tournament proceeds were divided fifty-fifty between the participating teams and the NCAA. The NCAA received $87,385 in 1954 and $173,258 in 1961. In 1955 the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) defaulted on a television contract and paid $200,000 to the NCAA. In 1981 the NCAA budget was $22,429,000. In 1988 NCAA surplus television revenue was $13,332,136.

In October 1987 Wayne Duke, the Big Ten commissioner, hailed Byers as the architect of NCAA's football television program, basketball championship tournament, management of the football bowl system, and enforcement program. At Byers's final NCAA convention, ABC television announcer Keith Jackson presided. The University of Michigan's athletic director, Don Canham, characterized Byers as a "great leader," "loyal," "perfectionist," and "tough." In 1988 Byers retired, becoming the director emeritus.

Seven years later Byers published Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletics, a critique of his former employer. He charged the NCAA with "a psychology of complacency" that emphasized amateurism, added regulations, expanded compliance inspections, centralized eligibility review, emphasized public relations, and established a bureaucracy. His arguments for reform challenged the immensely profitable system that he had created for the NCAA's control of intercollegiate athletic competition. He recalled that he had been "enormously successful" in generating millions of dollars for the colleges but "barely adequate" in enforcing the rules governing intercollegiate athletics. Since 1974 Byers has resided in Mission, Kansas, and served as president of Byers Seven Cross Ranch in Emmett, Kansas.

Byers's work is documented in his papers at the NCAA in Indianapolis, the NCAA Yearbooks, the NCAA News, and the NCAA Manual. He discusses his own career in Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletics (1995). The subject is also addressed in the NCAA's official history, NCAA: The Voice of College Sports (1981), by Jack Falla. A critique of the NCAA and its relationships to the media is in Arthur Fleisher, Brian Goff, and Robert Tollison, The National Collegiate Athletic Association: A Study in Cartel Behavior (1992). Financial matters are discussed in Gary D. Funk, Major Violation (1991). Sources for Byers's 1984 views on enforcement are Jack McCallum, "Why Is This Man Saying the Things He's Saying?" Sports Illustrated (17 Sept. 1984), and Peter Alfano, "NCAA Head Asks Assault on Rampant Abuse of Rules," New York Times (13 Oct. 1984).

Maynard Brichford