ESTRICH: Tommy Trojan goes for the gold

It was the summer of 1984. I had never set foot on the University of Southern California campus. The joke among law professors was that if we dropped USC and just called it Gould School of Law — which is the actual name — we would have picked up a few points in the rankings.

My big “contribution” was to add language to the “stump speech” celebrating Team USA and the women in particular, whose success was in large part due to the effective enforcement of Title IX, meaning that schools and universities must award as many athletic scholarships to women as they do to men.

The good news was that the crowds got it right away: Women kept winning gold medals because they grew up playing competitive sports. You connect the dots, and good policy literally changed the way sports are organized and opened the doors for women to win on more equal terms than ever before.

This year, USC is sending more athletes to the Olympics than any other college or university in the world. As Ben Bolch writes in the Los Angeles Times: “Winning Olympic gold is a Trojan tradition that predates Tommy Trojan. A USC athlete has won at least one gold medal in every Summer Olympics since 1912. The school’s haul of 305 medals — including 142 gold — from the 1904 Summer Olympics through the 2018 Winter Olympics would rank No. 13 in the world by itself.”

Things are changing, and college sports are leading the way. What better place to showcase that progress than at USC?

As it turned out, we never did that showcase. I’ve never “been moved” out so quickly. The frat boys started tossing tomatoes at the Democratic nominee for president. “We’re moving,” which was news since we had just arrived. We moved. The Service is great in such moments, putting themselves in the line of fire to protect the political process. We were back in our seats, on the road again.

The story was not about Title IX; it was about tomatoes. I’ve been teaching undergrads and law students at USC for almost 30 years. And I haven’t heard or seen a tomato since.

What I have seen, and what we should be celebrating, is the increasing number of athletes who are not only attending college but actually graduating. No, most of them will not end up playing professional ball. But they will graduate from college.

USC and UCLA are tied among Pac-12 colleges in terms of graduation and retention rates. Both schools have very aggressive recruiting programs, including branding assistance, press training and the like. Both schools graduate 93% of their athletes; when you add in student athletes who are still in school full time, the rate jumps to 97%. Which is how you end up with so many Trojans and Bruins leading the American teams. That’s the lead, and it has nothing to do with tomatoes.

Shortly after he was inaugurated as president of USC, Steve Sample made a fundamental commitment to excellence. I happened to be seated with a major donor, a Democrat who was interested in meeting me. He was slightly hard of hearing. “Does this mean our kids won’t get in?” and I smiled and said, “Maybe not.” I expected pushback; we all did. But there was no wavering in Sample’s approach. The message was simple: We should be the best at everything, and thanks to Steve Sample and Beth Garrett, who served as provost of USC and then as president of Cornell, USC became a major research university as well as a sports powerhouse. That’s the lead. It really belongs to Steve Sample. What a great leader.