When college big boys play rough, little guys get hurt

MIKE LITTWIN

November 11, 1990|By MIKE LITTWIN

Covering college sports is an exercise in situational ethics. On game day, you try to forget everything you know about the workings of big-time college athletics and just enjoy the game. A week ago, when visiting Charlottesville, Va., I was able to have the best of both worlds -- to see Virginia, an academic school that graduates its athletes, ranked No. 1 and playing in its biggest game ever.

The atmosphere was game-day perfect. The leaves had turned, the students were out in force, the pep band was playing with all the pep it could muster, and Virginia engaged Georgia Tech in a great game. I was able to tell myself it didn't matter that the Virginia football players achieved a median college board score of around 950, or nearly 300 points less than the typical student there. That was close enough, I figured, and better than most. And the kids did graduate.

And then I came back to the real world.

In the real world, Illinois, a top academic school that doesn't necessarily graduate its athletes, goes on probation.

In the real world, Missouri, another big-time sports school, also goes on probation.

And, in the real world, Towson State, which doesn't go on probation, which doesn't cheat, which tries to play big-time sports in its own fashion, continues toward the day when it must drop its football program.

That's what will happen, too. Towson football, for all the tears shed in the past few weeks, is doomed, and for a couple of reasons. One is that, despite all the noise you've heard, very few people care much about Towson football. At the homecoming game last week, with the survival of the team at stake, fewer than 4,000 fans bothered to show up. And the other is that new NCAA rules, if passed in January, would make it virtually impossible for schools such as Towson to continue playing Division I-AA football.

You see, this is just the beginning of a lot of anguish at a lot of schools if the new rules pass, as expected. What is at work here is that the college powers, the ones that have made intercollegiate sports such a cesspool, want to keep the dirt and, not incidentally, all the dirty money, to themselves. To that end, they have proposed that, for schools to remain in Division I, they must spend $250,000 on both men's and women's non-revenue sports, plus field seven sports for men and women.

According to figures in a series in The Evening Sun, Coppin State spends less than $100,000 on non-revenue sports and Morgan State spends $239,000. Under the new proposal, if those schools can't get to $500,000, they would have to drop out of Division I. To get to $500,000, many schools would have to drop football and spend the money on, say, indoor track scholarships.

Why stay Division I at all? That's a good question. Should schools such as Towson State and Notre Dame, Coppin State and Oklahoma, schools that inhabit completely different athletic worlds, compete in the same jurisdiction? Why doesn't Towson simply settle for being Towson?

There are a few reasons, the biggest of which is basketball. It doesn't take much money to play big-time basketball, where the scholarships are relatively few and where, if you're in a conference, road trips are manageable. And, on the other end, there is huge pie to divide, thanks, in large part, to a billion-dollar TV contract. But it isn't just the money. Competing on that level is fun. It's what college sports are supposed to be about. It's Towson playing Oklahoma in the first round of the NCAA tournament last March and nearly pulling off one of the great upsets of the modern day.

What do you think that game meant for the student body and for a school's self-esteem?

Towson isn't going to abandon basketball, which is why the football program is doomed. To save it, alumni will have to raise an additional $140,000 a year, not a likely scenario. Coppin State, which became the first Baltimore school to qualify for the NCAA tournament, doesn't want to give it up, either. Come on, isn't there enough pie for everyone?

At Morgan State, they say they're going to do whatever it takes to keep football. We can only wish them luck, because the odds are stacked mountain-like against them. Even if Morgan football stays alive, there may not be anyone left for the Bears to play.

It doesn't have to be that way, of course. What the new rules wouldn't allow is for a school to compete on different levels in different sports. Towson couldn't decide to play Division II football, where it once competed quite successfully, and play Division I basketball, where it competes pretty well right now. That doesn't make sense -- this idea of the NCAA actually forcing schools to drop a sport -- until you factor in motive. The big schools simply want to push the little schools out.

The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, in which Morgan and Coppin compete, is a group of little schools that are not particularly successful on a national level but who generally compete among themselves, anyway. Now, these programs, many of which are already bone dry, are being squeezed. Now, they're not allowed to be as good as they can be.

In the meantime, the NCAA is opening a visitors center to celebrate college sports, featuring a gallery of photos displaying all the pageantry and excitement of the college game. Among the schools included in the exhibition are Illinois (on probation), Houston (on probation), Clemson (recently on probation), Oklahoma (usually on probation). And, in the release, there is quote from author David Halberstam: "The game matters, the sport matters, but above all, the celebration matters. It is an event and occasion of bonding." Until they force you to drop the sport.

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