Stale smell of money has ruined the freshness of college basketball

November 22, 1991|By Bill Lyon | Bill Lyon,Knight-Ridder

In many ways, there is nothing in sports quite so entertaining as college basketball.

At the same time, there is nothing in sports quite so hypocritical, either.

All that exuberance. All that energy. All that genuine spontaneity.

And all those shoe contracts. And all those booster-club annuities. And all those ungraduated functional illiterates cast off as soon as their eligibility, and usefulness, have expired.

Simultaneously, college basketball manages to present us with a face as young as springtime and as promising as dawn, and as insidious and as contaminating as an oil spill.

As with most things in life, this is a topic in which the dollar sign is pervasive and unavoidable.

As recently as the 1960s, the NCAA basketball tournament was a chummy little 24-team affair that was dwarfed by the NIT. In less than a decade, however, it had been discovered by TV and it began to grow.

Now, of course, it is entirely out of proportion. It goes by the alliterative hyperbole of March Madness, and it is, indeed, quite mad.

Strictly from an entertainment perspective, it is a wonderful madness. A delicious delirium. For three weeks in March we have the Ultimate Office Pool.

Viewership has swollen to 150 million. An estimated 30 million of them are legally ineligible for the choicest product of the brewer's art, which pays a lot of the advertising freight, but that's another subject.

A 30-second commercial at tournament time costs $100,000. Last year, the NCAA signed a contract with CBS-TV for seven years' worth of March Madness for $1 billion.

Once the poor relative in a school's athletic department, dependent on the football team's revenue, the basketball team suddenly had its own lottery.

The NCAA takes in 64 teams for its tournament now. Like a TV game show, each advancement to another round is worth more money. A berth in the Final Four has become as lucrative as an invitation to a bowl game.

With greater opportunity comes greater temptation.

There is nothing wrong at all with engaging in the entertainment business. Which is what college basketball is.

What is disturbing is the insistence that it is also part of the education business, when it is quite obvious that, in all but a few instances, it is not.

College hoops is a business first and it is an education about, oh, say, fourth.

It's pro ball except the players don't get paid. Amend that -- they don't get paid what the NBA pays.

They are professional amateurs.

They labor for a pittance while the men who coach them are paid handsomely, and if the coaches' salaries don't look all that handsome, they sure do improve when you begin adding the incentive clauses and the shoe contracts and the summer camps and the TV shows and the free cars and the country-club memberships and the insurance policies.

When Duke stopped UNLV at 45 wins in a row in the semifinals of last spring's Final Four, there was joy all around. The Evil Empire had been dusted. The clean-living scholars had eliminated the Vegas croupiers. Justice had been served. There was a sense of confirmation, of vindication.

It's a matter of perception, though.

A matter of degrees.

For college athletics shares a commonality with politics, and it is that it is possible to be "honest" only to a point.

The system will permit only a certain amount of honesty before it begins to penalize purity and reward corruption. There comes a point when education alone is not enough; wins matter more.

Even so revered an institution as Notre Dame found a justification for running off Digger Phelps last season. Of the 54 scholarship players who stuck around for four years during his tenure, 54 graduated. A truly admirable record.

But there is a record that matters more these days. Its alphabet consists only of two letters, W and L. The Irish won only 12 games last season and Phelps was forced to "retire."

Sometimes, the sanctimonious are harder to take than the blatantly crooked.

No matter how pure the heart, how honorable the intent, to be "big time" requires a certain measure of hypocrisy, a certain amount of looking the other way.

Overemphasis is unavoidable.

So is a certain distortion of values.

Duke is lauded as a shining example of how academia and jockdom can co-exist, while UNLV is reviled at every turn for perverting all values.

And yet what coach ever said anything more honest than Jerry Tarkanian, after he failed to slip Lloyd Daniels past the NCAA sentinels? Tark: "We thought we could get Lloyd one year of school and help him get into the NBA."

The Shark cut to the heart of the matter. For every elongated adolescent who accepts a roundball scholarship with the intention of improving his mind, there are a thousand who come on board wanting only to polish their spin move and perfect their crossover dribble, the better to qualify them for hoops employment.

This is the reality: Of the 960 athletes who will participate in this year's NCAA men's basketball championship, only one in five will ever graduate.

That means 768 will leave school without a degree and, more important, without much of an education.

Only 40 will make a living playing basketball.

Which leaves 728 without either a degree or basketball employment.

That number cannot be rationalized away as anything other than dismal failure.

Yes, the entertainment is undeniably unsurpassed.

But at what price?

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