How dare we add basketball scholarships when faculty, programs are being cut?

January 19, 1994|By Thomas K. Hearn Jr.

THE National Collegiate Athletic Association vote to retain 13 scholarships in men's basketball has taken on symbolic and political importance far in excess of the obvious financial straits of American colleges and universities.

The number was reduced from 15 to 13 in 1991 as part of a general effort to reduce costs. All men's sports were similarly reduced.

Division I basketball coaches came back last year demanding restoration of a 14th scholarship. Their position was soundly defeated. This year, the Black Coaches Association and its threat of a boycott added more pressure. Again, the proponents of financial responsibility prevailed.

What is the political and symbolic question? It is whether the NCAA can reform itself or whether each change will be overturned by coaching groups armed with external and political threats. Had basketball coaches succeeded with such tactics, their counterparts in other sports would have demanded restoration of their cuts. There is no good reason to treat basketball preferentially.

The forces seeking more money for basketball lost primarily to the financial crisis afflicting intercollegiate athletics. Seventy percent of Division I programs are losing money. And the fiscal woes of athletics are only part of the larger financial plight of higher education. Colleges and universities are living through their worst period since World War II. More than 40 states reduced funding of higher education last year. The restructuring of American business we read about each day is also shaking education institutions.

When academic programs and faculty are being cut, the addition of a single basketball scholarship is a symbolic and financial statement that the NCAA and higher education cannot tolerate.

Americans should listen with skeptical ears when coaches plead for educational opportunity for disadvantaged young people. If they find a 14th person who can play -- even if his name is Rockefeller -- he will get that scholarship. Coaches have unusual compassion for people who are 6 feet 9 inches tall and have a soft jump shot, whatever their financial resources.

The best and most accessible route to success for the country's disadvantaged youth is through academic, not athletic, achievement. Of the 1.3 million African American students enrolled in college, fewer than one-quarter of one percent are playing Division I basketball. The fixation on athletics as the path of opportunity has indeed become part of the problem.

The coaches' appeal based on access to higher education did not persuade all of the historically black institutions at last week's NCAA convention in San Antonio. Four of the eight schools in the Southwestern Athletic Conference -- composed entirely of historically black schools -- voted against it. Four schools of the Mid-East Athletic Conference abstained. There are black head coaches at Temple, Air Force, Minnesota, Southern Methodist, Washington State, Mississippi and Houston; all those institutions voted against another basketball scholarship.

One thing is clear since the convention. This is not an issue of the Black Coaches Association. The black coaches are representing the interests of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. Are the coaches in charge of the NCAA?

There were efforts until the last moment at the NCAA convention to achieve a compromise, even to study restoration of a 14th scholarship in exchange for budget cuts elsewhere in basketball programs.

Though it has been lost in the tumult, another major effort of the coaches was to forestall new, higher eligibility standards for Division I scholarship athletics. In the spirit of compromise, further study of those standards was authorized. The coaches are surely on the wrong side of that issue. We have heard all the same arguments about Proposition 48, which raised academic standards for participation in college sports. The fact remains that since its implementation, graduation rates for all athletes are rising. They are not good enough, but higher standards clearly work.

Coaches tell their players every day to work harder to achieve more. That lesson holds for the classroom as well. The solution to America's problems, especially those of impoverished young people, lies in education, not basketball. If universities cannot maintain fiscal responsibility for the entire athletic program, opportunities are lost for many student-athletes. Basketball needs to worry about the system of intercollegiate athletics of which it is but a part. By failing to promote adequate academic standards, we run the risk of exploiting young people.

If we are serious about using athletics to extend educational opportunity, I put forward a modest proposal. Let's take the money from eliminating a basketball scholarship and make it available to a deserving young person from a poor background who wants to be a doctor or a teacher or a scientist. That would be a wiser use of those savings. Education -- not athletics -- is the open door.

Thomas K. Hearn Jr. is president of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. He has served on the NCAA Presidents Commission and the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Dr. Hearn chairs an NCAA committee exploring ethics and integrity in sports.

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