Power Play on the Basketbal

January 20, 1994

At first glance the controversy over basketball scholarships looks like one of those convoluted confrontations in which everyone is right, everyone is wrong and everyone loses. Yes, basketball scholarships at major colleges are often tickets out of the inner city for African-American youths. Yes, U.S. colleges must scale back all sorts of activities because they are financially strained, so why not basketball too? Yes, a boycott by a lot of basketball coaches would hurt many innocent bystanders.

But on closer examination there is a lot more involved in the dispute between the coaches and the National Collegiate Athletic Association than 300 scholarships. The coaches are demanding that the NCAA restore one of the two scholarships it cut from the number Division I schools can offer each year. College presidents, who are becoming more assertive in athletic policies, succeeded last season in reducing expenditures on all men's sports. Most conspicuous in the opposition to reducing the basketball scholarships from 15 to 13 are the black coaches of a largely African-American sport.

So instead of a rational disagreement on policy between two groups with inherently divergent views, the sport is convulsed with a heated dispute that has been depicted as a racial issue. Roughly two-thirds of the Division I basketball players are black, and the player depicted by the coaches as the loser of that last scholarship is black too. That picture obscures the fact that some of the most vociferous coaches are white, from regional basketball powerhouses, and that many black coaches and institutions don't agree with their colleagues.

The scholarship dispute is not a racial issue, nor is it ultimately about basketball. It is a power struggle between college presidents, who are rebelling at the dominating influence major sports like basketball and football have on many of their campuses, and coaches, who see their control eroding.

The greatest flaw in the coaches' case is the fact that an education, not a thousand-to-one shot at a professional basketball contract, is the best ticket out of the inner city. The money allotted to the extra scholarships would be much better spent on getting them into college on academic merit. This controversy is just a skirmish in a larger battle to get priorities straight on many campuses. Boycotts just hurt the youths already on the college squads.

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