Student-athletes look for more quality control NCAA TOURNAMENT

April 05, 1994|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

CHALOTTE, N.C. — CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If the NCAA sold widgets, one in five of its most valued customers would say the salesman didn't tell the truth.

Two in five would want a refund.

In a Charlotte Observer survey conducted this winter, "NCAA Basketball: The Players Speak," the product isn't widgets, but Division I men's basketball. And the parent company is not a factory, but U.S. higher education.

Based on the responses of 1,160 student-athletes who play major college basketball:

* 22 percent say their school didn't keep its recruiting promises.

* 41 percent say they'd transfer elsewhere if they didn't have to sit out a season under NCAA rules.

"We had best pay attention to what these students are saying," says former University of North Carolina system president William Friday, co-chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

"After all, it is their lives, and not ours, that's involved here. It is something we owe to them. We ask an awful lot of 18- and 20-year-olds out there, with millions watching on television, and all of us hollering our heads off."

Nearly a decade into the college sports reform movement, college presidents, athletic directors and faculty members are getting ready to take stock of how student-athletes are faring under the NCAA's 435-page rule book.

"Student-athlete welfare" is the theme of the NCAA's 1995 Convention. The goal is finding new ways to improve student-athletes' lives -- from their health and safety, their financial conditions, their academic pursuits, to their relationship with coaches.

"It's such a broad charge, the committee has had a very difficult time getting its collective arms around the topic," says John Leavens of the NCAA's compliance office.

Much seems to be working, based on what basketball players told The Observer.

There's strong evidence they consider themselves students first; athletes second: 94 percent say graduating is very important; 74 percent say playing on a good team is.

Most players say their coach shares that concern. Two-thirds give coaches "very good" marks for encouraging them to do well in class. Asked what their coach cares about, three issues stood out: winning games, providing high-quality basketball instruction and encouraging players to graduate.

But there's also evidence that playing major-college basketball takes a high toll -- physically, emotionally and academically.

Basketball players feel pressure in many forms: One-fourth feel isolated at times because they're athletes; nearly a third of black players feel isolated at times because of their race.

Two in five have felt pressured to play injured. One-fourth of juniors and seniors say they've been threatened with having their scholarship revoked.

Half underestimate how much time the sport demands, and 70 percent say their grades would be better if they didn't play.

George Blaney, president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches and coach at Holy Cross, questions the finding.

"We all work too hard," says Blaney. "When you strive for excellence, you need to demand time and commitment.

"We're trying to address abuse of that. It's a tough call sometimes, when the student-athlete is trying to balance so many things in his life."

What's the solution, as the NCAA takes another look at that delicate balance between the drive to excel on court with the desire to excel in the classroom?

Listen to student-athletes. Give them more of a voice in shaping the rules that control their lives while in college.

The NCAA has a student-athlete advisory committee. Its members only recently earned the right to speak at the annual convention where rules are made. It has no vote, and currently has no members who play men's basketball -- the sport that funds 75 percent of the NCAA's total budget.

Temple coach John Chaney says there's a limit to how much control, if any, student-athletes should have over the process.

"They know not what they do," Chaney says. But he thinks they should be heard.

"A student should be involved in the process of trying to get everybody to understand his plight," Chaney says. "They should have student representation in anything that involves students.

"I'm not saying he should have the total say -- but certainly should be involved; certainly should be represented."

Winthrop basketball coach Dan Kenney draws this analogy:

"You have to ask, 'Who are you trying to serve?' " Kenney says. "Are you trying to serve the NCAA, the college presidents, the coaches or the student-athletes?

"If you're serving the student-athletes, I don't think Procter & Gamble would put a product on the shelves without doing some investigation that would prove whether it would serve the customer."

Simplify NCAA rules, starting with a review of those that put a higher premium on competitive balance than athletes' rights.

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