Time to put books back in game plan

June 20, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

Making freshmen ineligible? Tying scholarships to graduation rates? Denying coaches the right to reassign the scholarships of players who lose their academic eligibility?

Only in a fantasy world, you'd think, would the NCAA consider adopting such radical measures to return a semblance of academic integrity to men's college basketball.

But it's happening now.

The ideas are still lodged in various panels and committees, a long way from becoming a reality, but it's a good sign they're even on the table.

The next step is the crucial one, of course -- adopting one or all of the measures in the coming year, despite numerous potential obstacles.

It needs to happen for men's basketball to regain some self-respect and start rising above a prevailing disregard for academics, which leads to hideous scandals such as the one at the University of Minnesota and countless others that go undiscovered.

According to the NCAA's latest statistics, only 41 percent of the male basketball players who entered Division I schools in 1991 earned their degrees. The graduation rate for all Division I athletes was 57 percent, and the rate for female basketball players was 66 percent.

Devastating numbers. Someone isn't trying hard enough to do things right.

Not that that's a surprise. With millions of TV dollars at stake, it's inevitable that some schools disregard academics for the sake of winning. You get paid for making the NCAA tournament, not for graduating players.

But that doesn't mean it's pointless to try to improve the situation. Giving up would be even more cynical than sitting back and arguing that cheating is beyond control.

No, you can't legislate morality; those who want to cheat can find a way around any rule. But there are steps that could be taken to change college basketball for the better, and it's good to see some groups trying to take them.

The Working Group to Study Basketball Issues -- a 29-member panel that includes Dean Smith -- will meet this week and next month before submitting proposed changes to the NCAA board of directors, who probably won't rule until next year or even 2001.

But when any changes would take effect doesn't matter. It's whether they take effect -- ever -- that counts.

Freshman eligibility is the issue making the most headlines, understandably -- the NCAA barred freshmen from playing until 1972, and re-installing the ban after 27 years would amount to an admission that Proposition 48 and other, controversial rules governing admission and freshman eligibility haven't really worked.

That's true, by the way. They haven't worked. Just look at the graduation rates.

The reality is that basketball players are no different from other college students. They'd benefit from taking a year to adjust to campus life, academically and socially. That's not even a debatable issue.

Many players would develop much better academic habits if the glare and pressure of playing ball were removed from their freshman burden.

Sure, more top high school recruits probably would just jump straight to the pros rather than sit out a year. Fine. Whatever. They aren't committed students anyway, and they damage the college game with their one-year careers. Let them go.

A more legitimate concern would be the addition of a fifth year to scholarship offers, a problem for schools with money woes.

And there's a chance a gender-based lawsuit could succeed, with male freshmen suing on the grounds that female freshmen were still eligible.

You know the TV networks won't want to wait a year to make heroes out of freshman hot-shots. Nor will many coaches.

But although there are numerous obstacles, the NCAA needs to get around them and get the deal done. Make freshmen ineligible again. For the whole year, not just the first semester (as some compromise plans have suggested).

Banning freshmen won't totally eliminate the shameful, meat-market hustle involving AAU coaches, pro-style summer leagues and college coaches looking for quick fixes, but it would soften the hard-sell environment and help put some college back in college basketball. That's progress.

An even bigger step would be possible changes involving scholarship allotments. One plan would give extra scholarships to programs with high graduation rates. A fabulous idea. Why not take it a step farther and penalize programs with low rates?

If you want coaches getting serious about academics, make them graduate players to get scholarships. That'll get their attention.

Another fabulous idea, coming out of the Southeastern Conference, would prevent coaches from reassigning the scholarships of players who flunk out. The scholarship would just go unused until the original player's four years were up.

Obviously, that would force coaches to recruit players capable of staying eligible, as opposed to faux students who really don't belong.

If the NCAA doesn't pass such a rule, as well as the others, it isn't serious about cleaning up its messy academic house.

Oh, sure, coaches are going to rail against yet another set of limitations, whining that their high-pressure jobs are tough enough already. Bull. Yes, there is pressure, but they can do a much better job of keeping the game clean.

Where the game is now, academically, is embarrassing. And who knows how much any one, new rule can do?

But it's worth a try, particularly since the ideas being floated make so much sense.

To debate them and then not adopt them would be a disgrace.

Pub Date: 6/20/99

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