Up in arms over NCAA's crackdown

March 10, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

Let's say the investigations targeted Steve Blake or Lonny Baxter, two Maryland starters who attended prep school. Let's say one of them had received tuition aid from a third party outside his immediate family, then been suspended by the NCAA.

Coach Gary Williams and Maryland fans would react with justifiable outrage -- the same outrage that others have expressed over the past three months with seven other top Division I schools falling victim to the NCAA's latest crackdown.

What gives the NCAA the right to penalize a school for an infraction that was committed without the school's knowledge before a student-athlete arrived on campus?

What gives the NCAA the right to penalize a student-athlete who receives independent financial assistance toward an extra year of school so he can meet the standards of college admission?

If the governing body of college sports can't provide seemingly obvious answers to those questions, then it can't be expected to provide reasonable solutions to more complex issues.

Nothing is as it seems in big-time college sports. Not the organization charged with enforcing the unenforceable. Not the coaches, who foster a selfless image while acting out of self-interest. Not even the athletes, who frequently are portrayed as innocent victims.

Give the NCAA credit for this much: It is so frustrated by its inability to maintain order, it is considering legislation that would allow a student-athlete to move from high school to the pros and back to college, losing a year of eligibility for each year he plays professionally.

The proposal is the NCAA's answer to legalizing drugs. The street agents are the equivalent of dealers, middle-men who can't be eliminated. So, why not legislate them out of existence, remove the profit motive and stop fighting a losing battle?

Because, like decriminaliza- tion, the plan raises other equally disturbing issues. A player might be forced to break a contract with an agent if he decides to attend college. Coaches might be forced to expand their recruiting to minor-league baseball and basketball. Programs would turn over even faster than NFL rosters.

A bad idea? Sure sounds like it.

But come up with a better plan.

A popular notion is that student-athletes should be paid, especially with the NCAA member institutions now receiving $6 billion for the rights to the men's basketball tournament. But athletic directors will tell you that most departments already lose money, and the trickle-down is not what it seems.

To many, the inequity in the system is personified by Auburn's Chris Porter, who was suspended indefinitely after taking $2,500 to give his mother financial assistance, unaware the money was coming through an agent.

Early reports indicated that Porter needed the money to prevent his mother from being evicted, but two Alabama newspapers reported that no eviction notice was found and that his mother's home was owned by his grandmother.

The Porter case aside, student-athletes certainly deserve to share in the financial windfall they help generate. Yes, an athletic scholarship can be worth as much as $100,000. But if you view the athletes as employees, they're probably earning below minimum wage, considering the amount of time they devote to their sports.

The problem is dividing and distributing the money. Title IX ensures that women would be entitled to just as much as men, regardless of the revenue they produce. But if athletes start getting pay for play, should a men's basketball player receive more than a men's swimmer? Should a starter receive more than a reserve?

Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow tells a story from her coaching days at Florida, when athletes were eligible for subsistence if they lived off-campus. One player received her check, bought 32 pairs of shoes, then didn't have enough money for food. The obvious conclusion: College students can't be trusted to manage their money.

Still, the NCAA could choose to redirect its income through indirect means. Student-athletes currently are eligible for $500 in special assistance per semester, but only if they're needy enough to qualify for Pell Grants. Why not increase the amount in the pool and lift the Pell Grant requirement?

A commissioner such as David Stern might employ such logic.

But at the NCAA, no one is accountable.

The organization itself is often too convenient a target -- the member institutions make the rules, complain when they are enforced, then appeal to a committee composed, not of NCAA officials, but volunteers from their own schools.

On the other hand, the NCAA only asks for trouble when it practices selective enforcement on an accepted practice that is insignificant in the big picture; i.e., improper benefits a player receives while in high school.

Some of these cases indeed contain elements of impropriety. Cincinnati freshman DerMarr Johnson received prep-school tuition assistance from an AAU coach with a drug conviction. Michigan freshman Jamal Crawford received a Jeep Grand Cherokee and other extravagant goodies from a wealthy benefactor he lived with in his native Seattle.

Still, the NCAA is missing the forest for the trees.

If you're talking about unfair benefits, what about all the foreign athletes who compete as virtual professionals in their own countries but amateurs at American universities? If you're talking about unfair benefits, isn't the idea of an athletic scholarship inherently unfair?

St. John's Mike Jarvis and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski are among the coaches who argue that the NCAA crackdown is part of a larger ploy to justify the proposal that no longer would require college athletes to be amateurs.

That's giving the NCAA too much credit.

The system is too far gone.

None of the proposed solutions merits a conspiracy.

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