NCAA madness

March 07, 2004

TODAY, WHEN the NCAA announces the 65 teams for March Madness - its annual basketball championship tournament - much more is at stake than school pride. Under CBS-TV's contract with collegiate sports' presiding body, every win in the march to the Final Four is worth $780,000 for schools. That's chump change compared with separate deals for top football bowls worth as much as $13 million per school. In big-time college sports these days, the madness is year-round.

Across the country, Division I schools have invested billions of dollars in monumental facilities, even though all but a handful lose money on sports. College coaches making seven-figure salaries are almost a dime a dozen. Certain schools are alleged to have lured athletes with sexual favors. Last year, big-name basketball coaches essentially put on a parade of improprieties.

As a group, athletes tend to enter colleges with lower qualifications than other students, be held to lower academic standards, train year-round as much as 40 hours a week or more (despite rules otherwise), and graduate at a much lower rate. According to recent studies, the same sort of separate standards exist at smaller elite schools.

FOR THE RECORD - Correction
The field for the NCAA basketball tournament will be announced Sunday. An editorial yesterday gave an incorrect date.

Myles Brand, a former Indiana University president who is now National Collegiate Athletic Association president, has been leading a reform effort, acknowledging that college sports are at a crossroads - one that risks opening the way to a professional model in which student-athletes are simply paid to play. Bills to allow that already have been brought before the California, Utah and Nebraska legislatures.

Under Mr. Brand, the NCAA has tightened athletes' entrance requirements and has begun requiring them to show annual progress toward graduating. Next month, Division I presidents will vote on a proposal to put teeth in that by punishing schools whose athletes do poorly academically - a key step that must be approved.

Another good idea - pushed by the Knight Foundation and no less a figure than legendary former North Carolina coach Dean Smith - is to restore freshman ineligibility so athletes have a year to mature as students. It doesn't have wide support, in part because it has economic implications. And therein lies the core problem: Restoring sanity to college sports can happen only if academicians regain control and wean their schools from the TV money race.

Colleges are so heavily invested that this can't happen overnight. But a national faculty group, the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, is pointing the way with a comprehensive agenda for NCAA reform. It calls on colleges to not only raise athletes' academic standards, but also enforce training-time limits, shorten sports seasons, install more administration and faculty oversight of sports budgets, embrace revenue sharing to break the link between winning and solvency, and cut costs to make commercialization less necessary.

What's happened to college sports - and increasingly to high school sports as well - stems from a failure of academic stewardship. That must be strongly reasserted.

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