May 05, 2004

AMERICAN colleges have been grappling with their definition of student-athlete for more than a century, and over the last two decades the NCAA has launched one reform after another. The results too often can be likened to efforts to curb tax fraud: With each new set of rules, college sports programs hell-bent on winning have found creative ways around them. The whole system slid out of whack years ago, and a flood of TV money now sustains it there, blocking a needed re-emphasis on academics.

We hope the collegiate association's latest reforms, approved last week with much fanfare, prove different. Within a few years under this new and elaborate process, schools will be punished or rewarded contingent on whether their athletes are making progress toward graduation. Athletes' eligibility and teams' total allowed scholarships, and perhaps even their opportunities for post-season championship play, all could be jeopardized. In concept, it's a big step; NCAA President Myles Brand calls it a "sea change."

Unfortunately, it's taking place in that vast sea of TV money, which rewards not academic but athletic success. Winning at big-time college football and basketball begets championship games, TV revenue, alumni donations, enlarged athletic budgets, and the political will to erect lavish sports palaces even as colleges everywhere face financial pressures to cut academic programs.

In all this, the University of Maryland, College Park is hardly the worst offender. But Comcast cable didn't pay $25 million to put its name on UM's basketball arena because of the team's academics. Coach Gary Williams' contract gives him an extra $50,000 for getting to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16, $100,000 for making the Final Four and $200,000 for taking it all, but only $25,000 if 50 percent of his players graduate. There's a debate about how the NCCA calculates such data, but it last reported the UM basketball team's graduation rate as 27 percent - vs. 65 percent for all students.

The NCAA's academic progress plan may shift the balance a bit back to the student side of student-athlete. But tellingly, just days before the NCAA made this move, the independent collegiate group controlling the Bowl Championship Series received an ABC-TV proposal to expand the number of these lucrative postseason football matches.

Returning sanity to college sports is going to take a lot more sea changes: bringing back freshman ineligibility, cutting out midweek games that meet TV's needs but not athletes' class schedules, reducing training schedules that amount to year-round full-time jobs, and, hardest of all, rejecting millions of dollars being thrown at schools by corporate interests. This goes far beyond the NCAA itself - to individual college presidents summoning the courage to stand up for the true purposes of their institutions.

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