Excesses in the World of Sports

IT'S like watching a graceful, five-man weave pattern on the basketball court to see Congressman Tom McMillen taking pro-ball-sized strides across Capitol Hill.

The Maryland Democrat has no trouble mulling the vote he's headed toward in the House of Representatives, steadily shaking hands of friends and fans, and at the same time explaining his newly published indictment of the American sports establishment.

The long title of his book is complex enough: "Out of Bounds: How the American Sports Establishment Is Being Driven by Greed and Hypocrisy - And What Needs To Be Done About It" (Simon & Schuster). But to discuss it on the run is almost an intellectual feat.

Referring to America's "sports addiction" in terms not unlike those often used to describe drug abuse, he rattles off the linkage of sports to education, business, and entertainment.

"Every institution - Wall Street, Congress, banks, you name it, can be destroyed by excesses. And this book is about excesses in an area that is really part of the American culture, sports," he says.

It is a system he knows intimately. As early as his freshman year in high school in Pennsylvania back in the 1960s, college recruiters courted the 6-foot-11-inch McMillen. The courting is still going on, as those who tend the machinery of the sports complex lobby him on Capitol Hill.

The equation of social values is dangerously out of whack when college coaches and pro-players sign multimillion-dollar contracts while high school sports programs are being cut for lack of money, says McMillen, who himself found financial security in 11 years of National Basketball Association play.

"You're cutting programs that if properly balanced can be part of a youngster's life. But those programs are under tremendous economic pressure because so much money is flooding to the top," he says. "You're cutting programs at the high school level and fitness programs so you can have the slothful fan watching the game and being fixated in that fashion."

This, he adds, has created a "have, have-not society where we are not promoting broad-based values of participation, of exercise, of fitness and healthful living. Our youngsters are more unfit today than ever before in history."

Television magnifies distorted values of sports, he says. Not only does commercialism send colleges chasing big-money television deals, but youngsters are also drawn into watching sports all day, he says. They come away either slothful addicts to television or with unrealistic goals of becoming sports heroes themselves, he says.

This kind of excess is a red flag of "perversion," he says. It sets up distorted values for kids, diverts attention and funding away from academics, and indirectly hurts the national economy. He's preaching social apocalypse, he says, because unless a sports-obsessed nation gets a glimpse of how mired it is in the problem, reform will never be possible.

Almost half of black high school male athletes believe they'll play professional sports even though the reality is that only one in 1,000 high school athletes ever reaches the pros, McMillen observes.

"I don't think there's anything wrong if a child wants to be a glamorous movie star. But Hollywood doesn't funnel through your school system. Having a sports highway running through the school system, you can't become a pro basketball player, a pro football player, a pro anything without having this participatory experience in sports through your school systems," he says. "No other country in the world does this."

In his view, the whole sports establishment is a "money chase rigged by adults," leaving no room for the spontaneous play once normal for youth. "I want to go back to a model where the pot of money is shared by colleges and universities, and there are different incentives for having broad-based programs, including women's sports," he says.

His own reform efforts already include a law that requires colleges and universities to report the graduation rates of students on athletic scholarships.

He and co-author Paul Coggins support other wide-ranging reforms. He particularly advocates controlling the proliferation of pay-per-view televising of pro and college sports and increasing prices for tickets, because these sports are almost a public trust.

Both professional and college sports are largely monopolistic ventures, he says, with little economic competition. They almost have to be controlled as public utilities, rather than free-market ventures, he says. Both college and pro sports teams use publicly funded sports facilities, for example. And college sports are underwritten by mandatory student fees and tax-deductible donations - which means less tax revenue for the public coffers.

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