Sports Versus Studies

This week marks the start of the NCAA college basketball tournament known to its fans as "March Madness." It typically treats those fans to an extraordinary display of on-the-court talent, and occasional major upsets and surprises.

It also should serve as a reminder of the extraordinary business that college athletics has become. The NCAA and its schools rake in millions of dollars from the television rights to these games, as they do from other events such as football bowl games

March Madness is one pinnacle of the college sports business, with the traditional sports powerhouses usually rising to the finals. But the dilemma it underscores in neon - how colleges and universities can strike a balance between their "real" purpose, academics, and the supposedly secondary benefits of athletics - is felt throughout higher education. Schools big and small are pondering whether sports take too much time, energy, and resources away from learning.

This dilemma recently surfaced most sharply at the Universities of Alabama and Kentucky. They were handed penalties by the NCAA's Committee on Infractions for allowing a "culture" in their athletic departments that condoned gifts and bribes to prospective football recruits and their high school coaches.

The penalties included bans on bowl-game participation (one year for Kentucky, two for Alabama). What could hurt even worse, significant cuts were ordered over the next few years in the number of football scholarships the two schools can offer.

Such scholarships, in the big sports like football and basketball, but also in an array of other sports, are at the heart of most athletic programs. They also are at the heart of controversy over whether academic standards are sacrificed for winning teams. Many NCAA rule infractions have involved cheating to help athletes pass required courses.

The big-time Division I schools aren't the only ones where these issues arise. A book published last year, "The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values," argued that athletics is overemphasized, at the expense of academic performance, even at elite schools like the Ivy League.

That league, in fact, is studying its balance between sports and studies, with an eye to reducing the number of athletic scholarships and the time athletes spend on their sports. The rethinking is even going on in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, whose members - such as Williams, Amherst, and Bowdoin - offer no sports scholarships.

The rethinking should continue at all levels, until the real madness of many institutions of higher education being upstaged by their athletic departments is eliminated.

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