Behind `March Madness'

The hype for the NCAA hoops tournament masks a sports system founded on money madness

NEXT Monday evening, CBS will bump ``Murphy Brown'' in favor of a college basketball game and pay $143 million to do it. That's how far the National Collegiate Athletic Association has progressed in turning its big-time Men's Basketball Championship into even bigger-time professional entertainment. ``March Madness,'' as CBS calls the 64-team tournament, now rivals the World Series and the Super Bowl for fan excitement. From the standpoint of advertisers, March Madness is clearly worth the $100,000 price tag for one 30-second commercial reaching 150 million viewers.

Similarly, from the standpoint of the NCAA, March Madness is worth the hype. Last year, the association concluded a three-year pact with CBS valued at $158 million. This year, the association began a seven-year pact with CBS valued at $1 billion.

But from the standpoint of the athletes, March Madness is a different story. The NCAA conducted several surveys in 1989 that raised serious questions which are yet to be addressed.

Of the 960 athletes participating in this year's NCAA Men's Basketball Championships, only one in five will ever graduate. This means 768 athletes (80 percent) will leave school without a degree. Of these, only about 40 will ever make it to the pros, leaving 728 young men (75 percent) without a pro career or a college degree.

Though these athletes spend four and a half hours a day at their job - practicing and competing in basketball - the majority have only $25 per month for spending money. Big-time college basketball is a year-round endeavor, leaving little time for part-time or summer jobs. That's not to say these players are not taken care of, but it's all under the table. By contrast, Georgetown's coach John Thompson earns $700,000 per year and Kentucky's coach Rick Pitino makes close to $1 million annually.

But with all this new CBS money coming in, surely the NCAA will take steps to help its athletes, and also to curb steroid use, alcohol abuse, academic fraud, and corrupt payments.

Sadly, at January's NCAA annual convention, where remedial steps should have been taken, the NCAA old guard - big-time athletic directors and faculty athletic representatives - diverted college presidents and the ordinary rank-and-file members with a reform agenda filled with decoys. And while the presidents were trying to be reformers, a handful of NCAA athletic directors met behind closed doors and divided up the CBS windfall.

NOT surprisingly, the distribution formula, which is all but unfathomable, rewards those NCAA athletic departments with the most tournament wins and the biggest athletic departments. Not a dime of this year's $143 million will go to a university's general fund. Instead, the CBS money will finance bigger coaches' salaries, maintaining the NCAA's private plane, and increasing the expense allowance for the hordes of NCAA officials attending the Final Four in Indianapolis this weekend.

But the athletes will not fare as well. A special fund will be established that will dispense, on average, a trifling $25 per athlete per year for those who qualify. A mere $25,000 per Division I school will be spent on ``academic enhancement.''

Meanwhile, the NCAA looks pained and embarrassed whenever it is questioned about such practices. The other evening, for example, on Bill Moyers's PBS special, ``Sports for Sale,'' Dick Schultz, NCAA executive director, was doing yet another song-and-dance about reform. This rendition pertained to the Knight Commission, a blue-ribbon panel led by Mr. Schultz, Notre Dame's Father Theodore Hesburgh, and North Carolina's William Friday. The commission used the occasion to announce the findings resulting fro m two years of studying the abuses of college athletics.

But Bill Moyers could barely contain his disappointment over the commission's recommendations. Dick Schultz had once again convinced otherwise intelligent people to believe voluntary self-compliance, enforced by college presidents dependent on sports-crazed alumni, trustees, governors, and legislators, would solve the corruption of college athletics.

But two other panelists on the show saw through the posturing. Prof. Murray Sperber, author of ``College Athletics, Inc.,'' said the problems are ``systemic'' and must be cured by more substantive measures than the ``symbolic'' gestures of the Knight Commission and the NCAA.

And then, Rick Telander, author of ``The Hundred Yard Lie,'' described the problem of college athletics brilliantly with these two words: ``child abuse.''

And that is precisely what the corruption of college athletics boils down to. Grown Caucasian males abusing 18- and 20-year-olds, most of whom are black, so that the nation might be amused next Monday evening.

It is time to establish a commissioner of big-time college athletics with sweeping powers. Anything short of this and Congress ultimately will step in and take over.

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