A Cure for 'March Madness'?

The college basketball championships have finally concluded for another year, with Michigan State on top. That was the easy part. The harder part is deciding what to do about the "amateur" athletic structure on which the wildly popular, and relentlessly hyped, "March Madness" tournament is perched.

The hypocrisy in this structure is as obvious as a flagrant foul. For starters, consider the overused phrase "student athlete." Does it really fit major-college basketball players, a majority of whom don't graduate?

The National Collegiate Athletic Association rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars in TV contracts from "March Madness," rivaling many pro-sports deals. NCAA member schools pay coaches lordly salaries. At the same time, the association cracks down on young athletes, often from poor families, who accept money or gifts from supporters who want to help them develop as athletes.

A committee appointed by the NCAA has tackled these issues. It proposes a system that recognizes the virtualy professional status, and economic value, of many college players. It would allow them to take out loans based on future professional earnings. It would also allow players to try out for the NBA and yet retain their college eligibility if their experience on a pro team doesn't work out.

A group of college faculty members, the National Alliance for Collegiate Athletic Reform, has proposed radically deemphasizing college athletic programs. It wants an end to athletic scholarships, no more special academic support for athletes, and shorter sports seasons.

The NCAA proposal might only deepen the problem of institutions of higher education becoming sports-entertainment enterprises. The faculty alliance's approach is probably too radical to win quick approval, but it sets the right course.

Universities should remain true to their core academic missions. Scholarships should go only to those who want to improve their mental as well as physical skills. Young athletes with a shot at the pros - but no academic aspirations - should have ways other than college of pursuing that goal.

Farm leagues for pro basketball and football, similar to baseball's, ought to be developed. At the same time, athletics should remain a vital, but appropriately scaled, part of college life.

Sports and studies can amicably coexist, but only if the emphasis is kept where it belongs - on the primacy of education.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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