March Madness gone wild

College basketball is great entertainment but needs reform

Hurrah for the city of Detroit: The beleaguered car capital gets to polish up its chrome for a national TV audience this weekend as it hosts college basketball's Final Four and the national championship game.

Detroit could use a "glam-dunk" event about now. Ford Field, at 70,000 seats, should set an attendance record for the NCAA basketball tourney.

In many respects, big-time college basketball is experiencing a golden age. The NCAA, which runs the college basketball tournament, is in the midst of an 11-year, $6 billion contract with CBS to televise the games. The tournament, popularly known as March Madness, features athletes from all over the world who come to play American college basketball, such as University of Connecticut's 7-foot-3-inch center Hasheem Thabeet.

But the excitement about which Final Four team – Connecticut, Michigan State, Villanova, or North Carolina – will prevail belies a system rife with problems and overdue for reform.

The very best players are using college basketball as a one-year stopover, passing time until they become 19 years old and a year out of high school in order to be eligible for the National Basketball Association (NBA) draft.

This "one and done" phenomenon is growing: Last year, 12 college players were drafted by the NBA after one year of college. Such athletes need pay just enough attention to classroom work in their first semester to ensure a season of eligibility. By January, any pretense of "scholar athlete" can be dropped.

Winning sports programs bring fame to schools and drive up admissions applications from high schoolers who want to go to a college known for its athletic teams. That builds pressure for successful teams. With money to athletes confined to scholarships, coaches have reaped the financial bonanza.

Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun recently mocked and berated a freelance reporter at a news conference for asking if Calhoun could justify his $1.6 million annual salary, which makes him that state's highest-paid public employee, during a recession. The coach will face more questions this week about possible recruiting violations.

The idea that at least the athletes receive a college education in exchange for athletic performance remains a shaky proposition. The 65 March Madness teams have an average graduation rate of only 61 percent; 53 percent for African-Americans. (The rates don't include "one and done" athletes who went to the pros before graduation, as long as they left in good academic standing.)

Coach Calhoun's Connecticut team had a graduation rate of 33 percent for the whole team and only 22 percent for its African-American players.

The struggle to find remedies to this unhealthy bonding of high-stakes televised sports entertainment and academia has been going on for years. A comprehensive solution is needed, but here are two changes to get things rolling:

The NBA should allow players to be drafted at age 18, letting athletes who have no interest in a college education pursue their dream to become pros. And it should require any player who does enter a college program to spend a minimum of two years in college before being eligible to be drafted.

That at least would allow athletes to get some taste of higher education before heading to the pros.

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