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Outside Oberlin

College Hoops Struggling to Survive a Dreadful Year

by Steve Manthe

It was not the best of years for men's college basketball. Besides a drop in ratings for the national championship game, its image took a nose-dive in the eyes of fans, sportswriters and college administrators. Numerous players, including St. John's star Erick Barkley, UCLA forward JaRon Rush and Auburn sensation Chris Porter, were forced to sit out for rules violations, primarily concerning dubious relationships with agents.

Besides these very public embarrassments, equally distressing problems persist beyond the media's gaze. Graduation rates are disastrously low, nefarious summer league coaches are accruing more and more influence and promising but raw talents, like Florida swingman Mike Miller, are forsaking college for the fame and riches of the NBA.

In an attempt to reverse the tide, university chancellors and presidents who sit on the NCAA's Division I board of directors are meeting in Indianapolis to debate and vote on a group of proposals that will clean up the high-profile summer leagues and improve classroom performance. These include reducing the summer evaluation period, limiting schools' yearly scholarship allotment, providing scholarship money for summer classes before a player's freshman year, establishing an oversight committee and instituting a minimum GPA of 2.0 for freshmen to remain on the team for the second semester.

These are certainly small steps toward fixing the sport's afflictions, but the group's goals are similarly modest. The idea is to see what type of reform is needed to change the direction of the sport. If these piecemeal changes are enough to clean up some of the corruption and improve athletes' academic performance, so be it. If not, then, it seems, the group will reconvene to consider more ambitious proposals, including excluding coaches from summer evaluations and banning all freshmen from competition entirely.

To those concerned about the integrity of intercollegiate basketball, these moves are a welcome sign. The constant scandals and negative press have robbed the game of much of its allure - an allure that is based on the pleasure fans derive from watching athletes perform for love of sport and competition.

Nonetheless, the proposals the committee is considering are short-sighted and somewhat arbitrary. Admittedly, the committee's goals are quite modest, even experimental. It is not the limited scope of the reforms that is problematic, though. What is lacking is a framework or vision within which the reforms are to be carried out. The NCAA has not decided what they want college basketball to be or what goal it should serve. They would presumably like to remain the de facto farm system for the NBA and increase the academic performance of athletes, all the while eliminating the influence of summer coaches and shoe companies. It is quite doubtful, though, that this can be done. In fact, there is very little reason to believe that the goals are compatible at all.

Any vision the NCAA develops for college basketball cannot be done in a vacuum. Many players view the college game as a mere stop-over before they enter the NBA, regardless of whether they actually have the ability to play at the pro level. If college ball is going to serve as a training league for the NBA, there is little reason for players to improve academic performance or shun the company of agents.

A goal or vision for college basketball needs to be made in conjunction with the NBA, especially now that they are considering the possibility of a developmental league. If it really is the case that a significant number of current college players have little interest in intellectual pursuits, a professional minor league, be it a new one or Isiah Thomas' CBA, would go a long way toward alleviating the impropriety that plagues the college game.

The potential consequences of a new developmental league for college basketball are profound. Should a real developmental league be up and running in the near future, it is not hard to imagine that college basketball's talent pool would be depleted. This brings with it, of course, fewer shoe contracts, less revenue from the March tournament and less lucrative television contracts.

If the NCAA is serious in its efforts to reform the game, though, then these considerations cannot take precedence. The committee in Indianapolis is meeting, presumably, because they find the state of the game troubling, if not morally repugnant. At bottom, the integrity of college basketball is at stake, and pecuniary considerations cannot dictate the direction the NCAA takes. Piecemeal changes are fine for the short-term, if for no other reason than to let players and coaches know that current practices are not looked upon favorably. They will lose any teeth they have, however, without a controlling vision, worked out with the NBA, that states firmly whether college basketball is an amateur sport or the NBA's training ground.

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Copyright © 2000, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 128, Number 22, April 28, 2000

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