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Big Hoops: A Season in the Big East Conference.

Big Hoops: A Season in the Big East Conference.

Bill Reynolds. New American Library, $19.95. Well, so much for reforming college basketball. Not that the call for such reform has reached what you would call a roar, mind you, but did you see how much CBS agreed to pay the NCAA for the rights to its annual basketball gala, the Final Four? A billion dollars. It has long been known that college basketball has a peculiar appeal for television producers, combining as it does the rah-rah excitement of old-fashioned college sports with an extraordinarily high level of skill. But a billion dollars? That much money goes a long way towards justifying exploitation of the baldest sort and hypocrisy on the grandest of scales. That billion-dollar figure explains why college basketball cannot be reformed, at least not anytime soon, for it speaks to something that is elemental about college hoops today: it is the single greatest cash cow in all of sports - more so than college football (which has far fewer games and much greater overhead), and certainly more so than professional sports, which have to pay their performers something approaching their market value.

The Big East Conference, the subject of Bill Reynolds's book, which is written in the John Feinstein, A-Year-In-The-Life mold, is as good an example of the state of college basketball as you're likely to find. It was born a scant 11 years ago, the brainchild of former Providence College coach and athletic director Dave Gavitt, who is widely hailed as one of the great geniuses of sports marketing. His league was explicitly formed with an eye to major media markets: Georgetown brought the Washington market, St. John's the New York market, Villanova the Philly market, and so on. Pittsburgh became a member in order to preempt plans for a competing league. (Providence College, the team I root for, got in because Gavitt wanted to continue living in Providence.) The league makes gobs of money for all the schools; its own contract with CBS runs into the millions of dollars. Last year every game but one was televised (the Big East runs its own mini-television network); and so ruthless is Gavitt about having the league seem "big time" in every way that he actually forced Boston College to build a new, state-of-the-art gymnasium, with luxury boxes and the whole bit. Since Boston College is the league's perennial doormat, most of the new seats are empty. Not to worry: Gavitt forbids the cameramen to pan the empty seats; that way, Boston College games look big time, even if they're not.

Because Reynolds, a Providence sportswriter, has written what amounts to an extended apologia for the Big East, he is quick to point out that the Big East schools are better than most. And he's right. The Big East has escaped the kind of major recruiting scandals that have plagued big-time basketball schools like Kentucky and Nevada-Las Vegas. Many players in the Big East graduate (St. John's is the big exception), and some of them even major in real subjects. In general, the coaches have tended not to get fired the first time they have a down year. For instance, Georgetown's John Thompson has done a remarkable job of getting his black basketball players to succeed at a nearly all-white school, a fact that Reynolds dwells on, if somewhat grudgingly. (Like nearly all sportswriters, Reynolds is no fan of Thompson. The reason is that Thompson doesn't return reporters' phone calls, which is the barometer by which sportswriters tend to judge the worth of the people they write about.)

Even if you give the Big East schools their due, you still cannot read this book without getting the gnawing feeling that something is terribly wrong. It's not just that a sneaker company will pay a coach up to $200,000 to have his players wear its shoes, or that coaches' basketball camps can net them $400,000 - though that's certainly part of it. Money has become an unseemly obsession. There are also the rituals of recruiting, which have an absurdist feel to them: grown men groveling before 17-year-olds who may or may not be able to read. ("It cannot be done with dignity," one former coach says.) Reynolds also explains how all the assistant coaches have learned to bump "accidentally" into prize recruits in order to evade NCAA rules (which are themselves ridiculous, but that's another story). One coach told Reynolds, somewhat pathetically, "You get into this profession because you like to coach. And 30 nights a year out of 365, you get a chance to do what you went into the profession for." The rest of the time, he added, his life was consumed by the horrors of recruiting. ("The reality is we need players.")

College basketball has become filled with a kind of grinding, unrelenting pressure that turns otherwise decent men into growling ogres, the kind that gives people ulcers, and that causes them to lose perspective. The biggest scandal in the Big East last year was the importation of star guard Andrew Gaze from Australia to play for Seton Hall. Seton Hall had a wonderful, storybook year, making it to the NCAA championship game, and Gaze was an important contributor to the team's success. But he could never be described as a college student - he was brought to America to play basketball, and after the basketball season ended, he went home. Reynolds, alas, has also lost perspective: he gives I' affaire Gaze less than a paragraph, and calls the criticism "media sniping."

One can find, scattered about in the book, any number of other incidents that show starkly, if unintentionally, the degree to which that pressure warps values. In one, a Syracuse freshman, looking utterly miserable after a poor game, tells a reporter that he wishes Sports Illustrated had never put him on its cover. "People are expecting too much," he complains sadly. Then there's this: "[Tate] George is a 6' 6" junior guard from New Jersey whom [Connecticut coach Jim] Calhoun always seems at odds with. One of the reasons is that Calhoun thinks he is not as committed to basketball as Calhoun would like him to be. He is a student. He has a social life. His life doesn't seem to be confined inside the borders of the court." Imagine that - he's a student! With a social life! Doesn't that tell you everything you need to know about what's wrong with college basketball?

So what to do? Don't look for the NCAA to offer guidance. The NCAA has become a joke: an organization so weighted down with bureaucracy, it offers rules as arcane and nit-picky as anything found in the Federal Register. They are designed, supposedly, to make the system fair, but the NCAA is so out of touch that its own regulations have the practical effect of making already poor basketball players even poorer while making everyone else around them rich.

No, the answer, it seems to me, requires stepping back and looking at the Big Picture - looking beyond whether an assistant coach should visit a kid three times instead of four; or whether college athletes should be allowed to hold part-time jobs (right now, they're not). We should be trying to figure out how to reconnect college sports to, well, to the colleges again. I don't know all the steps that should be taken - and I especially don't know what to do about the degradation of recruiting - but there are at least two changes that would be both simple and right. The first would be once again to forbid freshmen from playing on varsity teams. Changing that rule in the early 1970s was the single most destructive thing the NCAA ever did: it robbed athletes of their one chance to act like real students, to become part of a school, without the pressures that come with big time college sports.

And the second? Pay the players. Don't do it under the table, thus teaching college athletes about cynicism and deceit. Bring it out in the open - admit that athletes are doing a job for the university every bit as much as a professor or a lab assistant or a student who works in the computer room to make a little spending money. Get rid of the hypocrisy and at least some of the exploitation. If "programs" are going to be big-time money-makers, they also ought to be big enough to share at least a small portion of the wealth with the people who are making it all possible. Ultimately, what's scandalous about the Big East is not Boston College's unneeded gym, or Andrew Gaze's year at Seton Hall, or St. John's paltry graduation rate. Rather, it is the delusional belief that this television league Gavitt created has, as he put it, "made it better for the kids." I love college basketball, but even I can see that Gavitt is either a fool (if he believes what he's saying) or a cynic (if he doesn't). If this constitutes "better," then it's time to take a few steps backward.
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Author:Nocera, Joseph
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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