Small Colleges May Miss the Biggest Kickoffs

THE LAST VESTIGES of big-time college sports are about to be banned from Baltimore and, save for College Park, from all of Maryland. No more Hopkins vs. Syracuse for the lacrosse title. Forget the slow-motion agony of a last-second Loyola rim shot falling the wrong way and saving Notre Dame from a major upset.

Don't count on another Towson State trip to the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tourney. Ditto for Coppin State, Mount St. Mary's, Morgan State and University of Maryland at Baltimore County. And there will be fewer Dave Maggetts and Mike Morrisons playing at local schools.


If the NCAA's big schools have their way, it will be Indianapolis all over again for Baltimore. Right now rules are being considered that would shut out of Division I competition schools that don't field at least 14 Division I teams and give out at least 50 full non-football athletic scholarships. In effect, most major intercollegiate athletic competition in this city and state may be sent off packing unless already thin athletic budgets can be stretched.

The NCAA has been refining its eligibility for divisional status ever since big money in the form of network TV contracts entered the picture. Coincidentally, as the financial pie keeps getting bigger, the number of required slices keeps getting fewer. Now that CBS and the NCAA have signed a $1 billion basketball contract, the schools with big-time athletic programs want to hoard the take for themselves.


With the federal courts having broken the NCAA's monopoly on football TV contracts, independent football powerhouses are in a mad scramble to join once aloof conferences that now control the most lucrative TV packages. The eventuality that post-season bowl match-ups may be determined by conference affiliation rather than bids is a further bonanza. Soon the courts may again be asked to thwart the collusion behind these new exclusionary practices and mandate that all colleges compete on a level playing field -- where the greening is left to groundskeepers, not athletic-department entrepreneurs.

Segregating out the smaller colleges and athletic programs would seem a strategic mistake for the NCAA. These are the very institutions that embody the tradition and values of intercollegiate competition. These are the institutions where scholarship athletes must also be scholars, albeit marginal ones sometimes. These are the institutions that don't usually offer the physical education or general studies majors into which "academic advisers" steer many athletes. These are the institutions that really live up to the NCAA's high-minded codes. Without them, the NCAA is just another professional league.

Saturday after Saturday huge stadiums are filled by alumni and students at big-time colleges cheering on a group of athletes whose only demographic affinity with the student body is their ages. Very often there are striking racial and ethnic mismatches between players and spectators. And many scholarship athletes have SAT scores that could only qualify them for admission to a cemetery. At least at the small colleges and programs there is a kinship between student athlete and student fan. The Ivy League is a shining example.

The bean counters at the TV networks should be among the first to recognize the rating value of having a smaller unknown team rise up against one of the behemoths. It's the geeks against the no-necks. It's Boston College, diminutive Doug Flutie and the Hail Mary pass. It's Cleveland State's assault on the NCAA tournament's early morning line. If this Horatio Alger competition has been lost on the NCAA, perhaps the cents of the issue won't be lost on TV's money men.

For the major colleges, Division I status may be all about money. But for small colleges it can be a matter of institutional survival. It's no secret that when Loyola College decided to transform itself into a regional institution 10 years ago, it used Division I competition in its recruitment area to reinforce name recognition. Towson State has attracted more higher-paying, out-of-state students as its successful sports program has become more visible.

Ironically, such successes make it more difficult for small colleges to band together at the NCAA's annual meeting in January to defeat the proposal. There are bound to be a number of academically strong Division II and Division III colleges that will ally themselves with the big colleges in order to deprive the smaller Division I schools of a public-relations and marketing advantage in student admissions.

If the NCAA recklessly proceeds with its plan to pare down Division I de facto, then the smaller colleges should consider some rule-bending strategies -- such as merged sports programs. How does Loyola-Towson sound for basketball and Towson-Loyola for football? Or perhaps they can push for a system akin to British professional soccer in which teams annually advance to upper divisions based on the quality of their performances and not on the size of their budgets.

In the end, the Internal Revenue Service may call the plays. It's hard to believe that the non-profit mantle of higher education shields the mega-bucks generated by big-time college athletic programs from corporate income taxes. The IRS has already ruled that colleges can be involved in ancillary businesses without any tax consequences only if they are passive participants (investors) with no related indebtedness. Does anyone doubt that colleges are aggressively active in running their athletic programs with debts in the form of athletic scholarships and mortgages on game facilities?


In a recent display of cautious optimism, Loyola's interim athletic director, Jamie Smith, opined that Loyola might be able to hold on to Division I status even with the new standard. But surely he must know that if not enough colleges are forced to drop Division I status, there'll be another resolution next year to do a better job of it.

Mr. Ciofalo is a media professor at Loyola College in Maryland.