PBS special offers timely but unfocused view of college sports


Give PBS points for timeliness in airing "Sports for Sale" tonight -- smack in the middle of "March Madness," NCAA basketball tournament time.

"Sports for Sale" is a 90-minute documentary with Bill Moyers about the madness, badness and business of college sports and what Moyers calls the "myth of the student-athlete." It airs at 9 on MPT (Channels 22 and 67).

The report says some things that have needed to be said for a long time.

Moyers asks, for example, what kind of message ABC and ESPN are sending students with the case of basketball coach Jim Valvano.

Valvano was forced to resign last year as coach at North Carolina State for recruiting violations by him and his assistants and admissions of point shaving by players. But no sooner had Valvano stepped down, when he was rewarded with a $900,000 contract to be an "expert" analyst on college basketball.

There is also a segment showing film-maker Spike Lee talking to high school all-stars at a Nike basketball camp. (Lee appears in the Nike commercials with NBA star Michael Jordan.)

"The whole thing [college sports] revolves around money," Lee says. "When you can't help them make money, you're out of here." Lee also tosses out an on-the-money analysis of racist thinking by some television analysts who continually praise the "work ethic" of white players, but suggest basketball skills come naturally to black athletes.

The report is generally at its best when it connects the dots between television and community values and TV money and added pressure to win.

That's the good news about "Sports for Sale."

The bad news is that it drifts all over the place and offers little in-depth reporting.

Much time is spent, for example, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, a school that suffered the NCAA death penalty of a year without football for violations that included paying players.

Moyers & Co. swallow the entire public relations peanut SMU is selling to campus visitors these days about how it is going to run a model program. But they fail to report a growing controversy within the SMU community about what "clean" means and whether they want a clean program if that means a losing one.

This is not great public affairs television. It needed at least one scene of greater focus and emotion for that. Maybe it could have been a scene in which Moyers got an athlete, the athlete's parents, teachers and coach all in one room. Then Moyers could have asked the student-athlete to read from a book. And we could have seen what the student-athlete learned or did not learn at school and how all the people involved felt about that.

Tonight's documentary will be followed by a 30-minute live discussion focusing on a Knight Foundation report on collegiate athletics scheduled to be released today.

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