College basketball fouling out


OUT OF BOUNDS: HOW THE AMERICAN SPORTS ESTABLISHMENT IS BEING DRIVEN BY GREED AND HYPOCRISY AND WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE ABOUT IT. By Tom McMillen with Paul Coggins. Simon and Schuster. 320 pages. $19.50. TOM McMillen was a rare phenomenon in the annals of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the nonprofit entity that regulates big-time collegiate athletics: a star athlete who also excelled in the classroom. After earning all-American honors at Maryland, Mr. McMillen attended Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship prior to launching an 11-year career as a professional basketball player.

Basketball was very, very good to Tom McMillen. It helped make him famous: He was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated while still a high schooler in Mansfield, Pa. He got to travel: to Munich for the 1972 Olympics, for example. And basketball paid his way through college and eventually made him wealthy.

Today, Mr. McMillen is a congressman from Maryland's 4th District. He doesn't play or even watch hoops on television much anymore. But he has spent the last five years going one-on-one with the NCAA as a legislator and now as a crusading author.

In 1990 he cosponsored the "Student Right-to-Know" act, which requires colleges to reveal to high school recruits their graduation rates for athletes. In the case of male athletes at Duke University, the figure would be a commendable 96 percent. For the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) -- sometimes XTC referred to as "Harvard on the Desert" -- only about one in five male "scholar athletes" gets a degree within five years.

This consumer protection bill -- sort of an intercollegiate "lemon law" -- passed "partly because of Congress' justified skepticism of the NCAA's commitment to publicizing the black sheep in college athletics," according to the author. If Congress is skeptical of the NCAA, Mr. McMillen is contemptuous. He terms the organization a "rapacious cartel" to which "Nielsen ratings are more important than GPAs [grade point averages]." He adds, "The most dangerous sports myth of all [is] that the NCAA is really interested in reforming college sports."

Drawing on his own experience as a highly recruited player in the early 1970s and an impressive compilation of research sources (the book is footnoted), Mr. McMillen backs up his harsh rhetoric. Big-time college sports are out of control and have been for decades. They are run for the benefit of the schools, the television networks, the fans and the professional sports establishment. If the players themselves happen to benefit, it is an accidental byproduct. Witness: The NCAA lands a $1 billion TV contract from CBS while it holds its prime-time "scholar athletes" to a $10-a-day spending limit during the Final Four tournament. This is both perverse and an obvious invitation to shenanigans.

Perhaps the cruelest effect of America's growing obsession with games is the notion that they are the prime avenue out of the ghetto, a "great national lottery to many of our youth." Mr. McMillen cites a Lou Harris poll reporting that 43 percent of black male high school athletes believe they will someday play for a professional team. The cold reality is that about one in 10,000 will make it. Sadder still, many more promising exits from poverty exist: There are 12 times as many black lawyers and 15 times as many black doctors as there are black professional athletes.

Besides indicting the NCAA, Mr. McMillen considers the future of both the Olympic movement and televised sports, two brief and unimpressive detours from his main topic. The prose throughout is readable but hardly elegant, and organization and smooth transitions are sometimes wanting. The book ends abruptly and somewhat nonsensically with a listing of "10 commandments of sports reform," including: "Remember that education does not end with the expiration of college eligibility."

One motivation for the book is clearly to lobby for legislation Mr. McMillen has proposed in Congress, particularly his Collegiate Athletic Reform Act, which he terms "years ahead of its time" (meaning it won't pass any time soon). No one else's bills are discussed.

And surprisingly, the congressman's reform plan calls for the NCAA to lead the crusade. He believes that the organization "can be salvaged and forged into a vehicle for reform" by granting it an antitrust exemption to negotiate all major media contracts for college football and basketball. In return, the rapacious cartel would agree to various reforms, such as a more powerful Board of Presidents.

Somehow this sow's-ear-into-a-silk-purse approach doesn't sound promising. Mr. McMillen himself admits: "Congress cannot achieve fundamental reform on its own."

An approach which the author mentions but rejects would seem to make much more sense. College sports are a big-time business today, so why not revoke their tax-exempt status, make the schools pay their athletes and let Uncle Same take his usual hefty cut? After all, amateurism, like communism, is all but dead, while capitalism is on a winning streak.

David Holahan, a writer in East Haddam, Conn., frequently contributes to Other Voices.

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