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Dollar Damage Infects Cagedom
 By Calvin Cager

 Basketball has become greed run rampant at its two highest levels of play…collegiate and professional.  Oregon sports fans have borne witness to how dollars can tear a proud pro sports franchise apart, the Portland Trailblazers being exhibit A in profiling the ills of the National Basketball Association.  On the other hand, local fans
have had the good fortune to be able to watch one of the true class acts in collegiate hoop play, the current Oregon Ducks.

Unfortunately, the latter group is quite atypical of what is trendy among Division I cage squads.  Statistics just in from the National Collegiate Athletic Association show that the graduation rate of its male basketball players has sunk to an abysmal low.  This at the same time that the annual NCAA Division I championship tournament, popularly known as March Madness, is generating a phenomenal income for schools.  CBS is paying the NCAA $6 billion over 11 years to broadcast the tourney, with this revenue split among the schools qualifying for the 64-team field, thus creating a powerful incentive to recruit athletes irregardless of any academic goals.

Books?  Don’t bother me!

According to the NCAA, male cagers entering our universities in the 1994-95 academic year had a paltry 40% graduation rate, and this has declined since (in comparison, football playing students showed a 51% grad rate).  A more recent report noted that among the 248 schools with Division I basketball teams, a full 104 failed to graduate a single player in 2001.  The two teams playing in this season’s national tournament final, Indiana and Maryland, sported respective graduation rates of 43% and (ouch!)19%.

The NBA is contributing mightily to the problem, with an increasing number of college cagers opting to cut short their student days in favor of seeking a pro contract.  The obscenely high salaries being paid by NBA members are also snaring athletically gifted young lads upon high school graduation.  The salary mania has turned pro play into a cult of the individual seeking glory at the expense of team play…and this is subverting the  original rules structure of the game itself.  If NBA referees suddenly began to enforce regulations concerning traveling with the ball and bodily contact, the entire current generation of pro performers would be benched.

Monkey see, monkey do

The style (or lack thereof) of pro play encourages collegiate cagers to strive for spectacular individual heroics that earn the notice of pro scouts.  And when these kids ink a big money contract, they often lose their coachability at the same time.  Any underpaid mentor in the NBA will testify to the diffculty of upholding a sense of team values when you’re coaching millionaires.

Back to the colleges.  While NCAA members seek the millions resulting from television exposure, they are not offering to share the bounty with their athletes beyond the cost of tuition, room and board.  It is currently estimated that an athletic scholarship package provides between $11,000 and $24,000 per school year.  If the student athlete sticks with it until diploma-time, the end value of a scholarship should be worthy of an 18-year-old’s attention…yet we see that earning a degree is not the primary purpose of a majority of cagers being recruited to the scene of academe.

And looking at the rich revenues to be mined by qualifying for participation in March Madness, school administrations tend to ignore the decline in academic success.  It has been suggested that tourney teams which fail to graduate more than 50% of their students should be banned from tournament competition.  If such a standard had been applied this past season, only two of the teams in the final eight, Kansas and Connecticut, would have been eligible.

The full value of a scholarship to a respectable academic institution should be the goal of  every college athlete.  There should be more pressure upon the schools and the coaches they employ to emphasize and distribute this reward, evening the relationship between books and baskets.      

© 2002 Oregon Magazine

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