- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 14, 2006

If Charlie Rangel and his Democratic tax men are seriously looking for someone to squeeze, they might consider the NCAA.

Myles Brand, the president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, has been invited to appear to answer questions by the House Ways and Means Committee about graduation rates of athletes, but the actual point of the invitation is to see how the college presidents justify not paying taxes on the $545 million the colleges and universities collect from CBS to broadcast the national basketball tournament. Right now, they don’t pay a penny. Talk about your March madness.

Mr. Brand is familiar to sports fans as the university president who sacked Bobby Knight, the basketball coach at Indiana University, for, among other things, being Bobby Knight. In his tenure as head of the NCAA, 99 “athlete scholars” (do not laugh) on 65 campuses lost scholarships because the schools did not meet the minimalist standards imposed earlier. What breaks the hearts of the coaches is not that the athletes lost their scholarships, but the football and basketball factories were deprived of the right to award the scholarships to someone else.

But it’s the unmilked cash cows roaming the campus that has Congress salivating. Until now, everyone has solemnly played under the fiction that big-time sports is part of getting an education, much in the way the courts abide by the fiction that Organized Baseball is a sport, and not a business, and therefore exempt from antitrust law. If the NCAA can show Congress what a great job the colleges are doing stuffing a little learning into certain bulletheads, Congress might be reluctant to squeeze popular entertainers.

Some congressmen — and not all Democrats — are finally coming to see the nation’s football and basketball factories as in the entertainment business, just like Disneyland, Warner Bros., NASCAR and World Wrestling Entertainment. The colleges put on a good show and get paid handsomely for it, so why should the genius work of Urban Meyer at the University of Florida or Pete Carroll at Southern Cal — to name two of the most successful football coaches — be treated any differently than the high art of Madonna or Britney Spears?

Fewer than half of male basketball players graduate; the rate for black players is just 42 percent. A little more than 60 percent of white football players earn a diploma, but only 49 percent of the black players do. The coaches and college presidents have come up with ingenious ways to appear to improve the graduation rates of their athletes, if not necessarily to improve their educations. To disguise these dismal figures, many athletes now get tutoring not available to an engineering major or an aspiring chemist, and scholarship athletes can earn degrees in such fuzzy majors as something called “sports management.” Scholars at the University of Georgia, for example, could puzzle over such final-exam brain-twisters as “how many halves are there in a game?” and “how many points do you get for a 3-point shot?”

If that doesn’t do it, the university presidents have exploited an earlier congressional mandate that women be treated numerically equal in the awarding of scholarships by adding fringe sports attractive to brainier athletes. More than 90 percent of female scholarship rowers, field hockey players and fencers earn diplomas. A few lady rowers and fencers can carry a lot of linebackers, offensive guards and point guards.

The athletes, deprived of a real education, usually cheerfully submit to the shortchanging because they think bigger bucks are coming when they graduate to the professionals. But of course only a tiny, tiny fraction of them make it to Sunday afternoon. “The vast majority, almost all of our 360,000 student athletes in the NCAA are going to become professionals in fields other than sports,” Erik Christianson of the NCAA recently tells USA Today. “And so it’s vitally important for them to do well in the classroom, stay on track and earn that degree.”

Actually making all this come true, by applying pressure in the right places, will require far more courage than we can expect from Congress. Big-time sports is too popular, too celebrated, too addictive to the masses. Abusing a few hundred young men is a small price to pay for a good show.

Pruden on Politics appears Tuesdays and Fridays.

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