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NCAA Leadership Isn't Matching the Talent of Its Players

By Sally Jenkins
Sunday, April 2, 2006

BOSTON

Get the biddies out of women's basketball. The game has come too far, too fast, to be held back now by a bunch of blue hairs. Yet as the Final Four gets underway, the unfortunate fact is that the players running the floor are light years ahead of the archaic people who are running the sport.

Anyone who has watched the NCAA women's tournament cannot have failed to notice the fabulous escalation of talent, from North Carolina's Ivory Latta sinking NBA-range threes to Tennessee's Candace Parker dunking. But you also can't fail to notice how poorly administered the game is, too, from ludicrously uneven officiating, to a selection committee that annually botches the brackets, to the NCAA harridan who screamed at LeBron James when he tried say hello to Rutgers Coach C. Vivian Stringer in Cleveland last week.

"You need to get off the court, now!" she shrieked at James, who was accompanied by teammates Eric Snow and Damon Jones. He should have yelled back at her, "You need to get out of the game!" Anyone who thinks it's a bad thing for LeBron James to be interested in the women's game should be coaching field hockey at a finishing school. In 1963.

The top women's coaches are so frustrated with the slow pace of progress that they held a meeting Friday night at a Boston hotel to air their complaints, and kick around solutions. North Carolina's Sylvia Hatchell is so concerned about upgrading the sport, she says: "I could talk for two hours. A lot of people are concerned about improving the level of officiating. Others are upset about the brackets. It's just a lot of things. The game has improved so quick, and it's such a good game, but we need to look at some things around the game."

The first thing the NCAA needs to do is hire an entirely new set of officials. The same amateurish, slow-footed crews show up every year and make the same incoherent calls. They allow post players to maul each other at one end of the floor, and then whistle a hand-check on the other end. In the region final between Tennessee and Carolina, the crew couldn't even keep track of the possession arrow on jump balls. Hatchell found herself imploring the refs, "Please don't penalize us for our athleticism."

The second thing the NCAA needs to do is fire the entire women's tournament selection committee and start fresh. For far too long the committee has been dominated by aging gym teachers and administrative hacks whose qualifications are questionable at best, and who seem more concerned with status than fairness.

One source of anger among coaches, for instance, is a report that the committee was more interested in holding down travel costs than it was with making balanced region brackets. As long as cost trumps fair play, the women's game will fight for legitimacy, coaches say.

"There's still so much that hinges on the dollar and the bottom line," says Oklahoma's Sherri Coale. "Coaches feel that if you grow and legitimize the sport, the other [money] will follow. . . . But some things are hard to change."

Until the more calcified members of the committee are shown the door, real change may be impossible. Good luck in prying them out of their seats. A major problem coaches have with the committee is that no one is sure how the members got their places on it. The process is secretive, and, one suspects, highly politicized too. "It's a mystery to us," Coale says.

A quick look at the committee makeup provokes the question, who are these people? The committee chair is American University Athletic Director Joni Comstock -- a former volleyball coach. Then there is Duke associate athletic director Jaclyn Silar -- a former field hockey coach. Other members include Cindy Hartmann, an associate athletic director from the University of Dayton; Tina Cheatham, an associate commissioner of the Southland Conference; and Sandra Booker, an assistant athletic director for academics from Bethune-Cookman.

Compare that with the makeup of the men's NCAA committee. "Look at the difference in backgrounds and responsibilities," says Coale, "and you see some subtleties."

Actually, what you see is a laughable difference in quality. The men's committee is populated entirely by top-tier athletic directors and commissioners, all of them with deep basketball knowledge and business experience. Such as: Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage, who was both a player and head coach at Penn; Mike Slive, commissioner of the Southeastern Conference; Princeton Athletic Director Gary Walters, who played in a Final Four as a point guard.

Above all, coaches want more accountability and openness from the committee, as opposed to the current closed-door process, which they suspect is highly prone to back-scratching, vote-swapping and individual agendas.

"Things have to be on the up and up," Stanford's Tara VanDerveer said. "You have secret ballots and no accountability. It's just, 'Here it is, and it's a done deal.' "

VanDerveer says there have been occasions when her players were so baffled by the committee's actions that they turned to her and said: "Coach, they made a mistake. Do you think they'll fix it?"

VanDerveer just laughs ruefully. "Uh, no," she replies.

The good news is that the blue-haired bureaucrats haven't prevented the players from expanding their games. With every Final Four, the quality of play continues to improve exponentially. Women are getting off the floor and up around the rim. Now it's time to find some officials and administrators who want to go there with them.

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