Myths, hypocrisies and distortions of the Big Dance

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Post asked observers of the NCAA and its marquee basketball tournament to share some sour notes about the big dance. Below are contributions from John Feinstein, Joel Sokol, Richard E. Lapchick, Peter A. French, Michael Josephson and John Challenger.

JOHN FEINSTEIN

Contributor to The Post and author of 25 books; his most recent book is "Change-Up: Mystery at the World Series"

Most everyone enjoys the NCAA basketball tournament this time of year. People fill out brackets, gather by TVs and root for their teams and for upsets. It's all good.

Well, not exactly all good.

The NCAA has this obsession with making college basketball into some kind of morality play: Players can't just be players they have to be "student-athletes." But what's wrong with being a player? The young men competing in this tournament aspire to be just that: basketball players. That doesn't mean any particular player won't graduate -- although if half graduate some day, that will be a good number -- but when they're playing basketball the fact that some might also study doesn't need to be shoved down the public's throat 24 hours a day.

How many times do we have to see that public service ad reminding us that most of the NCAA's 400,000 "student-athletes" will be pros at something other than their sport? Maybe someone ought to tell the "educators" running the tournament that "student-athlete" is a redundant term. In order to participate in the NCAA tournament, an athlete is required to be a student -- or at least to be enrolled as one.

How seriously does the NCAA take this farce? The handbook given to everyone who works at a tournament site includes this: "Participants should be referred to as 'student-athletes' at all times." Oh, please. Just shut up and let the kids play basketball.

JOEL SOKOL

Associate professor at Georgia Institute of Technology; co-creator of the LRMC college basketball ranking system

Murray State hits an unlikely shot at the buzzer to beat Vanderbilt, and the team is the talk of the tournament. Robert Morris's last shot against Villanova doesn't go down, and the next day it's an afterthought. Do either of those results say anything about the relative quality of the opponents? Of course not. The successful shot could easily have missed, and vice versa; we could just as easily be talking today about how a tough Vanderbilt squad pulled out a close one against a stubborn opponent (who was it again?), while Robert Morris showed how much it belonged in the tournament by beating a Villanova team that choked in the clutch. The numbers show that hitting that last-minute shot is just a matter of luck. Sure, Michael Jordan hit lots of game-winners, but he also missed a lot, too.

Really, we should be talking about a Murray State team that played well but also got lucky. Or about a 15th-seed Robert Morris team whose performance against second-seed Villanova deserves just as much recognition as, say, the 15th-seed Hampton team that beat second-seed Iowa State almost a decade ago.

After watching game after game on Thursday come down to the last shot, the idea that a single-elimination tournament could consistently identify the best team in the country seems unlikely. Early-round excitement is great, but when we get to the later rounds I'd rather see the top teams play a short series instead of a single-game tournament. That way, the winner is more likely to be the best team in the country, not just the one that was luckiest.

RICHARD E. LAPCHICK

Director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, which publishes the annual study "Academic Progress/Graduation Success Rates of Division I NCAA Women's and Men's Basketball Tournament Teams"

One of the legacies of Myles Brand's presidency at the NCAA is a great improvement in the graduation rates for male student-athletes. But one of his frustrations was that no matter how much that improved, the gap between the graduation rates for African American and white basketball student-athletes remained enormous. This year was no exception.

First, the good news: 84 percent of white and 56 percent of African American male basketball student-athletes graduate, up six and two percentage points, respectively, from a year ago. Ninety percent of white and 78 percent of African American female basketball student-athletes graduate, up one and three points, respectively.

But the graduation gaps between African American and white basketball players on the men's and women's teams were still a staggering 28 and 12 percentage points. The gap on the men's teams increased by four points. Eight women's tournament teams and 28 men's teams have a 30-point or greater gap between the graduation rates of white and African American basketball student-athletes.

That is unacceptable.

We need March Madness fans and sponsors to step up and say: "Yes, we want the excitement that the tournament brings, but we also want an equal playing field for all those student-athletes competing on the courts to prevail in our classrooms as well."

PETER A. FRENCH

Director of the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics; author of "Ethics and College Sports"

The scandals that regularly erupt in intercollegiate athletics seem more to be because of the fact that universities, the NCAA, coaches and athletics directors insist on clinging to a mythological conception of their enterprise. It is a business, the entertainment business.

No matter how hard university administrators and the NCAA try to pretend otherwise, March Madness has no imaginable educational or academic purpose. There is nothing wrong with that -- universities, especially those that receive public financing, have some obligation to entertain the public, as long as they manage their academic and athletic enterprises with this in mind.

Taking the distinction between education and entertainment seriously would direct attention away from the graduation records of basketball players and the salaries of coaches. Basketball players can be -- and should be encouraged to be -- students if they want to, but there should be no special academic admissions arrangements just to get or keep a good point guard. Academic budgets should not have to support athletics departments. If a university's intercollegiate basketball program is not self-supporting, it should be terminated.

The most proficient basketball players also should be paid what it takes to get them to play for the university's team. It is not an ethically acceptable excuse to say that the athletes, in the hope of professional careers, will continue to come to universities and provide their services, even though they are not afforded the rights of others in the entertainment industry.

MICHAEL JOSEPHSON

Board member of the National Association of Basketball Coaches Foundation; president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics and Character Counts

John Wooden, the only basketball coach ever to win 10 NCAA championships, loves to tell a story revealing his view about the job of a college coach. He describes a news conference in which Amos Alonzo Stagg was asked at the end of a successful football season whether his team was the best he'd ever coached. Stagg responded, "I won't know that for another 20 years."

In case his listeners miss the point, Wooden points out that a coach is, first and foremost, a teacher, and that he was always more concerned about improving the character and life skills of his athletes than about winning championships.

If that seems far removed from today, consider the results of a survey conducted by the Josephson Institute for the National Association of Basketball Coaches in 2009.

College basketball coaches were asked: "Which of the following forms of tribute would you be most proud of? (1) A celebration of your exceptional success as a coach, the championships you won, the records you set, and the athletes you coached who excelled as professionals; or (2) A celebration of your success as a teacher with testimonials of athletes who say you positively impacted their lives and made them better people?"

Ninety-five percent of the Division II and III coaches and 92 percent of the Division I coaches said they wanted to be remembered for making their players better people.

Unfortunately, Division I basketball is not about education, it's about glory and money. Though coaches may want to be teachers, their employers will judge them primarily on their ability to win, keep alumni happy and bring in revenue. The ironic thing is that most Division I programs lose money; only a small percentage wins championships and only a tiny minority of the athletes will earn a living playing basketball. It is great entertainment but such a wasted opportunity.

JOHN CHALLENGER

CEO of outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

Around the country, employers are up in arms about what March Madness means for productivity, as some workers take longer lunches at the sports bar or spend work time watching games online, which can affect the productivity of the company as bandwidth-hogging video slows everybody's Internet connection. My firm undoubtedly contributes to the anxiety through its annual estimate of the cost of March Madness in wages paid to unproductive workers. (The latest estimate was $1.8 billion for the first week of the tournament.)

But attempting to quash March Madness diversions would be worse. Employers should view the tournament as a much-needed break in an increasingly stressful environment filled with anxiety over job loss and pressure to do more with less. Furthermore, as portable technology makes it easier for work to creep into our personal lives, it is only natural that people will attend to hobbies and personal matters at the office.

Instead of lamenting March Madness, employers should embrace it. Those who organize free tournament pools, for example, are likely to see a positive effect on long-term productivity, morale and loyalty. These benefits far outweigh the short-term impact March Madness may or may not have on the workplace.


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