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Missing March Madness


In our house, March used to be a great month, the NCAA basketball championship a happy break after slogging through the worst of winter. And as alumni of a Southeastern Conference school, both of us raised in a state where University of Tennessee loyalty bordered on fanaticism, there was a special attraction: even if our men's basketball team didn't get past the early rounds, our women's team always did. Always.

And even when Tennessee men didn't do well, we let March Madness take over our evenings as winter turned to spring.

But last year, after reading Taylor Branch's "The Shame of College Sports" in the Atlantic, I stopped watching NCAA games. And the work of people like the Times' Joe Nocera and NPR's Frank Deford has deepened my concern. At too many American colleges and universities, aided and abetted by the NCAA, sports has become something ugly. Winning and money have overshadowed what sports and college should be about.

You know about the really big scandal involving Penn State, Jerry Sandusky, and Joe Paterno. This year, as March Madness headed toward the final rounds, Rutgers fired basketball coach Mike Rice after a videotape became public showing Rice shoving players, throwing basketballs at them, and yelling homophobic slurs.

Rutgers' athletic director says when he saw the videotape four months ago, he wanted to fire Rice, but others in the university wanted him kept on and "rehabilitated." So he was. Rice, whose salary was $700,000, was fined $50,000, but because he finished the season at Rutgers, he earned a $100,000 bonus.

Nocera, Deford, and others have reported the numerous small scandals – and the illogical rules, power, and vindictiveness of the NCAA. (Among Nocera's examples: A University of Connecticut player who was suspended from the team because the NCAA objected to an "improper benefit" that his mother had received. The benefit? A friend had bought an airline ticket for her so she could accompany her son to the schools he was considering attending.)

Then there's the advantage the schools and the NCAA take of "student-athletes": The players don't get paid. But the NCAA does. The schools and the coaches do (and some assistant coaches make more than $1 million a year). The NCAA's take from March Madness in 2011, Branch writes: $771 million: "three-quarters of a billion dollars built on the backs of amateurs – on unpaid labor."

That's just the start: the NCAA sells DVD's of past games – years and years afterwards. It sells video games, T-shirts. The athletes whose images are featured get nothing.

But the biggest scandal is the damage this is doing to the system of higher education. Journalists reporting on all this tell of promising young athletes being admitted to universities when they are all but illiterate, of "student-athletes" being eased into meaningless courses, of grades being changed to protect their eligibility.

Coaches' pay often dwarfs that of faculty members. Academic programs face cutbacks while sports programs and facilities thrive. And too many schools seem more interested in being known for how their football or basketball team fares than for the quality of education they provide, the research their faculty and students do, the contributions to medicine, literature, science, and economics their alumni make.

And there may be no starker example of how sports has corrupted higher education than the University of Kentucky, where basketball coach John Calipari recruits players with the open acknowledgement that they have no intention of finishing college. To keep talented athletes from dropping out of high school, NBA rules bar them from joining the NBA until they're 19. Calipari recruits them to spend their 18th year helping Kentucky win games. Last year all five starting basketball players left school for the NBA. Three were freshmen. Two were sophomores.

What, then, is the purpose of a university? What's the purpose of college athletics?

And, by the way: whatever happened to that quaint old phrase, "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game"?

Everybody makes money but the students. And the biggest scandal is the damage done to the system of higher education.