Jewish World Review Oct. 15, 2003 / 19 Tishrei 5764

Evan Weiner

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Big Money throws college sports for a loss | There won't be Midnight Madness this year on the St. John's campus in Queens. No raucous student pep rallies for the Red Storm when the clock strikes 12:01 a.m. on Oct. 17, the time that the National Collegiate Athletic Association has designated as the official start of the college basketball season.

Somehow, it is fitting that St. John's isn't holding its traditional Midnight Madness session. After all, St. John's doesn't really know what its basketball future will look like next year - and that has nothing to do with its coaching staff or its players.

In the world of college sports in 2003, the least important part of the product is the actual athletic competition. St. John's was a founding member of the Big East Conference, a basketball league that became a big-time football conference because of TV and money. St. John's basketball is in trouble because the college sports industry is driven by football and the university doesn't have a big-time football program.

If St. John's wasn't located in New York, the school would be just another university with a small-time program. Because the Red Storm plays in Madison Square Garden, St. John's remains a player on the national level. Once school is done next May, three Big East football teams, Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech, are leaving to join the Atlantic Coast Conference for the promise of millions of dollars in TV money. The departures could devastate the Big East, and the conference could lose its spot in college football's Bowl Championship Series, where the really big money is made.

The Big East is suing the nine-team Atlantic Coast Conference, accusing it of conspiring to ruin the Big East. But it's unclear if Miami and Virginia Tech did anything wrong when they accepted ACC invitations, followed by Boston College. Meanwhile, the Big East is apparently ready to raid other conferences to replace its losses and maintain its position.

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Big-time college sports are all about money, and that has drawn the attention of the House Judiciary Committee. But the House committee missed a golden opportunity to get to the bottom of the college sports industry's problems when it held a hearing on college sports last month.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) asked the committee to investigate the College Football Bowl Championship Series arrangement and the circumstances behind the Atlantic Coast Conference's "expansion."

Conyers wanted to know why, since the founding of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998, the vast majority of the proceeds and power has been concentrated among 63 schools in six major conferences (the Atlantic Coast Conference, Pacific-10, Big Ten, Southeastern, Big 12 and Big East). In 2002-03 only $5 million out of a total revenue of $109 million went to non-bowl championship series colleges.

Conyers should have called the heads of big-time college sports schools and asked why they are handing out multi-million-dollar contracts to football and basketball coaches while tuition is soaring for non-athletes. Conyers should have inquired about the practice of not insuring athletes against injuries suffered in "voluntary" off-season practices, of students' being unable to work under NCAA rules if they have an athletic scholarship and the fact that most athletes are too busy playing sports to get a good education.

It's time to stop pretending that Division I college football and basketball are some sort of amateur or scholastic endeavor for students. It's a big-time professional operation that allows schools, coaches and TV networks to earn big dollars.

Colleges and universities are supposed to be places where students matriculate and get ready for the real world. For Division I schools, though, the real world is filling stadiums and arenas with well- heeled boosters, signing deals with corporations for stadium-naming rights, getting money from shoe companies for outfitting their teams and putting the best product available on the field to justify the multi-million-dollar broadcasting contracts for their games.

Of course, college athletes get little more than a scholarship to attend the school. And attend is the operative word here because there are many schools that aren't graduating their football and basketball players. Even if so-called student athletes want to go to class, they are somewhat restricted because of long daily practices and travel.

It's only a matter of time before those 63 Bowl Championship Series football schools break off to form their own semi-pro league, leaving schools like St. John's behind. Maybe then Conyers and his colleagues will finally ask the right questions about the "madness" of the college sports industry.

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JWR contributor Evan Weiner is a radio commentator on "The Business of Sports" for Westwood One's Metro Networks. He is being presented with the United States Sports Academy's Distinguished Service Award for 2003. Comment on this column by clicking here.


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© 2003, Evan Weiner