At Conference Tournaments, the Colleges Major in Money
By WILLIAM C. RHODEN, LOS ANGELES
New York Times
March 15, 2003
COLLEGE basketball fans have been treated to a slate of thrilling conference tournament moments: game-winning shots in the final seconds, overtimes, upsets.
When do the athletes who provide these moments study? Do they read a few chapters after the game or knock out a paper or two on the road? Do they cram for exams between practices? What's your guess?
We used to rationalize: "Oh, it's spring break." But for half the colleges participating in the Pac-10 tournament, this is finals week. After Cal disposed of Oregon State late Thursday night, Ben Braun, the Golden Bears' coach, conceded that he was uneasy with the tournament.
"My objection to any postseason tournament only stems from missing class time," he said. Braun is also a good soldier. "Once you're committed to playing in a tournament, and that's what your conference does and that's what you're doing, you have to stay committed to it. But in the future, the N.C.A.A. might want to look at missed class time and new formats. It's a tough deal."
Actually, the deal is pretty sweet. The tournament is a cash register and billboard for a conference eternally crippled by playing in the wrong time zone — three hours behind the East Coast bias. Each Pac-10 team could receive $250,000 for this year's tournament, and Fox Sports Net pays the conference $4 million a year to televise the tournament.
Stanford Coach Mike Montgomery does not like the conference tournament, either. Never has, never will. The three-day festival takes time away from school. "We're right in the middle of dead week and finals," he said.
"Call it what it is," Montgomery added. "We want the money, fine. I just object. Everybody wants to talk about not taking kids out of class, everybody wants to talk about academic integrity, but we're not going to hesitate to take kids out of another week of class."
Last season Stanford was on the road for five of the last six weeks of the quarter, Wednesday through Saturday each week. In addition, the Pac-10 plays a regular-season schedule of 18 games.
"There's nobody else who plays an 18-game conference schedule and turns around and plays a tournament," Montgomery said. "The kids love this. They love it because they love to compete. But these guys have got some responsibilities."
Stanford and Oregon have finals next week. If they make the N.C.A.A. tournament, the basketball teams will have to take exams on the road, and faculty representatives will proctor the exams.
Luke Jackson, the Oregon junior who hit the game-winning 3-pointer in the Ducks' 75-74 victory over U.C.L.A. in a semifinal game last night, said he did not feel academic pressure and loves the conference tournament. "There's plenty of time to do your schoolwork," he said. "I've been going to school every summer since my freshman year, and I'm in a position to graduate early going into my senior year." Still, Jackson said that because of the extra games, more emphasis is placed on playing ball rather than going to school, especially with coaches who choose not to emphasize academics.
The Pac-10, the Big Ten and the Ivy League were the prominent conferences that long resisted the pull of a postseason tournament. The Big Ten was the first to cave in to revenue-related pressures. This is the Pac-10's second attempt at a conference tournament. The conference held a tournament from 1987 to 1990, then resumed it last year. The games were not well attended, but for the last several seasons the Pac-10 has regained its place as one of the nation's premier conferences. This year Arizona, Stanford, Cal and Oregon should make the N.C.A.A. tournament; Southern Cal could sneak in by winning this tournament.
In the grand scheme of college athletics, the demands imposed by conference tournaments are mostly a nuisance. The real villain is an insidious, all-consuming pressure to compete for the entertainment dollar.
Bob Aronson is a professor of law at the University of Washington and a faculty liaison with the N.C.A.A.'s Management Council.
"The demands on these student-athletes are enormous," Aronson said yesterday. "We need to be looking at ways people can have more time to study and be in the classroom more often rather than less."
We moralize about the evils of athletics when a college accepts a student with a welding certificate or when the coach's son teaches a course in the principles of basketball.
But what about a conference holding a tournament in the middle of exams, or placing suffocating time demands on student-athletes?
What's your pleasure: exploitation unsanctioned by the university, or exploitation sanctioned by the universities in the name of fund-raising? Take your pick, and enjoy the tournament.