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Wrong people doing the talking on college sports

RALEIGH — Too often, the debate over big-time athletics at university campuses — and the ensuing scandals that accompany it — seem controlled by those who have an interest in maintaining the status quo.

Sports network ESPN invites tarnished coaches on the air to explain how the scandals are overblown. A talking head on that network or another dependent on sports programming pontificates about how scandals would go away if only the football and basketball players, on scholarships worth $20,000 a year, were paid.

At the schools, university presidents and athletic directors — long ago deluded into believing that an arms race for bigger, better athletics teams wouldn’t undermine their academic mission — try to sell the same delusion to the public.

Until a scandal hits home, newspapers and local TV treat college sports as the “toy” department, with little examination of how growing athletics budgets create a decision-making process in which the larger interests of taxpayer-supported universities can be ignored.

The result is that few people in the public spotlight talk about realistic alternatives to schools and their administrations that lie prostrate at the alter of big-time, money-driven collegiate sports.

Of course, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is in the midst of such a scandal.

Its lawyers and athletics officials will soon go before a committee of the NCAA, the alleged governing body of major collegiate sports, to answer allegations that its football program did all manner of improper deeds.

Those improprieties include employing an assistant coach who seemed to have two bosses: head coach Butch Davis and a sports agent. Tutors also went above and beyond the call of duty when it came to helping players assemble papers using a nifty combination of Google searches, and paste-and-cut computer commands.

In answer to the mess, Athletics Director Dick Baddour recently told The News & Observer of Raleigh that he took “tremendous exception to the notion” that the school had loosened its academic standards under recently fired Davis.

He should take exception. The academic standards slipped a while ago, during the tenure of former football coach Mack Brown. That’s when the school began its foray into big-time football, taking more “academic exceptions” (that means kids who otherwise wouldn’t be admitted into the school) to try to be competitive with the Florida States and Oklahomas of the college football world.

Those competing schools responded by pumping more money into their athletics machine, building more impressive facilities, spending more on recruiting, paying coaches more.

TV networks put more games on television. The schools reaped larger portions of their athletics budgets from TV contracts (a total of $590 million in 2009).

NCAA executives — 14 of them paid a total of $6 million in 2010, the money also coming from those TV contracts — talked tough about standards and reform.

As long as they are the ones doing the talking, the scandals and the money chase will continue.

Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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