When it comes to empty reform promises, campaign finance has nothing on big-time college basketball. But as March Madness sweeps the nation this week, meaningful change in the college-hoop world may also be on the way, led by student revolutionaries in hightops.
In late February, 46 collegiate basketball players formed the Student Basketball Council. Their goal is simple: get the fusty National Collegiate Athletic Association to start listening to the athletes about a variety of issues, including eligibility requirements, recruiting guidelines and the possibility of stipends.
The jocks are frustrated by the NCAA's rules, which border on incomprehensible, while the punishments for violations can be devastating to both players and their teams. The reform movement sprang from a spate of NCAA suspensions for sins that are, at best, abstruse. Seven big-name players have missed games this season for alleged rules violations that occurred while they were still in high school. Most notably, St. John's University's star point guard, Erick Barkley, was suspended for taking $3,150 in scholarship aid from a church group to help offset his $23,500 prep-school tuition. "We feel that a lot of these players are getting a bad reputation and are being vilified in the eyes of the public when, in fact, nothing morally wrong has occurred," says Duke's Shane Battier, the SBC's inaugural chairman and an academic all-American.
Although most players get scholarships, the rules are such that many have trouble making ends meet on campus. Hence the idea of a stipend. And these kids know they have leverage. "They're not naive," says James Haney, director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches and the architect behind the SBC. "They recognize that the $6 billion CBS contract with the NCAA is the result of what they're doing on the court."
The SBC's executive committee will meet in April at the Final Four. For now, they plan on forwarding all resolutions to the NCAA. "We don't want to compete with the NCAA," says University of Dayton freshman Brooks Hall. "We just want to work together to make things better." Should teamwork fail, don't be surprised if the jocks take their ball and go home, through protests or possibly even sit-down strikes. The NCAA, says one athletic-conference commissioner, "has ignored the needs of these kids for a long time. It shouldn't underestimate how dissatisfied they are with the system."
--By Josh Tyrangiel