George Will

WASHINGTON -- Before Miami police quelled the recent riot involving more than 100 University of Miami and Florida International University football players in the Orange Bowl, fighting erupted among fans in the stands. In two masterpieces of misdirected anxiety, the commissioner of Miami's Atlantic Coast Conference said the rioting ``has no place in college football'' and the commissioner of FIU's Sun Belt Conference said ``there is no place in higher education for the type of conduct exhibited.''

But the question really raised by the barbaric behavior, and by nonviolent but nonetheless lurid behavior by some universities, is: What is the place of high-stakes football in higher education?

Twelve days before the Orange Bowl brawl, Republican Rep. Bill Thomas wrote, as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, an eight-page letter to the president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, asking awkward questions. Thomas wonders how, or whether, big-time college sports programs, which generate billions of tax-exempt dollars -- CBS pays the NCAA an annual average of $545 million mainly for rights to televise the March Madness basketball tournament -- further the purposes for which educational institutions are granted tax-exempt status. Other questions include:

How does the NCAA fulfill its proclaimed purpose of maintaining ``the athlete as an integral part of the student body''? Only 55 percent of football players and 38 percent of basketball players at Division I-A schools graduate. The New York Times has reported that at Auburn, a perennial football power, many athletes have received ``high grades from the same professor for sociology and criminology courses that required no attendance and little work.'' Eighteen members of the undefeated 2004 team took a combined 97 hours of those courses while at Auburn. Who believes such behavior is confined to Auburn?

In recent decades the NCAA has increased the number of games that football and men's basketball teams are allowed to play. Thomas wonders how these changes help athletes improve their academic performances? Perhaps these changes have pecuniary purposes?

The NCAA aims to ``retain a clear line of demarcation between intercollegiate athletics and professional sports.'' But aside from not compensating the athletes in a way commensurate with the money they generate for the universities, how is that line clear?

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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