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Nashville Scene Beaning the NCAA

Baseball may be the last hope for big college sports

By Randy Horick

JUNE 7, 1999:  College baseball bears little resemblance to big-time intercollegiate athletics. That, of course, is its most attractive attribute.

Baseball is what your Athletic Director Types term a "non-revenue sport." Which means, in contrast to football and basketball, that it doesn't generate much money--and, therefore, is not dictatorially governed by money.

College baseball also is a non-limelight sport. Notable is the game that draws more than a few hundred spectators. There are no lucrative TV contracts. In Nashville, as in many cities, the daily newspaper is a virtually useless guide. You need the Internet to follow the game.

For all of these reasons, college baseball is a refreshingly non-scandal sport.

In contrast to football and basketball, your revenue sports, colleges don't provide the only realistic path to the big leagues; athletes can viably move from high school to the professional minor leagues. College players are there by choice, not simply because they want to showcase their skills for a year or two before moving on.

And because the dearth of revenue and attention reduces the pressure on coaches, you don't read of fat payments to baseball recruits, or of high school (and junior high) athletes being steered into coaches' summer camps where they can be evaluated. Alums don't treat baseball recruiting as if it were a sports season in its own right.

Baseball is a wilderness preserve in the sprawling New Jersey of collegiate sports.

And, yet, for all its otherness, baseball sometimes holds up a mirror to NCAA athletics. As three recent stories reveal, the reflection isn't always very attractive.

Consider the case of Providence College. Last weekend, the Friars advanced in the the NCAA Baseball Tournament, knowing that this week's "super regionals" will offer their last chance, ever, to reach the College World Series.

Whatever the outcome, the Providence team will disband after 78 years of play. Earlier this spring, the school announced that it was dropping baseball, and several other "non-revenue" men's sports, citing the financial pressures created by Title IX.

Now, don't get your knives out for Title IX, the law which mandates that universities that receive federal funds must award scholarships evenly between men's and women's sports. Since it took force, Title IX has single-handedly not only created growth in established women's sports but, at most schools, given birth to whole new teams.

Why? Because athletics at most colleges are ruled by football, the big dog of revenue sports--and the NCAA's governing philosopher kings allow football coaches to grant 85 scholarships.

It won't take you long to cipher out that, in order to achieve scholarship parity, schools either will field one rootin'-tootin' women's track squad or else grant scholarships to women in sports such as lacrosse, volleyball, and rugby--sports in which males compete at a non-scholarship "club" level.

Providence, faced with rising costs and flattening revenues, chose simply to eliminate several men's sports entirely. Other financially squeezed schools--and their numbers are growing--have pursued a similar path.

If the grand strategists in the NCAA bunker were serious about increasing the scope of competitive athletics, there's one more obvious, if mine-strewn route. They could curb the Big Dog by reducing the number of football scholarships to 60. And they could make up for the cuts by re-imposing the old one-platoon system, in which substitutions are limited and players alternate between offense and defense.

Before you denounce this notion as some godless, neo-Bolshevik plot, consider that our NFL boys get by with even fewer players than 60. And don't forget either that college football enjoyed even greater appeal in those rustic, single-platoon days of Doak Walker, Tom Harmon, and Whizzer White.

Of course, if you entertained any piddling hope that the NCAA is capable of achieving progress in this area, consider another baseball story from last weekend.

With its usual pharisaical ardor, the NCAA slapped Baylor pitcher Chad Hawkins for violating the letter of the law while giving to the poor. You'll doubt this only if you've never dealt with the NCAA.

Hawkins, who plans eventually to enter the ministry, was the subject of a newspaper story that chronicled his good deeds: inviting homeless people to stay in his apartment, giving away his stereo, and handing a pair of $130 sunglasses to a child who had admired them. The article also noted that Hawkins had won an NCAA basketball tournament pool--like those you'll find in every office in America, except NCAA headquarters--then contributed the money to help needy children in Africa.

That item brought a swift reaction from the NCAA Sanhedrin, who pointed out that a tournament pool constitutes Gambling with a capital G.

Baylor, like Providence, advanced to the second round of the college baseball playoffs. But when they play again on Friday, the Bears will lack Hawkins, who'll be serving his suspension and affirming the principle that no good deed goes unpunished.

Unfortunately, Hawkins' case is no aberration. The NCAA has made a habit of strain-at-the-gnat-and-swallow-the-camel prosecutions. Like the Indiana basketball players who were punished for posing for a calendar that was sold to raise money for charity--even though the players received no money themselves. Or Vanderbilt's All-American baseballer Hunter Bledsoe, who has the best grades on the team but was stripped of an entire year of eligibility because, technically, he didn't spend enough time at a junior college after he transferred from Duke. (And you thought the object was to minimize the use of jucos by NCAA athletes.)

Wouldn't it be groovy if the enforcement boys could summon the same enthusiasm for pursuing some of the almost pathological scofflaws that populate its membership? Instead, the NCAA often allows cheaters nabbed in flagrante to suggest their own punishments. And because the organization is short on investigative resources, schools that choose to stonewall may escape sanctions altogether. We won't (Auburn) mention any names (Minnesota basketball), but you know (wherever Jerry Tarkanian goes) who you are.

Common sense did prevail in one baseball matter recently. Ben Christensen, a pitcher with a 9-1 record for highly ranked Wichita State, flagrantly beaned Evansville's Anthony Molina--while Molina was 15 feet from the plate. Christensen casually justified his action, alleging that Molina had been timing his warmup throws (as if that were illegal) and affirming that Wichita State's pitching coach had issued orders to hit any opponent who dared such an affront.

The vicious throw, which Molina never saw coming, left him with impaired vision and an uncertain baseball future. The Missouri Valley Conference suspended Christensen, along with his pitching coach, for the season. "We're the ones that got hurt," complained Wichita State's head coach afterwards.

Appropriately, the Shockers were eliminated from the college baseball playoffs last weekend. But there's still a chance for Christensen to put his beanball skills to good use. He could drive from Wichita to Overland Park and whack some sense into the NCAA.

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