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The big charade 

I was listening to Syracuse's post-game press conference after Vermont shocked the Orange last Friday in the NCAAs. One player talked about how he wasn't too disappointed because he and his teammates will now have more time to prepare for their midterms.

Alright, that never happened. But they are student athletes. And they're supposed to be just as committed to academics as athletics.

Of course, many fans no longer connect big-time college sports with academics. People just think of the games as the best players squaring off against the highest competition, with little regard to whether real students are playing. Consequently, many people ignore smaller competitions that probably feature more genuine student athletes.

For instance, the University of Rochester men played in the Division III basketball Final Four last weekend. The Yellowjackets beat Calvin (Grand Rapids, Michigan) in the semifinal on Friday night, but lost to Wisconsin-Stevens Point in the national championship on Saturday. Still, the Jackets finished 25-5 during their march to their third-ever national title-game appearance.

So how many Rochester media outlets were there to cover the UR's big weekend in Salem, Virginia? Zero. Amazingly, most sent their reporters to Worcester, Massachusetts, to cover Syracuse. They'll argue that more Rochesterians care about SU basketball, given its national status, than the real local teams. But the UR was playing for the Division III NATIONAL championship.

How did this happen? How did major college sports grow to the point of plowing every other competition into the roadside ditch? Blame television and marketing, which bring so much money to the NCAA that the organization and many of its Division I schools will do anything to keep the good times cranking.

CBS is in the middle of an 11-year, $6 billion contract with the NCAA to broadcast the men's basketball tournament until 2014. Since 1998, ABC has paid the NCAA $25 million a year to broadcast just the Sugar, Fiesta, and Orange Bowls. Throw in all the corporate advertising tie-ins and media coverage, and those games penetrate the minds of almost anyone who doesn't live in a cave. That creates the pressure and heightens the stakes to an insanely unnecessary level.

Yet, with the numbers of colleges and universities in the Rochester region, it would be nice if there was one Division I program that could spotlight the area nationally. I know major college athletics --- regardless of how bankrupt they might be of ethics --- would bring attention to this city.

By the same token, it's noble that Rochester's schools have chosen academics --- not athletics --- as their chief marketing tool. Rochester Institute of Technology will, of course, have Division I hockey next year, but it will be non-scholarship. RIT president Albert Simone's is not a big fan of Division I athletics. Check out a 2004 paper he wrote at www.rit.edu/~020www/docs/Intercollegiate_Athletics.pdf. Simone proposed abolishing the NCAA, and he backed it up with many stories of recent transgressions at the Division I level.

Perinton Town Supervisor Jim Smith graduated from Fairport High and played Division I basketball for Rutgers from 1964 to 1968. He's lived here most of his life.

"My impression of Rochester's colleges is that they've always valued brainpower," Smith says. "The coaches here have never been more important than the college presidents."

Smith is in a unique position to comment on college athletics, and not just because he's a former Division I player. His son, Tyler, plays basketball at Division III Nazareth. Smith played at Rutgers with Jim Valvano, the ESPN basketball analyst who died of cancer in 1993. Valvano became a sports icon after his emotional, nationally televised 1993 ESPY Awards speech. That speech --- urging people to never give up --- became Valvano's legacy. But he could have been remembered more for the recruiting and academic indiscretions that occurred under his watch as NC State men's basketball coach, which ultimately led to his firing in 1990.

Smith knew Valvano as an honest, hard-working, tough-to-rattle individual. "He was definitely a lot of fun," Smith says. "What you saw on ESPN was how he was. He'd walk into the room and the atmosphere was twice of what it was before. At the time I knew him, he was straight-up."

As a player, Valvano was consumed with winning, and sometimes his sheer determination helped Rutgers beat opponents it shouldn't have, Smith says. In 1967, Valvano helped lead the Scarlet Knights to a 22-7 record and third-place in the NIT in Madison Square Garden.

Smith's sense of Valvano as NC State coach, however, is different. That level of competition can cause people to lose their grounding, Smith says. Not only were serious allegations made about Valvano's program, but Valvano left Smith with the impression that he "threw some good friends overboard to save his own skin" while at NC State.

Money, greed, and fame have affected many people associated with major college sports. They've certainly elevated the games to a level where they're all about the athlete, not the student athlete.

James Michener, in Sports in America, said schools should stop pretending their major sports feature student athletes. That they should start paying players to represent their colleges as any staff member would. The teams would simply be advertising vehicles for the schools, which is basically what they are now.

That's unlikely to happen, though. While many fans don't really care whether players are students first, they still love that notion. And not many would admit to the big charade --- that many Division I athletes are recruited as players, not students.

Still, Michener's proposal is more reasonable than actually featuring true student athletes. No media outlet would pay billions of dollars for what would amount to a substantial drop-off in play quality. We already saw how many media outlets were interested in the UR's latest Final Four appearance.

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