When temple basketball coach John Chaney met the press last Saturday moments after his 13th-ranked Owls had won a game that two days earlier looked as if it would not be played, he did so in a gymnasium heated by a rented boiler. The University of Rhode Island would love to buy a new boiler but can't afford one. As Chaney spoke, on Martin Luther King's birthday, every issue and emotion that coursed through college sports last week seemed to condense in chilly Keaney Gym: anger, power, opportunity, entitlement, racism and money, money, money.
The Black Coaches Association (BCA), of which Chaney is a member, had called for coaches and players to boycott last weekend's basketball games. The BCA is protesting the recent NCAA vote against restoring one of the two men's basketball scholarships eliminated in 1991, a cost-cutting measure that reduced each school's limit from 15 to 13 free rides. The 14th scholarship was only one item on a BCA agenda that also called for adding minorities to the NCAA's staff and reconsidering the academic restrictions of Propositions 42 and 48. On Friday the BCA agreed to delay any action, pending attempts by the Congressional Black Caucus to resolve differences between the coaches and the NCAA. But Drake coach Rudy Washington, the BCA's executive director, said, "The word delay is extremely important." That means those SUPPORT BLACK SATURDAY bumper stickers that have been printed may yet be used.
In the meantime, the protesting coaches have a p.r. problem. They'll never escape suspicion of self-interest, no matter how sincere their motives may be. "We need more youngsters in college and not out on the streets," says George Washington coach Mike Jarvis. But which streets is he talking about? Those in Gambia and Nigeria, where two of his 13 players on scholarship come from? "It's not all about 14 scholarships," Chaney emphasized, perhaps because he suits up only 11 scholarship players. USC coach George Raveling likes to describe his profession as "the last citadel of discipline in our society"; then he demonstrates that discipline by spending a small fortune to send 900 letters to a single high school prospect. Dare to suggest that academic nonqualifies might benefit from playing at an NCAA Division II or III school and Georgetown coach John Thompson says, "Once you've eaten steak, you don't want hot dog." As moral calls-to-arms go, "Steak, not hot dog!" doesn't exactly stir the soul.
The coaches can't win. If they cry about the 14th scholarship, they look as if they just want another studhorse for the stable. If they protest the exclusionary nature of standardized tests—even if those tests are still culturally biased—they go up against statistics that show an increase in SAT scores, graduation rates and percentage of scholarships for blacks playing Division I basketball since the tougher standards were introduced. And they go up against the ghost of Arthur Ashe, who insisted that blacks would rise to clear a raised bar.
In fact, the coaches' quarrel isn't primarily with the NCAA hierarchy. It's with the college presidents who have finally decided that they want a say in the operation of athletic departments. The presidents believe that the money needed to fund a single men's basketball scholarship could be better spent educating three inner-city commuter students who happen not to be athletes. They've concluded that it's best to comply with federal law mandating equal opportunities for women. And they've decided that labs and libraries need support too, so Disadvantaged Youths numbers one through 13 will find the means with which to become advantaged once they arrive on campus. Tough decisions all. But it's best if the person making them is someone charged with balancing all the interests of a university.
This isn't to say the presidents should make these decisions in a vacuum. Or that the BCA should slacken its efforts to keep the NCAA from setting new "sliding-scale" academic standards that at some schools could be higher for athletes than for the student body as a whole.
But the players are the group with the most legitimate grievances in college basketball today. A coach can leave for a better offer anytime, but that player he sweet-talked into signing has to sit out a year after transferring. A student-athlete can be brought up before an NCAA committee on eligibility or infractions, but there aren't any student-athletes on the committee itself. Coaches make as much as several hundred thousand dollars a year from shoe deals by using players' feet as billboards, but the players see none of that money.
Perhaps it occurred to some players last week that with a little nerve and forethought, they might bring that billion-dollar spectacle, the Final Four, to a halt. We have a better idea. Players, go to your coaches. Tell them you'll walk out on them unless they use some of that sneaker money to fund a 14th scholarship. It has been quite the rage of late to presume what Dr. King might say about one issue or another were he alive today, but it's hard to imagine his not liking that idea.