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THE NCAA's rules committee calls its preseason instructions to
the referees its "points of emphasis" for the year. Like the
homily a pastor posts on the marquee outside his church, they're
supposed to set a tone of rectitude for a college basketball
season. For 1994-95, referees were given a reasonable enough
charge: to root out the evil of the hand check. This season,
even though they're widely considered incapable of correctly
calling three-second violations or of throwing the ball up
straight on jump balls, officials will be asked to perform an
entirely new and unaccustomed function. They'll be asked to play
Miss Manners.

Refs have been instructed to be vigilant in policing everything
that comes under the catchall heading of "sporting behavior."
They're to brook no woofing, pointing, taunting, baiting or
obscene gesticulation, and they'll admonish players to do away
with any "self-aggrandizement and exhibitionism." Rules of
decorum already on the books will be strictly enforced: Coaches
will have to stay in the coach's box; players won't be permitted
to hang on the rim, and (lest civilization as we know it end)
must keep their shirttails tucked safely from public view, at
penalty of being removed from the game until they tuck in the
offending cloth. And that's not all. When they get worked up,
some of the most exalted coaches in the game can make Howard
Stern sound like Alistair Cooke, but this season "verbal
misbehavior" will not be tolerated by the refs.

There's much to be said for sporting behavior. But in its sudden
obsession with etiquette the NCAA isn't merely (a) whistling
past the graveyard, (b) fiddling while college basketball burns
or (c) building a Potemkin village. It's (d) doing all of the

As the bluenoses campaign against the dreaded shirttail, the
graduation rate in men's college basketball has slipped to 42%,
the worst of any sport. The NCAA still skates by with a
hopelessly undermanned enforcement staff, even as embarrassing
scandals break out almost every other week. Coaches will
memorize the smallest personal detail about recruits they are
trying to woo, but ask Cal's Todd Bozeman and Louisville's Denny
Crum about the improper arrangements for cars that the Bears'
Tremaine Fowlkes and the Cards' Samaki Walker were recently
driving (and for which they were recently suspended), and their
responses are pure Sergeant Schultz: They know nothing.

Players can hardly be expected to intuit "sporting behavior"
from their environment. They've watched their coaches break
rules in recruiting them, in working them out beyond the
20-hour-a-week limit, in furtively sending the 85% free throw
shooter to the line when the 65% shooter is fouled. With coaches
caterwauling on the sidelines, mugging on their TV shows and
pitching everything from potato chips to deodorant, it's small
wonder that players promote themselves, particularly when the
NCAA won't permit them to promote anything else.

Every tweed-wrapped moralist can work himself into a lather over
the evil influence of agents, yet school after school is cutting
an all-sports equipment deal with Nike, which has a
sports-management division, thus literally putting an agent in
the locker room. Gambling and point-shaving are anathema to the
NCAA, yet four teams will trundle off to Atlantic City for a
doubleheader in early December that will include a tip-off
banquet at a casino. Meanwhile the rules committee has
obligingly passed legislation permitting sponsor advertising on
the court and allowing sportswear companies to embellish
uniforms with graphic riffs designed in part to boost sales.

Got that straight? No "self-aggrandizement and
exhibitionism"--unless the parties being aggrandized are the shoe
companies and the coaches who feed each other's bank accounts,
or the exhibitionism takes the form of a corporate logo. God
forbid that a player should take a job during the season or
start his own T-shirt business. That's not allowed.

The danger in all this is that college basketball's increasingly
restless workforce will become even more cynical about its
circumstances. As more and more players realize that they're
pawns in a huge industry that indentures them--more likely than
not with no diploma to show for their time--but makes
millionaires of coaches and networks and sponsors, that cynicism
might take the form that the NCAA purports to be so fearful of.
Players will do really impolite things, like cozying up
prematurely to agents and shaving points for gamblers.

The theme of the NCAA convention in January is supposed to be
Sportsmanship and Ethical Behavior. The good news is that with
that title, there's a wisp of evidence that the grand pooh-bahs
of college sports recognize that the two are of a piece. The bad
news is that the gathering will likely be another huge, feckless
thumb suck that produces more window dressing to obscure a house
in disorder.

But at least the delegates will do their feckless thumb sucking
righteously, with shirttails tucked in.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [Drawing of overweight coach holding money behind basketball players wearing schoolboy uniforms]