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NO PLACE TO CUT. NCAA takes on spiraling athletics costs - and loses

The NCAA has just concluded a convention that was supposed to cut costs for intercollegiate athletic programs. But if anything, those costs went up instead of down. The two-day meeting was clearly a failure for the 48-member Presidents Commission of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which had hoped for approval of dozens of measures that entailed cuts in recruiting, playing and practice time, coaching staffs, and athletic scholarships.

At the same time, opponents of cuts in athletic scholarships viewed the outcome as a clear victory for minority student athletes and women's athletics. The convention ``reflects a new attitude for the NCAA,'' said Donna Lopiano, director of women's athletics at the University of Texas at Austin and a leader in the charge against scholarship cuts. ``We're saying we're not going to take cost-cutting out of the hides of student athletes first.''

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The special convention defeated or referred to study all but two proposed reductions in allowed athletic scholarships, and actually reversed a decision made at the regular NCAA convention in January to cut Division I basketball scholarships.

``This is a cost-containment convention, not an opportunity-containment convention,'' said Jim Valvano, athletic director and head basketball coach at North Carolina State University. ``Look at who plays our game - we'd be hurting a lot of minorities with this.''

Like Ms. Lopiano, Mr. Valvano said the place to begin cutting athletic costs ``is in the nonpeople areas,'' such as recruiting. A number of measures to that effect were, in fact, adopted. But as a number of participants here noted, it is unlikely that the ``nonpeople'' costs in athletic programs will yield enough to address the growing cost of athletic programs.

``The truth is, you only have a couple of areas left [for cutting costs]: staff and scholarships,'' said Roy Kramer, director of athletics at Vanderbilt University. ``Any cost cutting is going to hurt somebody, but sooner or later you have to make some decisions for the total good of intercollegiate athletics.''

Ms. Lopiano said the way to cut costs is to ``send the [athletic directors] to sit down with their coaches and figure out what's the best way to cut costs by 10 percent without hurting the quality of athletics - and then you go to legislation.''

But others here said athletic staffs alone cannot be expected to come up with sufficient cost reductions, since they are among the most affected by a ``keeping-up-with-the Joneses'' syndrome that has lead to ever-higher budgets.

That ``spiral'' was described by Ira Michael Heyman, chancellor at the University of California at Berkeley, who challenged delegates at the convention to consider why, in too many instances, athletics are taking precedence over education in the nation's colleges and universities.

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``We get caught in a spiral,'' Dr. Heyman said. ``We win in order to cover costs. But we have to spend more in order to win. Then, to cover these added costs, we have to find a way to get an edge over the competition, so we increase the scale and intensity of our programs. We recruit harder, extract more from our athletes, and build bigger and better facilities.''

In the first of what are to be a series of national forums set by the commission to discuss problems in intercollegiate athletics, Heyman challenged NCAA members to ``do the unthinkable'' by (at least thinking about) abolishing bowl games and post-season basketball tournaments, and sharing television revenues.

He also suggested that athletic scholarships be based on need, and that freshmen be ineligible for varsity competition - two less-outlandish proposals that will certainly be receiving greater scrutiny in the future.

Surprisingly, many athletic directors and coaches said they agreed with the tone of Heyman's comments, even if they had trouble with some of the specifics.

LaVell Edwards, head football coach at Brigham Young University and president of the American Football Coaches Association, said he was ``impressed with much that [Heyman] said, even if I can't agree with some of the solutions.''

Reminded that his own football program, which has skyrocketed to fame in the big leagues in recent years, appears to fit the ``spiral'' Heyman described, Mr. Edwards said, ``Yes, it's bigger and better, but it's been done by the rules, and it's been a positive force'' for BYU.

University of Oklahoma president Frank Horton, cast at the convention as a supporter of what Heyman called ``big-time athletics,'' said the convention indicated a ``transition [in collegiate athletics] is under way, but it will not take place at one time.''

Noting that a number of special studies were approved by the convention, on issues from financial aid and playing and practice seasons, to athletics personnel and academic progress, Dr. Horton added, ``certainly a movement toward more analysis before jumping to any conclusions was a theme of this meeting.''

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