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