It's far too easy to rip the NCAA for its many hypocrisies, yet its latest crusade—to bully basketball players who have come to U.S. colleges from overseas—leaves little choice but to have at the organization once again. In early July the NCAA asked 52 schools to determine whether certain of their foreign players had received compensation from club teams back home or suited up alongside professionals. In the first case, said the NCAA, the players would have compromised their amateur status and therefore be ineligible; in the latter, they would have to sit out a certain number of games based on their club team experience.
Unlike the U.S., where high schools feed players to colleges, the rest of the world works on the club model. A preadolescent kid will pay to join a club team, go through its cadet and junior programs and, should he blossom, advance to a senior team that usually includes a few paid countrymen and the odd American mercenary. This progression often takes place before the player is old enough to kite off to the U.S. to play college ball. "We're not attempting to exclude foreigners, but they should have to meet the same standards," says NCAA enforcement vice president David Price. Yet as California coach Ben Braun points out, to punish someone for being a product of this system is to punish him for having played at all. It's as if Sweden were to declare American physicists ineligible for the Nobel Prize because they didn't always use the metric system.
Bewilderingly, the crackdown comes just as the lords of college sports are exploring ways to relax rules on amateurism. Only last spring the NCAA agreed to let its athletes take part in Operation Gold, the U.S. Olympic Committee program that funnels cash to Americans who do well in international competitions like this summer's World Championship for Young Men. For wanning gold medals there, basketball players such as Duke's Carlos Boozer and UCLA's Jason Kapono pocketed $5,000 each. The message: We'll take care of our boys if they beat up on those furriners, but if one of them so much as played alongside a pro, there'll be hell to pay.
Schools have until Sept. 10 to exonerate their suspect players or declare them ineligible and leave them to the tender mercies of the NCAA's reinstatement committee. Odds are that many more will join USC center and Greek import Kostas Charissis, who, though he never took a drachma himself, is among the first to be felled by the current probe. It's likely that when USC meets UCLA on Jan. 10, the Bruins will start the handsomely compensated Kapono while Charissis is still serving a 15-game suspension, essentially for having grown up in Greece. We can only hope that the NCAA, which is headquartered in the city that will host the 2002 world basketball championship, won't be staking out the Indianapolis airport next summer, lobbying for deportations.