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NCAA SCHOLARSHIP FLAP SHOWS NEED FOR REFORM

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This year, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has limited college basketball teams to granting 13 scholarships each, two fewer than in 1991 - and despite pressure, has refused to raise the number to 14.

Because of this, a group of college coaches, most of whom are African-American, are set to stage a massive boycott of their own games - one that could seriously disrupt the season and the championship tournament.The group known as the Black Coaches Association and comprising some of the game's most prominent mentors, views the cut as racist. It wants at least one scholarship restored, noting that would mean 330 more young men could attend college nationwide.

A majority of those recipients, like a majority of existing college players, would be black.

But the cries of racism are diverting attention from a serious problem. Athletics are draining school budgets. When the NCAA cut the number of basketball scholarships, it did so to cut costs.

The situation is more urgent than most people understand. About 70 percent of the nation's largest schools lose money each year on athletics - even, and sometimes especially, when football is added in.

Close to home, Utahns have watched as Weber State University grappled recently with whether to eliminate its football program, noting it was subsidizing the sport with about $800,000 per year. In some states, taxpayers contribute money directly to sports. Washington state gives about $5 million annually to its colleges and four-year schools.

Add the issue of gender equity, which has led to lawsuits or complaints in at least 18 states, and universities are left with few options for reducing athletic costs.

Many schools are finding it difficult to avoid gender-based lawsuits when they cut minor sports, even when the cuts seem to be divided equally between men and women.

Even the staunchest sports fans would have trouble building an argument for college athletics to continue as they are. The money schools use to prop up athletic programs comes at the expense of academics, libraries and research facilities.

To ultimately solve the problem, the NCAA should explore all alternatives, including drastic ones, such as divorcing sports from their universities and operating teams as independent clubs, as is done in many other countries.

The Black Coaches Association is right. More than half of the students affected by the scholarship cut will be black. But the NCAA and its universities will have trouble finding a place to cut without hurting minorities or women, along with everyone else.

Issuing 13 scholarships in a sport in which only five can play at a time seems like a reasonable start toward saving money. But it won't solve the problem, and neither will a boycott of the season.