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Battle lines are being drawn for another historic convention of the National Collegiate Athletic Association next January in Nashville.

For years there have been anguished cries about the shameful abuses in college athletics -- recruiting violations, financial emoluments, exploitation of "student-athletes" who set records in rushing yardage and free-throw percentage but don't receive college degrees after their four years of eligibility -- or, in some well-publicized cases, can't read or write.

Presidents of NCAA institutions are now under the gun, as the media has spotlighted the problem and even Congress is threatening to intervene with legislation. There should be another record turnout of presidents at the January convention, although they often delegate such thorny matters to their athletic directors. But this time, they feel they have to deal directly with the issues.

The NCAA Council and Commission of Presidents has prepared a "reform package." Some of the proposed reforms will doubtless win approval of the assembly, and will help in small incremental ways to restore the balance between academics and athletics. New restrictions will be placed on recruiting, number of telephone calls and contacts, official visits, athletic housing, number of athletic grants-in-aid, length of playing and practice seasons, size of coaching staffs, etc. These are designed to cut runaway costs and reduce the amount of time student-athletes must spend on athletics, time taken away from academics.

But in the tangled thicket of legitimate reform measures is a set of ominous proposals for "reorganization" which would drive up the costs of intercollegiate competition so high as to force many of the nation's smaller colleges and universities out of Division I. While the proponents of these measures are quick to deny any such nefarious intent, the commissioner of one of the major athletic conferences tipped his hand two years ago by saying openly that Division I, which presently numbers 296 members, has to be reduced by 40 or 50.

These reorganization proposals come on the heels of a seven-year, billion-dollar contract for CBS to televise the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament. Athletic directors are skilled enough in math to know that the share of the pie will be a lot larger if split among 50 fewer institutions!

The reorganization proposals -- Nos. 44, 45 and 46 -- deal with three issues: strength of schedule, number of sports sponsored and the amount of money spent on athletic scholarships.

The first would require 100 percent scheduling against Division I opponents, thus eliminating any games against tradittional rivals who might be Division II or III, and often requiring much higher travel costs. The next proposal would ratchet up the required number of men's and women's sports from six to seven each, adding more costs to the athletics budget.

The most damaging proposal would increase the amount of mandatory financial aid, requiring the expenditure of at least a half-million dollars on athletic scholarships, exclusive of basketball and football. This not only represents a serious financial burden on many institutions, but also a radical change in NCAA philosophy.

There has always been a ceiling on athletic grants, a maximum number of allowable scholarships. The legislation proposed this time would introduce a floor, or a minimum number of dollars which must be spent on athletic grants. Concern for "keeping the lid on" is thus replaced by a "sky's the limit" philosophy, and this at the very same convention which will be voting on numerous cost-control measures!

Perhaps the cruelest cut of all is that the reorganization would drive out the smaller schools which have always guaranteed the traditional American philosophy of college athletics, leaving the field to the behemoths for whom athletics is a preparation for professional sports, rather than an adjunct to the academic program. This would create the possibility of more and more abuses, rather than moving to curtail them. As one president has said, it would effectively remove the word "collegiate" from NCAA, changing the organization to a National Pre-Professional Athletic Association.

There is a certain deja vu about all this. A similar battle was fought in 1983, when some NCAA powers tried to up the ante and force out smaller institutions. The issue then was also dollars: rates of paid attendance at games, increased financial aid. Then reason prevailed, as the membership realized that athletics should not be judged solely on dollars, but on their contribution to the academic program of the institutions involved.

At next January's convention, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, of which Canisius and Niagara are members, is proposing that the graduation rate of athletes should be a major criterion for membership in Division I. This may have little chance of passing, but at least it brings the academic side of the equation to the attention of the members, keeping the word "collegiate" in the NCAA title.

In 1983 David beat Goliath, and the proposal to "reorganize" Division I was defeated. It remains to be seen whether there are still enough Davids in the NCAA membership to win again in 1991.

REV. JAMES M. DEMSKE is president of Canisius College.

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