INDIANAPOLIS -- Early Saturday evening and again Monday night, a crowd of more than 43,000 will file into the RCA Dome, and millions of TV viewers will settle in for what has become a full-blown American sports spectacle -- the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I men's basketball tournament's culminating games, better known as the Final Four.
All is not celebratory here this weekend, however. Men's college basketball -- a sport that generates enormous revenue for schools and provides the NCAA national office nearly all of its operating budget -- is in a state of tumult.
Players are unhappy, coaches are unhappy and even game officials are unhappy. Their ire revolves around issues at the sport's core: the definitions of the word ''amateur,'' the rules that govern recruiting and the zeal of a campaign against sports betting.
While it is normal for the NCAA to be the target of criticism from unhappy members, the talk has added meaning this year because votes will be taken in April on a series of proposed NCAA rules changes that could begin to alter fundamentally the way men's basketball operates.
THE FINAL FOUR
At The RCA Dome
Saturday, April 1
Wisconsin (22-13) vs. Michigan State (30-7), 4:42 p.m.
North Carolina (22-13) vs. Florida (28-7), 30 minutes after first game
Monday, April 3
Semifinal winners, 8:18 p.m.
''We will change and that creates unrest for people,'' NCAA President Cedric Dempsey said here Thursday. ''We might go through some pain before we get much gain, but I do believe we are going to change the culture and make it a more positive environment for people.''
Among the possible changes that could be approved next month are:
-- An end to men's basketball coaches' long-standing practice of evaluating high school players during the summer, when numerous camps and tournaments for elite players are held. Coaches would be restricted to evaluating players during the school year.
-- Limiting men's basketball teams to four new scholarships per year, regardless of the number of players who have left the program the previous year. Under this proposal, if three players on a team graduated and two others transferred, only four new players could be brought in on scholarships.
''I think it is a hard time. . . . You're scratching very sensitive skin and it adds to the discomfort,'' said Jim Haney, executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC), a group that represents men's college and high school coaches. ''These are important issues, emotional issues. There is no question that at least for coaches, and to some degree student-athletes, this year has not been as glorious as the tournament or regular season'' normally is.
In an attempt to smooth their differences, Dempsey met with the NABC's board of directors on Thursday, prior to the start of the NABC's annual convention here so the sides could address each other directly.
''I wouldn't describe (the meeting) as warm and fuzzy,'' Haney said. ''They had information they wanted to present to us and we had information we wanted to present.''
This has been a season in which there was considerable controversy over several high-profile players for major teams being suspended for accepting benefits prior to their college enrollments in violation the NCAA's current amateurism rules. ''Sure you get fed up, especially (when a suspension occurs) right before game time,'' said Purdue Coach Gene Keady, who will become the NABC's president on Sunday. ''It's ridiculous.''
The NABC has helped form the Student Basketball Council, a 46-player panel that hopes to enlighten NCAA officials and schools on the players' perspectives; the executive committee of that group is scheduled to meet here Saturday and Sunday. ''They make a lot (of money) off of us,'' said North Carolina sophomore forward Jason Capel. ''I'm not saying we should get it right off hand, but some of it should be put off to the side for you.''
And last month, an NCAA subcommittee recommended that the association do away with its long-standing practice of allowing only amateur athletes to compete collegiately. The subcommittee felt that defining ''amateurism'' had been so difficult that the best way to deal with it was deregulation, which would allow professional athletes to retain collegiate eligibility, though they would lose one year of eligibility for every year of professional competition. The recommendation will be passed on to membership in April and could come up for a vote in 2001.
The NABC has yet to formulate an official stance on this issue, which could have enormous ramifications for men's college basketball if the NBA follows through with plans to begin a developmental league that would cater to college-age players. However, several coaches have voiced their opposition, and Haney called the proposal ''extreme.''
Meanwhile, game officials considered candidates to work during the NCAA men's or women's basketball tournaments have been subjected to background checks for the first time. Some officials criticized the checks, wondering why other people associated with the tournaments -- especially coaches, and the members of the committees that set the fields -- were not being subjected to the checks. There also was a dispute about the NCAA's liability in case any of the information became public -- a dispute that will be discussed again during a meeting in May.
Meantime, a University of Michigan study released Wednesday that found a majority of Division I basketball and football game officials who were surveyed said they gamble, with 22.9 percent saying the have bet on the NCAA tournament. That same day, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing on a bill that would would prohibit gambling on college athletics, a bill the NCAA enthusiastically supports.
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