King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NCAA gets tough on academics -- for the smaller programs, at least. Plus: World Baseball Classic to begin. And: Oscar nominee "Murderball."


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Salon Staff
March 2, 2006 10:00PM (UTC)

The NCAA announced sanctions Wednesday for schools that have failed to live up to new academic standards.

Ninety-nine Division I teams at 65 schools lost at least one scholarship. There are 6,112 Division I sports teams.

The NCAA's Academic Progress Rate, which measures how well teams keep players academically eligible and in school, with allowances made for players who leave early to turn pro as long as they're still eligible, is in its second year, but this is the first year penalties have been assessed.

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Of the six major conferences, exactly one school lost exactly one scholarship: DePaul men's basketball.

That's it.

So let me get this straight. All of the big powerhouses in football and men's basketball, all those SEC football teams, ACC basketball teams and so on, are living up to the strict new academic standards, but the smaller fish are failing left and right, from Sacramento State to Maryland-Eastern Shore.

I couldn't say whether Cal Poly, Centenary, Texas State or Hampton, among the most-penalized men's basketball teams, are living up to their academic mission for athletes. I also have no idea about the most-penalized football programs: Temple, Toledo, Hawaii, Middle Tennessee State and Western Michigan.

But the idea that these schools are skimping on the academics while the football and basketball powers of the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big East, Big 12 and Pac-10 are meeting all the requirements, DePaul hoops excepted, strains credulity, to say the least.

Among those big conferences Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Texas and Tennessee were sanctioned in baseball, West Virginia in men's wrestling and Mississippi in men's indoor track. But football and basketball? Paragons of learning.

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In the immortal word of former Temple football player William H. Cosby Jr., Ed.D.: Riiight.

The Catch-22 of stricter academic standards in college athletics is that it encourages schools to fudge grades, to push athletes toward joke classes at a minimum, to cheat outright at worst, with subtle and not-so-subtle grading pressure on professors in between.

When the key measure is something as easily fudged as eligibility, the opportunities to fudge are greater. Imagine if the cops enforced traffic laws with a camera hooked up to the Hubble telescope. Might be easier to roll through that stop sign, don't you think?

Maybe the NCAA's figures are legit. Maybe everything all of us know about college sports is wrong: Athletes in the big, money-making programs are genuine students making passing grades to stay eligible, with little hanky-panky of the sort that goes on at lower levels.

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Or maybe a system that punishes smaller programs while leaving the big cash machines alone ought to raise suspicions that the stated goal, academic excellence top to bottom, isn't the highest priority.

It certainly has for me.

World Baseball Classic [PERMALINK]

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The World Baseball Classic begins Thursday night in Tokyo. Korea vs. Chinese Taipei, also known as Taiwan.

Excited?

I have to admit I am. Well, excited might be too strong a word, but I'm intrigued and looking forward to this 16-team World Cup-like tournament, the first of its kind, with major league players representing their countries.

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I'd have been happier if the WBC were staged in November, instead of during spring training, when pitchers are just starting to get loose. And frankly I could have gone my whole life without seeing a national-team baseball tournament and never missed it.

But now that it's here, sure, why not. I'm American, so I am most assuredly not the person for whom the WBC is intended. But I can get into the spirit of the thing. A lot of good players will be playing, the uniforms are only blah, not hideous, and it'll be amusing to see Americans who don't speak the language playing for Italy, the Netherlands and so on because of a convenient grandparent or two and liberal eligibility rules.

Also, Sadaharu Oh is managing Japan, and how cool is that.

I'm always happy to see guys like Albert Pujols and David Ortiz taking swings at real pitches, and by the time the semifinals come around in two weeks, the thrill of all those Royals-Mariners exhibition games will have faded a bit.

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Of course I fully expect to be immersed in the first round of the NCAA basketball Tournament in two weeks, settling for highlights of the WBC. And quite a few of those good players have been begging off as the tournament approaches. Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, Vlad Guerrero, Billy Wagner and C.C. Sabathia are the big-name dropouts of the last few days.

But you never know, the thing might grab me by the throat, and anyway, like I said, it isn't aimed at me.

It's a vehicle to promote Major League Baseball around the world. I can't speak to how effective it's going to be on that score except to note that it's a pet project of commissioner Bud Selig's, whose track record as a marketer is a little shaky, highlighted by his decadelong "Our product sucks" campaign, which ended with the last collective-bargaining agreement.

My suspicion is the Classic will end up on the positive side of Selig's ledger.

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That initial game starts at 9:30 p.m. EST, and you can watch it live if you have the ESPN hench-network ESPN Deportes. Otherwise you can watch it replayed on ESPN2 at 1:30 a.m. Friday. Or record it, more likely.

ESPN signed to cover the tournament, though it's not doing so with the same enthusiasm as it's covering college basketball with this month, which is proper.

Only ESPN Deportes will have every game, and some of those only on tape delay. The tournament won't make an appearance on the big network until play gets going in this hemisphere Tuesday. The Asian pool, which plays its six first-round games Thursday night through Sunday morning, U.S. time, is relegated to ESPN2.

The Deuce will carry all six games from Tokyo, though they'll all air in the wee hours. Games that start at 4 or 4:30 a.m. EST will be live, but games that start at 9 or 9:30 p.m. EST won't be shown till after midnight.

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The first game in the U.S. will be on the big network, Dominican Republic vs. Venezuela Tuesday at 1 p.m. EST. That'll be followed by the United States vs. Mexico at 4 on ESPN2.

Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez relegated to the Deuce? What's up with that?

ESPN has the men's Mid-Continent conference tournament final at 7 and doesn't want a conflict. That's the Mid-Continent tournament. No, you're thinking of the Horizon League. Mid-Continent is IUPUI, Oral Roberts, Missouri-Kansas City, Valparaiso, etc.

See the pecking order? The World Baseball Classic is nice and all, but it's no Mid-Continent tournament. Again, that's as it should be. The WBC is an exhibition.

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Eight of the 24 games in first-round pool play won't be shown live in this country. Those eight are mostly dogs, but they include the interesting Canada-Mexico game and two Australia games that could be interesting if Australia's any good, against Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.

In fact, other than those two games Tuesday, the only live pool-play games on ESPN2 for anyone other than insomniacs and obsessive tapers will be a double-header on Wednesday afternoon, Cuba vs. Panama at 1 p.m. and USA vs. Canada at 4.

It'll be more of the same in the second round, also a round-robin format, when only six of the 12 games will be shown live on a network other than ESPN Deportes. ESPN2 will carry four games and ESPN a pair.

The semifinals and finals, on March 18 and 20, will be on ESPN. March 18 is the Saturday of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. That is, the first day of the second round, when eight games will be played. Will you have the sports-fan energy to squeeze in a split double-header, 3 and 10 p.m. EST, from the Classic?

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And don't forget the Royals are playing an exhibition game against the A's that day.

The best preview I've seen is a two-parter by Clay Davenport of Baseball Prospectus, dealing separately with Asia and everyone else. Both articles are subscription only.

Short version: The U.S. is the favorite but hardly a lock, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela are the next best bets, and South Africa has literally no chance.

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Oscar nominee "Murderball": Recommended [PERMALINK]

One of the movies up for the best documentary Academy Award Sunday is a sports flick called "Murderball." It's about quadriplegic rugby players, following members of the U.S. national team from the 2002 world championships in Gothenburg, Sweden, to the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece.

As with most of the best sports movies, especially sports documentaries, it's really not about sports.

In a key early moment, a high school friend of Mark Zupan, the intense, goateed, tattooed central figure and poster boy of the movie, says, "He was very much an asshole before he was in the wheelchair, so any attempt to try to point to the wheelchair or the accident as the cause of his grumpiness would be an utter hoax."

It's a signal that "Murderball" is also not a feel-good, let's all be inspired by the guys in the wheelchairs story. The players talk frankly about their injuries -- almost always broken necks -- their active sex lives and their rivalries. And most of the talking is captured conversation, not interviews.

Filmmakers Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro make these guys come across as three-dimensional human beings, which couldn't have been easy. A movie about rugby players in wheelchairs has a lot of work to do to get the audience past seeing only "rugby players" and "wheelchairs."

There are some touching moments, but the soundtrack is mostly speed metal, if that gives you an idea of the tone.

Quad rugby -- it was called murderball when it was invented by Canadians in the '70s, but, as Zupan notes, that's a tough sell to potential sponsors -- gives hope and meaning to the lives of some young people devastated by massive injuries in their prime, but it's also a bruising, ruthless, gladiatorial sport. This isn't a long version of one of those "Olympic Moments" features. You know, injury, recovery, redemption, slow motion, sappy music.

One of the athletes, expressing annoyance at the way people often mistake him for a Special Olympian rather than a Paralympian, says about Athens, "We're not going for a hug. We're going for a fucking gold medal."

It's like that.

I don't know if "Murderball" should win the Oscar because I haven't seen the other nominees. But I liked it.

The movie flopped last year on its theatrical release. It showed in prime time on A&E earlier this week, but you can see it again March 12 at noon EST. You can also rent or buy the DVD.

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See you Tuesday [PERMALINK]

This column will take a couple of days off and make it a long weekend. Next new column will be Tuesday.

Previous column: Barry Bonds in drag

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