My first brush with the National Collegiate Athletic Association came during my tenure as sports editor of my college newspaper. Two star players from the hockey team had been slapped with season-long suspensions for accepting room and board -- not even money, mind you -- while playing as juniors in Canada.

Even then, let alone today, it seemed a minute infraction when compared to what was transpiring at athletic programs at major schools in terms of under-the-table payments, drug dealing among athletes and, of course, continuous updates to local police blotters.

Even the school’s chancellor, a wizened academician who made no attempt to hide his disdain for sports, blasted the organization, calling the powers that be “a cabal of elderly tattered jocks.”

Today, it’s rare when the sports page agate of any paper does not include at least three or four items regarding college athletes in trouble, whether with the university, or with the local constabulary. When you read “(add name here) was suspended because of violation of team policies and conduct,” that’s more often than not a euphemism that said athlete’s university reached a plea bargain with local law enforcement to avoid an arrest.

More recently, the NCAA and its president, Myles Brand, took umbrage at the fact that House Ways & Means Committee chairman Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., had the temerity to question whether the NCAA should retain its tax-exempt status -- given the amount of revenue it receives from TV contracts. Thomas also questioned whether college athletics should be subsidized when the monies help pay coaches’ salaries -- many of which now run comfortably into seven figures.

In a 25-page response to Thomas, Brand argued that coaches' pay -- like anyone else’s -- is market-driven and that the NCAA should not have its exempt status yanked just because networks are willing to pony up for TV rights.

And pony up they do.

As an example, CBS paid $6.6 billion (yes, with a B) for the rights to televise the NCAA’s “March Madness” basketball tournament for 10 years. The NCAA’s 2006-2007 budget for television and marketing rights fees is slated at $508 million, with 70 percent of that number going to Division 1-A schools.

"If the educational purpose of college basketball could be preserved only by denying the right to telecast the events, students, university faculty and staff, alumni, the institutions of higher education themselves, and even the American taxpayer would ultimately lose," Brand wrote.

Brand, the first university president ever to lead the 1,250-member NCAA has purportedly made academics a priority, despite the fact that at certain Division 1-A universities, the graduation rate among athletes in major sports often resembles the interest rate on most saving accounts.

At the University of Miami, which is about the closest you can get to cloning the football team in “The Longest Yard,” has, over the past month, gotten involved in a much-ballyhooed Pier 6 brawl with one of its “breather” opponents on the schedule and found one of its players murdered in a parking lot -- by the way, the second Miami player to be found dead in the last 10 years.

Come January, Thomas will vacate his chairman’s post at Ways & Means, succeeded by veteran New York Democrat Charles Rangel. Rangel will almost certainly have a number of priorities, none of which would likely include a hard look at the NCAA’s tax-exempt status.

But there may come a time when Brand, or whoever is in charge, cannot explain away the eroding founding tenets of the organization in a flowing memo and will have to answer the door when the tax man comes a-knockin’.

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