Fri, Dec 27, 2002 - Page 22 News List

NCAA's `whole new ballgame'

`MOOO-VING AWAY'The college basketball association in the US has decided to go ahead with using synthetic rather than leather balls for its championship games

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

In March, for the first time in the 64-year history of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, the ball used in games will not be made of leather. The NCAA has decided to switch to a synthetic ball for its championships.

The decision puts the tournament in sync with the regular-season choice of most college teams, who had already begun to use nonleather, composite balls because they are cheaper and considered to be less slippery. Universities can use either synthetic or leather balls during the season.

While the decision generated little discord within college basketball, it has provoked a spirited dispute in the larger world beyond players, coaches and athletic directors.

"Thanks for mooo-ving away from leather," the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) wrote to the NCAA, applauding the switch as a victory for those who view the leather-making process as cruel to animals.

PETA had urged the athletic association to drop leather basketballs and it took some credit when the decision was announced last May by pointing to a letter it had received from the NCAA thanking the animal rights organization for its input and for "working cooperatively with our staff to achieve the desired result."

Those words inflamed the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

"It's alarming to see that the NCAA apparently has been working with a radical animal rights organization," Wythe Willey, who is the cattlemen's association president, wrote to the NCAA. A copy of the letter was made available to The New York Times.

Willey contended that leather was a valuable product humanely produced, and asked how the NCAA would respond, "when PETA returns to demand the NCAA prohibit the use of leather baseballs and baseball gloves, leather footballs and leather athletic shoes."

And indeed, a PETA official said last week that the organization was preparing to approach the NCAA about switching from a leather to a synthetic football. PETA also said it thought it would soon convince the NBA to stop using leather basketballs.

Is this what people mean by the term a "whole new ballgame?"

Keeping it quiet

The NCAA, meanwhile, has been busy explaining itself, insisting that PETA did not play a significant role in its decision, which was announced with little fanfare on May 7.

"They contacted us after our basketball committee was already looking at this," Greg Shaheen, the managing director of the NCAA Division I men's basketball championship, said. "We asked them to send us a letter. It was incidental. It was one of about 30 pages of data prepared for the committee."

Shaheen conceded that the letter he wrote to PETA afterward -- the one that bothered the cattlemen's association -- might have been worded differently to avoid misinterpretation.

"The `desired result' was the correct decision for the tournament," he said. "It was not a political issue to the members of the committee."

PETA is not acknowledging that interpretation.

"If the NCAA wants to say that Martians told them to use a synthetic basketball, that's fine," Dan Shannon, PETA's campaign coordinator, said. "From our end, it seemed like we had some impact. They told us to write a letter, and we spoke on the phone a few times. We got a letter thanking us."

Shaheen has spent time responding to individuals who protested the NCAA's decision and PETA's perceived role in it. There was another unhappy group in his constituency: Purists who believe the college game should be played with the same kind of leather sphere used by Bob Cousy, Bill Walton and Michael Jordan.

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