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.
"We respect the purists' point of view; we respect everyone's point of view," Shaheen said. "But the committee did not outlaw the use of leather basketballs. Schools can still use leather basketballs in their games. But it was clear that the preference of our membership was a composite basketball."
Making their plays
In the NCAA's most recent poll of men's and women's basketball programs, only 18 percent said they were using a leather ball during the regular season, according to the NCAA. Shaheen said that 89 percent of the teams that qualified for the 2002 men's NCAA tournament used a synthetic basketball for their home games.
The switch is causing some concern for colleges that are still using a leather ball at home games. "We use the real leather ball here and have done so for years," Manhattan College coach Bobby Gonzalez said. "My assistant coaches and I are now, however, looking into getting some of the synthetic balls just to practice with, in case we'll have to play with them at some point."
Some players do not know which ball they are using. Maurice Murphy, a point guard at Columbia, extolled the virtues of the leather ball. "With the real leather ball, I think that you get a better grip on the ball, especially for handling and shooting," he said. "I've played with both balls, and as the game goes on, the synthetic ball definitely gets a little slicker. I'm pretty sure that we use the synthetic ball for our games."
Told that Columbia uses a leather ball for all games and practices, Murphy laughed. "I guess there really isn't that much difference between the two after all," he said.
A Rawlings leather ball was used during last season's NCAA tournament. The ball to be used in next year's tournament will be a Wilson Solution composite ball.
The NBA has used a leather basketball for more than 50 years. But in its new developmental league and since the inception of the WNBA in 1997, a Spalding composite ball has been in use. An NBA spokesman, Matt Bourne, said last week that the league had conversations with PETA, was monitoring improvements in the Spalding composite ball along with players' comments and would consider moving to a composite ball some day. A year ago, the league signed a multiyear deal with Spalding, which supplies the leather ball now used.
Officials of the cattlemen's association say they have been satisfied that the NCAA basketball committee made a business decision based on information gathered from member schools and was not unduly influenced by PETA. The cattlemen believe leather used in sporting goods is not going away, nor should it. "But we were not going to sit by and let PETA take credit for something when it simply wasn't true," Rick McCarty, of the cattlemen's association said.
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