Leather Balls Go Way Of Wooden Rackets and Bats

May 16, 2002

AP Sports Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - Wooden rackets are long gone from tennis, and kids who play baseball grow up hearing the clang of metal rather than the crack of wooden bats.

So it's no great shock to learn Wednesday that leather basketballs will soon be history in the NCAA championships, replaced by something called composite leather, which isn't leather at all.

The first reaction to such news might be a sense of loss: One more cherished icon in our sports culture is suddenly gone; one more synthetic is substituting in our lives for something real.

The second reaction, upon hearing that animal rights activists are crowing over the triumph of their lobbying campaign against leather, might be a feeling of outrage: How could the NCAA cave in to pressure like that?

As it turns out, neither reaction is quite appropriate.

There's nothing sudden about the disappearance of leather basketballs from college. Only six of the 64 teams in the first round of the men's tournament this year played with leather balls during the season. Final Four champ Maryland, along with Duke and Connecticut, were among the teams that chose composite balls.

For those who get sappy over the disappearance of all the stuff they grew up using, hey, get over it.

The new balls look the same, play the same or better, are less expensive and last longer. The game hasn't changed.

"They've come so far with that composite ball," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "It just seems to have a better feel than the leather. There's not a lot of things that are done for the players, but if the players had their choice, they would pick the composite ball. At least our players would."

It's probably naive to think that money and marketing had nothing to do with the NCAA's decision. The NCAA switched its allegiance recently from Rawlings to Wilson, which touts its $75 "Ultimate" composite leather ball as the best in the business. With a tie-in to the Final Four, Wilson can sell a lot more balls.

But the truth is all the manufacturers have been going the way of fake leather for a long time. There's just not as big a market for leather, even if it's still the ball of choice in the NBA.

As for the glee of animal rights activists in claiming they influenced the NCAA, that's a case of taking credit where it's not due.

"We proposed the idea to them," said Dan Shannon, spokesman for PETA - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "I don't know that they would have come to the decision on their own. The information we provided and the argument we made in favor of synthetics swayed them."

Shannon said the group sent several letters to the NCAA urging a switch to synthetic balls and detailing the "horrors of the leather industry."

PETA estimated it took an entire cow to make four leather basketballs, described how cows are "marched to slaughter to the point of collapse, crowded onto transport trucks where they frequently break bones or suffocate, and often dismembered and skinned while still alive."

All that may be true and repulsive to contemplate. But the NCAA wasn't driven by political correctness.

"That was not even a factor," said Gregory Shaheen, managing director of the Division I men's tournament.

Shaheen and women's director Sue Donohoe passed along to the rules and championship committees PETA's letters, but they said the performance of the composite balls and the preference of the players and coaches drove the decision. When the idea was reviewed by the National Association of Basketball Coaches at the Final Four, he said, there was hardly a peep of protest.

"It was clearly a quality issue," Donohoe said. "The fact that this was something that PETA had asked of the association, that's good. But we made the decision on quality and the logistical issues of our tournament."

One of those logistical issues, she said, was the breaking-in period of balls. New leather balls are slick until they're broken in, which can take the whole first round. Composite balls are ready to play with almost right away.

Donohoe called the decision a win-win situation for the NCAA and PETA.

PETA put a slightly different spin on it.

"I would call it a victory for PETA, a victory for the NCAA and a victory for all the cows out there who are killed for their skins," Shannon said.

No matter whose spin you believe, the bottom line is that leather balls aren't sacred. In some places, cows are.



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