Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Mommy, What's A Student-Athlete?

The term "student-athlete" is still a perfectly valid one, let's get that out of the way immediately. Thousands upon thousands of college students are able to get a leg up on the cost of a good education, for little more than the commitment of some of their time into doing something that, it can be logically assumed, they enjoy anyway. Let's face it, how much publicity has been devoted to the epidemic of mothers pushing their daughters into collegiate gymnastics? By that time, their chances of becoming a true star in the sport has shrunk away in inverse proportion to the growth of their breasts, anyway. No, most collegiate athletes are able to commit themselves to the sport out of something resembling the love of the game or the desire for an education.

Elite high school basketball players, however, are primarily interested in neither. It's about getting paid. Guys like Brandon Jennings and Jeremy Tyler are worthy of respect for at least being up front about it. Players like O.J. Mayo and Derrick Rose, who have caused their respective colleges to make serious mistakes with the way they have approached the recruiting process, are not. And anyone who sees Mayo and Rose as isolated occurrences is most likely on some chemicals. I mean, for the luvva Pete, even the Ivy League's starting to look shady.

I'm a college basketball fan, but at this point, the NCAA is simply the NBA's two-dollar whore. Do what you have to do, legal or otherwise, to get these guys to big-name programs, so they can get on TV twice a week and have fans and scouts drooling over them when they ditch you after one season of pretending to go to class. David Stern can feed everyone a line of garbage about the development of young players' games or their social development, but it's all about making Derrick Rose, O.J. Mayo, Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, and all the other fly-by-night All-Americans into brands without having to actually pay them for the use of their names and images. Of course, the NCAA has to find some way to get compensated for all their marketing labor, so hello EA Sports.

This isn't going to turn into a "should college athletes be paid?" dilemma, because honestly, it's situations like Rose and Mayo who make me feel that they shouldn't. Why hand these guys stipends, when they're only a few months of pretending to attend "Interdisciplinary Studies" courses away from making millions? Weed these guys out and restrict it to the people who are actually there to learn, sure, those guys can get paid for their time. But rewarding those who are bending the system over the table anyway is simply foolish.

More to the point, why is the NCAA still taking part in its own exploitation? Does any of this help the college game in the long term? We get to watch players battling overmatched opposition and sledgehammering their teams into the Sweet 16, then leaving those same teams to get restocked the following season, trying to avoid the Nobody's Interested Tournament. The fans who come to watch dominant players? They may be back the next year, but they may not. Ohio State dropped 1,000 fans per game after Greg Oden, Mike Conley, and Daequan Cook fell one game short of the national title, then bolted. The school then lost another 1,000 per game, even after winning the Negligible Involved Talent tournament. There also won't be too many more Davidsons or George Masons crashing in from the basketball boondocks to spice up March Madness as long as the top 10 recruits every season are scattering to Carolina, Memphis, Duke, UCLA, et al. and keeping those programs in their dominant positions year after year. The NCAA's investigation arm is certainly being kept busy, but they're about the only ones being helped by this sort of activity.

What does it do for the players? Rose and Mayo are being held up as exactly what's wrong with college sports. Would their lives be better off if they had been able to go straight into the Association, avoiding the scrutiny that's come with college coaches being forced to bend the rules to make their schools attractive? They could have come into the league on an honest basis. The idea that high school players good enough to be immediate draft prospects need marketing help is absurd, anyway. We were watching LeBron James on ESPN2 before he was even a senior. I first read O.J. Mayo's name on recruiting sites and in Sports Illustrated when he was an eighth-grader. If the guy's good enough, he will be found. He'll be a celebrity already. NBA fans knew who Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady were, and they came into the league honestly, without college coaches trying to slip their parents or uncles or cousins cash, cars, and houses under the table, ruining a university's good name and tainting the players themselves.

So who has the right idea? Baseball, that's who. Minor-league baseball serves a very useful purpose in getting players acclimated to a better class of comp than they faced in high school. If they want to go to college instead, fair play to them, they just have to play three years before getting back into the draft. I don't see where a similar system wouldn't work for basketball. The NBA already has a Development League, why not put it to full use?

If a player wants to go directly from high school to the NBA, it should be his prerogative, no different from any other job that doesn't require a college degree. But, he should be made aware that this path will put him in the D-League for two seasons. Players can play ball and get paid without having to pretend to be students, a much more open, honest, and fair arrangement than what college can offer them. Those who feel they need to hone their skills against collegiate opposition (or, for some strange reason, actually want to get edumacated) can go to college with everyone's blessing, but with the understanding that it will be for a minimum of three years, much like football. The NBA's company line is that shoehorning players into college "gives teams a better opportunity to judge talent." Wouldn't letting them play against older, more experienced guys who may have already had a cup of coffee in the Association give a decent idea about players' strengths and weaknesses?

Right now, ducking out to Europe is the only real honest arrangement that kids like Jennings and Tyler can make, but it comes with its own problems. Language barriers, envious teammates, and pressure to grow up and be professional overnight make it a move that only those with serious balls need contemplate. College isn't a comfort zone, either, at least it shouldn't be, but at least at Arizona, Brandon Jennings would have been surrounded by people who spoke English. The good news is that, in Europe, Jennings and Tyler have and will actually be showcasing their skills against better talent than they would face playing against Oregon State, Cal State Northridge, or some school with a compound direction in its name. Still not NBA-caliber talent, but definitely guys who proved they could play the college game, or even the pro game (see Childress, Josh and Pargo, Jannero.)

As a guy who did two years of college before a ten-year hiatus, I can easily tell anyone who asks that college is not for everyone. The NBA arrogantly dictating that it MUST be for everyone who wants to come play ball for a living is a truly epic fail. NBA Players' Association chief Billy Hunter claims to be adamant about ending the one-and-done rule, but has apparently softened his stance a bit, claiming the current CBA is working. This part, however, apparently is not, otherwise we wouldn't be watching teenagers flee the country. For the NBA's part, they're now being questioned in the halls of Congress, which I'm sure is not the way David Stern wants to spend his offseason. Memphis's congressman wants answers for Derrick Rose. The NCAA wants answers for Derrick Rose. Tim Floyd shot his program in the balls for O.J. Mayo. Oh, well. At least Mayo and Rose were already famous enough to score some endorsements as rookies. After all, in Commissioner Stern's world, the game's already secondary to the commercials.

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