Saturday, May 17, 2008

Baseball Holds the Key to Fixing College Basketball

In retrospect it seems obvious that no good would come from a high-profile athlete named "O.J." enrolling at the University of Southern California. And I use the term "enroll" very loosely. This time the USC scandal is centered on basketball player O.J. Mayo, the "freshman" sensation who has recently made himself available for the upcoming NBA draft. Again, I use the term "freshman" loosely since that term has a meaning generally associated with being an actual student pursuing an academic degree at a university, as opposed to being a basketball mercenary who is being paid to wear a particular college's uniform during his audition for the NBA.

I'm sure nobody was more surprised that shady sports agents might be funneling improper benefits to star athletes at USC than basketball coach Tim Floyd - except for maybe USC Head Football Coach Pete Carroll. The O.J. Mayo experience stunk from the start, and USC deserves to get the full court press from the NCAA over this. But USC is not the only entity deserving of blame. A system that allows these young players to accept a "scholarship" to a "university" to play basketball, and then walk away from their school, their coach, and their teammates after just one season of play (and about one semester of classes) is obviously flawed.

One of the things that makes me most proud to be an alumnus of the University of Notre Dame is that ND has always taken the concept of the student-athlete seriously. Student-athletes at Notre Dame live in regular dorms with "regular" students, they dine in the same dining halls as the rest of the student body, they attend the same classes as other students, they earn good grades, and they graduate with an honest-to-goodness degree from one of the best colleges in the nation. Those things are very important to me, and I think they are consistent with the highest ideals of the NCAA. I have always been bothered by those schools who place athletic (and financial) success ahead of education. By permitting (encouraging) their athletes to enroll in patty-cake courses, and then setting the bar of expected academic performance low enough, these institutions do a great disservice to their students, most of whom will need to find "real jobs" eventually. It also compromises the overall academic integrity of the institution itself, and cheapens the value of its diplomas. Tangentially, it's also unfair to the real student-athletes at other schools who have to compete on the playing field against these semi-professionals.

The current system in college basketball makes a mockery of the concept of the student athlete. Athletes whose only intent in accepting a scholarship is to use it as a springboard to the pros at the first opportunity deprive college athletics of what's left of its purity. What makes college sports great (at least to me) is all the students in the stands (and alumni across the country) cheering on their fellow STUDENTS. One of them. Not random guys off the street who are just wearing the colors for a while, but guys they know from the dorms, and from class, who are struggling to graduate. I know, big-time college sports aren't "pure." The money and pressure to win at any cost has worked to corrupt the revenue sports to a significant degree. But I think the ideal of the student-athlete lives on and we need to do what we can to preserve and nurture it. And I think that has to start with college hoops.

I was just looking at recent projections for the upcoming NBA draft. No, I don't know why I was doing that, since I have plenty of other ways I should be spending my time. But I digress. According to projections, the Top 5 picks in the NBA draft could well be 4 college freshman and 1 college sophomore. The Top 10 would be 7 freshman, 2 foreign players, and 1 sophomore. The Top 20 projects as 9 freshman, 7 sophomores, 2 foreign players, 1 junior and 1 senior. If the projections are correct, 18 college players would be drafted in the first 20 picks, only ONE of whom would have completed four years of college and thus have a reasonable chance of having earned a college degree. That's absurd. If you want to play pro basketball - then by all means please go play pro basketball. But don't go to a university and waste everyone's time with the charade that you are a "student" there.

Baseball has it right, and the NBA should adopt the Major League Baseball model as its own. Under the rules of the MLB draft, players are eligible for the draft coming out of high school. If they sign a contract with a team, then they play pro baseball. If they don't sign a contract (either because they didn't get drafted, or didn't get drafted high enough, or couldn't reach terms with a team), then they can choose to go to college. If they enroll at a junior college, they can go back into the draft the following year. But, if they enroll at a 4-year school, they are not eligible to be in the draft again until they complete their third or fourth year of school, or reach 21 years of age. This system has worked very well for players, colleges, and Major League Baseball. Kids who are extremely talented coming out of high school, or who just aren't interested in more education, can go pro right away. Those that need more development, or who value an education, can decide instead to go to college. Colleges and universities who place a player on athletic scholarship know that they are getting a student who is at least somewhat committed to education and who will be there (on the field and in the classroom) for at least three years. Win-win-win.

The flaw in this plan of course is that, unlike Major League Baseball, the NBA doesn't currently have an extensive farm system in which to incubate developing players that they have under contract. But that can be fixed. The NBA Developmental League can be expanded. The NBA could buy the Continental Basketball Association for a song and use it for player development. The NBA could adopt a junior college rule similar to MLB, so that players not intent on earning a degree can at least take a few general educational courses at a JC while playing and waiting to be drafted. If viable paths to the NBA other than through the NCAA are available after high school, then college basketball can regain some of its integrity and allure. We can return to cheering for students who play basketball for their schools, rather than basketball players who merely wear the uniform of a school while waiting around for a better offer.

1 comment:

Jack said...

Cheating is everything. It used to be winning was everything! To paraphrase Knute, " If there is anyone that's yellow here, leave "
It takes guts to play football! (which I didn't [I was the wimp type], except in grade school i.e. tag football) & more to get your degree at ND! I didn"t graduate from ND, though 2 uncles, brother-in-law, my dad did. My sister got a MS at ND in Sociology, but 'soured on ND'??? {Daughter wasn't accepted to ND} OK!::USC says: We're having fun!