College basketball has become an Etch-A-Sketch. Each year, as the season progresses, an elaborate drawing forms. Star players emerge, storylines form, Cinderella crashes the ball, and by the end, we’re left with an ornate image to remember the season by. But the moment the season ends, the slate is wiped clean, because any player using half of what he learned in his introductory business classes is packing his bags and heading straight to the NBA Draft. The next season, we learn the names of a new crop of freshman, the names of tomorrow’s lottery picks, and the cycle repeats itself, with a brand new drawing.
It’s a consequence of the now infamous one-and-done rule, which requires professional basketball players to be one year removed from their high school graduation before entering the NBA. There is no college requirement, but most players choose the national exposure that comes with playing for a powerhouse college program, rather than collecting middling paychecks in the NBA’s D-League or European leagues for a year.
Yesterday, Duke’s Jabari Parker declared for the NBA Draft. Andrew Wiggins did so two weeks ago. When it’s all said and done, nearly every recognizable name from this season of college basketball will be gone. So say goodbye to Aaron Gordon, the Harrison twins, and Julius Randle. You can still see them if you like, playing across the street, on a bigger stage, and collecting paychecks for their work.
These decisions to forgo an education are about one thing: money. And why shouldn’t it be? In what other profession can a company be willing to pay a person millions of dollars, but we decide they need to wait a year before they can cash in on their talents? What’s worse, basketball players need to spend a year auditioning for that job on a college team, risking their health while making no money, but producing billions in revenue for their university.
When colleges recruit these players, all they see are the dollar signs. Why shouldn’t these players view college in the same way?
The NCAA operates under the façade of amateur athletics. The NFL requires that football players pretend to be students for three years while playing in what is basically a farm-system. With the one-and-done rule, basketball players only need to masquerade as students for a single year before they can earn a paycheck in the pros. College basketball has basically become a hype factory for players who, before 2005, would make the jump straight from high school to the NBA.
I don’t mean to belittle higher education, but if you walked into any college classroom today and offered students a choice between finishing their education or signing a multi-million dollar contract on the spot, even the professor would be grabbing your hand and forcing ink to paper. The abstract value of a college education is not in the same stratosphere as the money these players will make in the pros (If only I had paid attention in my introductory science classes, I would fully appreciate that comparison).
But don’t confuse the NCAA for organizing these competitions out of the goodness of their heart. The NCAA is a business and business is good. College basketball is in the middle of a $10.8 billion contract, which will run through the 2024 season, just for the rights to broadcast March Madness. That doesn’t even factor in the regular season and merchandise. This easily catapults the NCAA into the top half of the Fortune 500 list.
For the brief time these college players are in school, the NCAA dictates the rules. Cries about preserving the virtues of amateur athletics, are coming from Mark Emmert, the NCAA President, not his players. Emmert, the biggest proponent of the unpaid student athlete, made over $1.5 million dollars as NCAA President in 2011. It’s like the old saying, “Why buy a cow when you can have hundreds of college players churn out the milk for free with the hope they one day can get paid for their milk producing abilities.”
There are no checks or balances on the men in charge of this operation and that’s how you end up with rules such as restrictions on cream cheese for complimentary bagels provided to student athletes. That’s how you end up with Johnny Manziel being investigated by the NCAA for writing his own name on football and helmets and possibly (hopefully) being paid for it. That’s how you end up with Shabazz Napier delivering this gem of a quote, moments after winning this season’s basketball championship.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you’re looking at the hungry Huskies, this is what happens when you ban us, last year, two years, we worked so hard for it, two years — ”
UConn was barred from playing in any postseason contest last season, conference tournament or NCAA Tournament, because their graduation rate was so appalling, it’s a safe bet most of the team couldn’t correctly spell “student athlete.” The night of the National Championship game, the man who banned them, Mark Emmert, was there to present them the trophy. Awkward.
“We do have hungry nights that we don’t have enough money to get food in. Sometimes money is needed. I don’t think you should stretch it out to hundreds of thousands of dollars for playing, because a lot of times guys don’t know how to handle themselves with money. I feel like a student athlete. Sometimes, there’s hungry nights where I’m not able to eat, but I still gotta play up to my capabilities.”
Winning the national championship may have given Napier the perfect pulpit the speak from. Days after his comments, the NCAA approved unlimited meals for Division I athletes. It’s a reminder that not all press is good press, especially when the breakout star from your own tournament is speaking out against how you operate.
It’s even crazier when you realize the Napier is a senior. Whether the NBA hadn’t caught wind of his undeniable talent or he truly loved playing the college game, it’s ludicrous to imagine an athlete of his caliber volunteering his time for a college team rather than reaping the rewards of being a professional basketball player. It’s the equivalent of an unpaid intern completing one year of service to a company and then deciding three more years without pay sounds likes a dandy idea.
So how do we fix this? Do we abolish the one-and-done rule and allow kids to forgo their education for a chance at glory and riches? Or do we require these athletes to invest in their education and stay in school longer, where programs can reap greater profits from their talents and athletes hope they don’t blow out a knee before they’re eligible for the draft? Or do we require the NCAA to stop hiding behind halfway measures like providing free cream cheese, and let these highly valuable athletes earn a paycheck as a student worker, rather than a student athlete?
The deal that most favors the athletes would be the dismantling of the one-and-done rule, coupled with the introduction of some form of payment for athletes that choose to enroll in school. This way, the sport’s most talented can jump straight to the pros while college athletes can still have a small slice of that billion-dollar pie.
The system that most favors the NCAA is the system they currently have in place. It could only favor them more by extending the time players must remain in college before turning pro, mirroring the NFL’s three-year rule.
But as I said before, the power to change all this lies in the hands of the people who benefit from no change at all. The fight to unionize at Northwestern may be our best hope for fairer conditions for student athletes, but that day still looks a long ways off, after a lengthy court battle, and prolonged court cases tend to favor those will deep pockets, not unpaid college athletes. The rules favor the rule-makers, and they all got rich making them, so why would they ever change?
These shouldn’t be the thoughts I have when I look back on this past college basketball season. I should be looking at my bracket and wish that I believed a little less in Duke and a little more in UConn. I should be in awe of the break dancing skills of that kid from Mercer or that earth shattering dunk from that Kentucky freshman in the title game. I should be watching that “One Shining Moment” video on loop and basking in what was one of the most exciting tournament’s in recent memory.
But, I’m not. When I should be enjoying college basketball, I’m focused on the money. It sure seems like what everyone else is doing.
At the end of the day, all this excitement and suspense is derived from a broken system that screws student athletes out of a dollar at every corner, just to put a few extra bucks in the pockets for the guys running the charade. Now that’s the real March Madness.