I experienced some rough emotions rooting for my alma mater, the University of Kentucky, during the NCAA tournament. Partly because of the close games and come-from-behind wins, and partly because of their one-and-done reputation under Coach John Calipari. The media contrasted UK’s likely NBA-bound freshmen and UConn senior Shabazz Napier, who remained a Huskie to earn his degree as a promise to his mother. It’s what made March maddening for me.
Calipari tried to spin the phenomenon as “succeed and proceed,” but let’s face it: too many players take scholarships and step across the NCAA stone to the pros, while governing authorities enable one-and-done. The increased use of colleges as a springboard to the pros sends the wrong message to those who would be better served earning a degree rather than dreaming of an NBA career. As the NBA contemplates extending the draft age from 19 to 20, others could step up to hold these so-called student athletes to their label.
The NCAA, individual conferences, or the colleges could establish policies that would encourage players to earn a diploma. Scholarships could be conditional upon recruits earning at least an associate’s degree, even if over three or four years. This basic degree may not be the optimum fallback, but it would satisfy an academic goal. It would also serve as the player’s appreciative nod to the educational institution that enabled their NBA draft status. Colleges could contractually require those players who fail to earn the most basic degree to return the scholarship. As the NBA contemplates a 20-year age limit to enter the league, perhaps it should consider modeling after Major League Baseball’s formula. Baseball stars can enter the pros at age 18, but if they go to college, they must wait until their twenty-first birthday to suit up. Pro basketball could mandate an 18-or-degree rule. This would allow the NBA-ready LaBrons to sign out of high school, but would partially remove the campus as a warm-up for an uncertain career.
Money also talks. The NCAA is a multi-million dollar, ‘non-profit’ industry that sacrifices students for profits. College sport has been recently characterized as a “plantation,” a “pimp,” and “whoremasters”—such labels come from a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, a former coach, and a past NCAA commissioner. As much as I have scoffed at the idea of paying student athletes, the NCAA’s cash could be better-well spent enticing more players to continue school and to earn degrees. Though scholarships total well into thousands of dollars, players lack personal funds for parent travel to games and general pocket cash. The bright dollar signs at draft time could be dimmed with a reasonable stipend for players, food, and mom and dad’s airfare. And, who could blame a franchise player for signing a professional contract rather early in fear of a career-ending injury. The NCAA could invest greater dollars in insurance that might force some players to consider the virtues of another season in college basketball.
I hope it’s not too idealistic to expect these institutions to create rules to turn scholarships into degrees. Such an endeavor would improve college basketball, improve NBA play, and improve players’ long-term careers in the pros. Let’s put the “C” back into the NCAA and be done with one-and-done. It gives me pause that since losing the championship game several Kentucky freshmen have promised to stay another year. Whether or not they return to the final dance next year, they will have learned more.
David Wolfford teaches government and politics in Cincinnati.