NBA rules — encouraged by the NCAA after Kevin Garnett famously opted to skip college and get paid in cash instead of tuition, room, and board for his talent — state that players must be at least 19 years old and one year out of high school before they can play in the league. The NCAA wants the NBA to make it two years out of school instead of one. The NBA brass is okay with that, but the players association is not, and for good reason.
For all the pious baloney about looking out for the emotional, educational, and physical interests of the players, the current rule achieves one objective for the NCAA: It feeds a steady stream of NBA-caliber players into NCAA programs. It all but forces multimillion-dollar athletes to play for tens of thousands of dollars in non-cash compensation instead. Extending the eligibility ban to two years would double that devaluation. But it would be a bonanza for colleges and universities, which would be guaranteed an extra year in which to continue compensating NBA-level players for exactly the same price at which they compensate the second-stringer who was given a scholarship just to fill out the roster.
This is the NCAA’s hope. Even Calipari says he is for it. (Of course he is; it would net him a championship.) But the flaw is obvious. Banning college freshmen from entering the NBA does not address the underlying reasons they want to enter the NBA: The league pays in cash, and it provides instant financial security. There is no reason colleges and universities could not do both of those. The NBA Players Association has suggested options for enticing athletes to stay in school, USA Today
has reported. One is to give them a cash stipend above the $2,000 now allowed. Another is to pay for their injury insurance. A third is to allow them to borrow against their future earnings. None of those is the same as paying a student hundreds of thousands of dollars to play basketball, but they would be important steps toward acknowledging that the issue really is not about academics at all, but economics.
The NCAA continues to pretend that the financial restrictions it places on its athletes are all in the athletes’ best interest. It’s the spirit of amateurism, don’t you know? Corruption, undue influence, and all that. But that’s as serious as a Dick Vitale catch-phrase.
The NCAA forbids its athletes even to pay themselves. For example, athletes are prohibited from trading on their own fame. They may not endorse products or print their own posters, T-shirts, or trading cards and sell them to the chemistry majors down the hall — or to the memorabilia dealer. This would be very useful for the majority of basketball players who become big men on campus but who have no NBA future. And yet it is forbidden, ostensibly to protect the students from exploitation.
While the students are being so protected, the universities, the NCAA, and the TV networks they contract with use the athletes’ performances, names, and images to make billions. The NCAA and the universities claim that the students are compensated by their scholarships, and of course by the quality educations they receive. Many are. But the best are not. Former Harvard player and current New York Knicks star Jeremy Lin’s pay for this season would buy 15 years of tuition, room, and board at his alma mater. That discrepancy in what the players’ skills are worth and what NCAA institutions pay them is why so many flee to the NBA at the first chance they get. If the NCAA really wanted to keep these young men in school, it would share with them a far greater portion of the revenue their labor generates. If Kentucky does not win this tournament, the odds are greater that the NCAA could take its first small steps in that direction.
— Andrew Cline is editorial-page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader.