Don't keep athletes in college who want to just play sports

June 30, 1999|By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.

I just don't like going to school." That was Jason Williams' explanation for why he left the third college in as many years to join last year's NBA draft. Mr. Williams just wanted to skip the charade and start making the big bucks, as 27 underclassmen and high school graduates are hoping to do in today's NBA draft.

Judging by the numerous scandals involving athletes and academics, Mr. Williams should be commended for his decision. Both he and the University of Florida won. Why should Mr. Williams and others go for yet another year of dozing through lightweight courses to remain eligible for their nonacademic scholarships?

Instead of tinkering with reform, it is time for the NCAA to wash its hands of big-time sports by ending its role as a training camp for professional players. The NCAA should declare a separation of academics and major sports.

I'm not optimistic, however. There is simply too much money to be made in "amateur" athletics. CBS paid the NCAA $1.7 billion for the right to televise the men's basketball tournament through the 2002 season. While exploiting the talented athletes, the NCAA skillfully wraps itself in the pious mantle of "amateurism" whenever someone offers the unpaid superstars an option.

The good news is that the NCAA, which offers scholarships for no more than five years, will soon have competition for those unpaid superstars. The National Rookie League for players ages 17 to 24, scheduled to begin play in June 2000, expects to pay high school graduates $25,000 annually.

New league

The Collegiate Professional Basketball League, open to players ages 17 to 22, will pay tuition and room and board for each of its players for up to eight years to attend the post-secondary educational program of his choice, a $5,000 signing bonus, a $9,000 annual stipend and a $3,000 annual bonus, if he is a full-time student, and a lump-sum bonus of $10,000, if he graduates in four years.

Not surprisingly, the athletes are being betrayed by the people they trust the most -- their coaches. "I'm not totally against" a minor-league, said University of Minnesota coach Clem Haskins. But he says athletes in such a system won't get a college education and may "wind up on the streets."

Not so fast. According to the June 14 issue of Sports Illustrated, 23 percent of the young men on Mr. Haskins' teams have received university degrees since he became Minnesota's head coach in 1986. On Friday, Mr. Haskins agreed to a $1.5 million buyout of his contract with Minnesota, even though university investigators have found no evidence implicating the coach in an academic fraud scandal.

Keen competition

It is simply not in the interest of college coaches to help young athletes focus on academic concerns, or to remind them that more than 15,000 players in the NCAA's three divisions are competing for fewer than 400 NBA jobs.

In most cases, athletes are kept eligible until they receive an unearned degree, turn professional or their scholarship eligibility runs out.

The argument that athletes will "wind up on the streets if they aren't given full scholarships" isn't made for baseball, hockey or tennis players. Baseball and hockey players are drafted right out of high school and spend years getting trained in the minor leagues. Tennis players often turn pro when they are in their early teens.

Some people, including NBA commissioner David Stern, have even argued that the NBA should shut its door to young athletes by imposing a minimum age requirement.

That would, supposedly, encourage them to stay in school and become better players. In reality, locking those players in colleges will further erode academic standards and pervert the educational mission even more. Players bored with school are more likely to sign up for the Continental Basketball Association, the home of many veteran NBA rejects, or play abroad.

If the NCAA wants to maintain its stranglehold on such young talent, it should at least allow them to play sports without going through the charade of attending class.

It could offer them scholarships that are redeemable at any time in the future. And it should allow boosters to finance the activities of the athletic programs. As it stands now, a player who is found to have accepted money, gifts and a job or even a meal from an agent or a booster is kicked off the team and ruled ineligible to play college sports again.

Instead of a minimum age requirement and other measures to keep a handful of athletes from leaving early, the NCAA and NBA should support a minor-league system to allow those players a chance to hone their skills without having educators hopelessly trying to force-feed them education.

Mr. Williams said he just didn't like school. He was speaking for a whole class of student athletes taking up space in institutions of higher learning. He's a dropout we can all learn from.

Casey J. Lartigue Jr. is a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a staff writer at the Cato Institute.

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