The National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I men's basketball tournament resumes today. After the nets have been cut at the end of this year’s Final Four, after CBS plays “One Shining Moment” for the umpteenth time, another batch of freshmen will declare themselves eligible for the National Basketball Association draft after only one year in college.
The “one and done” trend is continuing, year after year. The numbers are the same, if not growing. Only the names are different this year: instead of Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo, and Derrick Rose, it’ll (probably) be Al-Farouq Aminu, Demar DeRozen, Greg Monroe and BJ Mullens.
Under a rule passed by the NBA and its players' union in 2005, elite basketball prospects are required to be at least 19 years old and at least one year removed from their senior year in high school in order to enter the draft. The NBA’s current policy essentially forces prospects, many of whom are ready to earn a living professionally, to play collegiately -- for no pay -- in what is essentially the NBA’s minor league system, the NCAA.
The number of college freshmen drafted by the NBA has risen considerably since the rule’s implementation: 2 in 2006, 8 in 2007, and 12 in 2008.
From the NBA’s standpoint, the rule functions marvelously. As prospects get national exposure and have their skills polished by distinguished collegiate coaches, the NBA doesn’t have to pay a dime. Its scouts don’t have to travel to obscure high schools; they can focus solely on the college and European ranks.
It’s not bad for the college teams for whom these “one and dones” are playing, either. One year of Derrick Rose propelled Memphis into its first championship game since 1973. And when the team is winning, jerseys and merchandise are selling, and fund raising, at least for athletics, is growing.
Despite the obvious benefits of receiving a superstar player -- if only for one year -- some college coaches are seeing big negatives. Tom Izzo, the head coach for Michigan State University, told Fort Wayne’s Journal Gazette that, as a result of the NBA eligibility rule, cheating in the collegiate ranks  is getting worse. Lute Olsen, the former head coach at the University of Arizona, told the Los Angeles Times  last year that the current rule with one-year players is “a farce.”
The rule has created a façade of moral purity in the collegiate ranks. People are to believe that these so-called “student-athletes” are receiving the genuine, untainted university experience. Unfortunately, they are not. Too many have as light a course load as possible in the fall semester and, regardless of course load in the spring, conference tournaments and preparing for the opportunity to participate in March Madness overrules the spring semester. This leaves the summer as a time to try and “catch up,” in addition to the unofficial requirement that players remain on campus to work out for the next season.
Moreover, not only is the rule hypocritical, it’s disproportionately harmful to underprivileged African American youth, who make up the majority of basketball players at big-time programs. By the time these young men reach college, they already know that the family’s economic burdens are theirs to carry.
Brandon Jennings, ranked by many as the nation’s number-one point guard recruit last year, recently bypassed his college commitment to play for Olson at Arizona, instead opting to play professionally for a European team, Virtus Roma. Jennings knew he wouldn’t fully capitalize on the university experience, so he made other plans. He chose a more honest path (to Olson's dismay).
In fact, he’ll probably get a better education traveling the streets of Rome than in he would have in one year on campus. In a recent article  in ESPN The Magazine, Jennings says he’s learning to be “mentally tough” across the pond, and that it’s “great preparation” for the NBA, as well as for life in general. “It's a big learning experience over here,” Jennings says.
Jennings grew up in Compton, Calif., in a single-parent home. Instead of playing collegiately for the Wildcats, he chose to start earning a living for his family immediately.
In baseball, an individual can declare for the First-Year Player Draft if he has graduated from high school. Players from four-year colleges can enter the draft only if they have completed their junior or senior years, or if they are at least 21 years old.
Why can’t basketball function like baseball?
The current eligibility rule will remain in effect through the 2010-11 academic year. When the NBA and its players union sit down to evaluate their policy choices, they should offer these young men two choices. If they are truly ready for the NBA, or if they need the financial support that comes with playing professionally, they should be able to declare for the NBA at 18. If they genuinely want the college experience, they should sign a two-year commitment to a university.
Although a two-year commitment is a far cry from actually earning a college degree, it does allow college basketball players to at least get a taste of the tangible benefits of higher education. The tangible benefits include improved academic performance as many more would be motivated to meet the rigors of their academic work -- even if only for eligibility purposes. If a player opts to declare for the NBA draft after one year, he does not have to be concerned with even the spring semester of his first year. They also will be exposed to more professors and courses, which might prove to be useful should they decide to complete their degree later in life after their professional careers or eligibility ends.
Let’s do away with "one and dones."
Russell T. Wigginton, vice president of college relations at Rhodes College, in Memphis, is the author of The Strange Career of the Black Athlete: African Americans and Sports (Praeger Publishers).