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.
Mark (pseudonym) walks into my office every day to practice reading and writing. He may be quick and athletic on the track, but in front of a book he is reserved and awkward. I am one of the learning specialists he sees, and when he first came to me, he could barely compose a full paragraph. Now, just a few months into his freshman year of college, he can write three-page papers that earn him Cs.
Mark will probably never be a Rhodes Scholar. He is not likely to attend graduate school and probably will not earn Latin honors as an undergraduate. However, as our few months together have shown, he is far more capable than his ACT score indicates. Because of his hard work and my colleagues' and my commitment to his learning, Mark has a chance to earn a college degree. He is on the verge of success, yet he is one of the athletes Gerald Gurney would have denied NCAA admission because Mark’s ACT score was too low.
Gurney brings up some important points in his Feb. 7 article, “Toughen NCAA Standards for Freshmen.” In college athletics, eligibility is often emphasized over student development. Consequently, coaches and support staff may be tempted to engage in academic misconduct to keep underprepared athletes eligible. However, Gurney’s proposed solution, to raise NCAA admission standards for incoming freshmen, would amount to nothing less than discrimination against the thousands of high school athletes whose urban and rural schools cannot provide them with the quality education they deserve.
Our college athletes are blessed with remarkable athletic abilities, yet as readers of Inside Higher Ed know, the vast majority of them will not become professional athletes. Thus, earning a college degree is their best chance to attain the kind of middle-class lifestyle most readers here find customary.
My fellow learning specialists and I are committed to our athletes’ learning, and we are trained and prepared to work with any athlete who comes through our doors, no matter how deficient his or her skills may be. Not all of them are success stories, but every year across the country, hundreds, maybe thousands, of athletes become the first in their families to earn a college degree.
If Gurney’s proposed solution were adopted, many of these athletes would be denied this opportunity. They would remain the high school superstars whose high schools could not — and whose colleges would not — provide them the quality education they deserve and, most importantly, are capable of attaining.
Academic misconduct may be a systemic problem, but the solution should not be denying admission to those most disadvantaged. Gurney is right to criticize the 2003 NCAA reform, but he is denouncing the wrong particulars. As Gurney’s predecessor Sandra K. Meyer suggested six years ago in the Phi Kappa Phi Forum, the problem results from the unintended consequences of the 40-60-80 progress-toward-degree policy.
According to this mandate, athletes are expected to complete 40% of their major’s requirements by the end of their second year, 60% by the end of their third year, and 80% by the end of their fourth year. Failure to comply means ineligibility. Consequently, while most college freshmen are sampling various classes and exploring potential majors, athletes are pressured to choose quickly the major of least resistance and stick with it. Athletes taking remedial courses, which do not count toward degree progress, feel this pressure most forcefully. The implied message is that eligibility is more important than student development.
When athletes are dictated which classes to take and when, as happens often, they become increasingly disengaged from academics, learning becomes all the more difficult, especially for the most underprepared. If there is a systemic problem of academic misconduct, it is not because too many underprepared athletes are admitted to college. It is because our institutions give these athletes the impression that classes are no more than hoops to jump through — the easier the jump, the better.
The solution is to prioritize student development and learning as high as eligibility. At the policy level, this means revising the progress-toward-degree mandate to allow athletes more latitude when exploring and changing majors. This does not mean returning to the time when athletes could take whichever classes sounded easiest, without any intention to graduate. A policy is needed that can hold athletes accountable for making progress yet is flexible enough to allow reasonable career exploration.
On the ground level, athletes must be granted autonomy over their own education. They must be encouraged to make academic decisions for themselves and supported along the way. Learning specialists cannot be the only ones emphasizing the student domain of “student-athlete.” Coaches and advisers need to communicate the importance of learning and development, too.
My fellow learning specialists and I have helped countless athletes become success stories. Our experience testifies to the fact that an ACT score does not reflect an athlete’s innate ability. However, our experience also testifies to the fact that learning can be either helped or hindered by the athlete’s educational milieu. The NCAA should maintain its admission policy but revise the progress-toward-degree mandate.
Where student development is a concern and learning is promoted, many of even the most high-risk athletes can succeed. Rather than shut out disadvantaged athletes from college athletics, we should welcome them into a culture of learning. Within such a culture, they will have a legitimate chance at success — without committing academic misconduct.
In college, the name of the game is learning. When advisers, coaches, learning specialists, and, let us not forget, the athletes themselves begin playing the same game, we all have a chance at winning. In this case, the prize is not just a trophy. It is the future well-being of student-athletes like Mark.
Bradley R.H. Bethel
Bradley R.H. Bethel is an assistant learning specialist at Ohio State University. His views are his alone and do not represent those of his university.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association plans to provide up to $7 million a year to member colleges whose athletes perform well in the classroom and another $3 million annually to help institutions improve the academic success of their athletes, association officials said Thursday.
For as long as there have been National Collegiate Athletic Association rules, there have been athletes desperate enough to compete, and colleges desperate enough to win, hunting for ways around the regulations. In no realm is the rule breaking more damaging to the integrity of higher education than in the association's academic rules, which now find themselves susceptible again.