Commentary

Honorable Dropouts

By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
This article appeared in USA Today on June 30, 1999, the Education Policy Institute on July 16, 1999, the Libertarian Enterprise on July 15, 1999, the Palm Beach Post on July 6, 1999, the Korea Times
“I just don’t like going to school.” That’s Jason Williams’s explanation for why he left the third college in as many years to join last year’s NBA draft. Williams just wanted to skip the charade and start making the big bucks, as 39 underclassmen and high school graduates are hoping to do in this year’s June 30 NBA draft.

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

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. Given what the athletes receive in return, the NCAA should be experiencing the kind of labor dispute the NBA experienced last 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 aged 17 to 24, scheduled to begin play in June 2000, expects to pay high school graduates $55,000 annually. The Collegiate Professional Basketball League, open to players aged 17 to 22, will pay tuition, 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, 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 totally against it,” says Minnesota coach Clem Haskins who warns that many of the players “don’t make it and wind up on the streets, and nobody writes about them.” He should know. According to the June 14 issue of Sports Illustrated, only 23 percent of the young men on his teams have received university degrees since he became Minnesota’s head coach in 1986. His program has been under investigation since March when it was revealed that Haskins knew that a university staffer had ghostwritten more than 400 papers for players between 1993 and 1998.

It is simply not in Haskins’ interest 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. Haskins is not a unique figure in the NCAA world. In most cases athletes are kept eligible until they receive an unearned degree, turn pro, 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. This will, supposedly, encourage them to continue their educations as well as make them 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 start playing abroad.

If the NCAA wants to maintain its stranglehold on the youngsters, 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.

Williams said he just didn’t like school. He was speaking for a whole class of athlete-students taking up space in institutions of higher learning. He’s a drop-out we can all learn from.

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