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51


L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 51, July 15, 1999

End Education Charade of College Basketball

by Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
cjl@cato.org

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

           "I just don't like going to school." That's Jason Williams' explanation for leaving the University of Florida early to join last year's NBA draft. Williams, now with the Sacramento Kings, just wanted to skip the educational charade, as 27 underclassmen and high school graduates will do in today's NBA draft.
           Judging by the numerous scandals involving athletics and academics, both Williams and the University of Florida won. Why should Williams and others doze through lightweight courses to remain eligible for their nonscholarly 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. It 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. The NCAA skillfully wraps itself in the pious mantle of "amateurism" whenever someone offers the unpaid superstars an option.

Options soon available

           The good news is that those unpaid superstars soon will have options. The National Rookie League for players ages 17 to 24, scheduled to begin play in June 2000, expects to pay high school graduates about $20,000 annually. The Collegiate Professional Basketball League, open to players ages 17 to 22, will pay tuition, room and board for a player for up to eight years, a $5,000 signing bonus, a $9,000 annual stipend, a $3,000 annual bonus if he is a full-time student, and a $10,000 bonus if he graduates in four years.
           But former Minnesota coach Clem Haskins says he's "totally against" separating academics and athletics. He 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% of the young men on his teams received their degrees during his 13-year tenure that, thankfully, ends today. The university bought out his contract for $1.5 million three months after it was learned that a university staffer had -- with Haskins' consent -- ghostwritten more than 400 papers for players.

Why full scholarships?

           Haskins is gone, for now, but he is not a unique figure in the NCAA world. His 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 to play in the minor leagues. Tennis players often turn pro in their early teens.
           At the least, the NCAA should allow the youngsters 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, a job or even a meal from an agent or a booster is kicked off the team and ruled ineligible to play again.
           Instead of imposing a minimum-age requirement, as suggested by NBA commissioner David Stern, to keep some athletes from leaving early, the NCAA and NBA should support a minor-league system to allow 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 dropout we all can learn from.


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


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