SBJ/20080728/Opinion

Education must teach that there is more to life than hoop dreams


Recently graduated high school senior Brandon Jennings opted to avoid the NCAA/NBA-imposed “one and done” rule and play basketball in Europe rather than qualify for college.

Jennings is neither a pioneer blazing a trail for other young men to follow nor a hero. He is simply another impressionable young man, susceptible to the hawkers and hangers-on who tell him what he wants to hear instead of what he needs to hear.

A player with basketball skills who comes from a disadvantaged background, Jennings was either undereducated in a system that has devalued kids like him or he simply didn’t value the education opportunities presented.

Not much separates Jennings from thousands of young men whose hoop dreams lead them to eschew the chance to develop tools that will last a lifetime rather than a short-lived basketball career.

Unveiled contempt

The advisers and a chorus of “one and done” rule opponents, like Sonny Vaccaro (the erstwhile grassroots basketball guru and now crusader against the NCAA and its brand of amateurism), don’t veil their contempt for the rule.

Vaccaro

Since the “one and done” rule was instituted, robbing Vaccaro (and others) of his previous unfettered access to the high school seniors turning professional that made him a successful shoe company icon, he has most vocally floated the idea of skipping college and going overseas. Jennings and his handlers apparently are converts of this new angle.

Others will follow. Overhyped high school players, most of whom won’t translate into NBA stars without the coaching and experience available through college participation, will take the bait, thereby forfeiting their college eligibility. High school underclassmen and even middle school athletes will forsake the balance and the promise of education and athletics.

Critics offer the current rule in college baseball as an alternative. High school seniors may opt for the MLB draft or wait until the conclusion of their junior year in college before becoming eligible for the draft. (MLB prohibits the drafting of college freshmen and sophomores.)

In our big cities, more black males drop out of high school than graduate, and more black males of college age are incarcerated than are in college classrooms. In this harsh light of compulsory education’s failure of African-American males, applying the baseball rule to basketball, where the predominant number of athletes affected are black, is a recipe for disaster.

Responsible paternalism

It is time to practice more responsible paternalism and remove the pro option after high school.

I never worried about the prospects of basketball prodigies. I worry about the thousands or tens of thousands of pretenders who, without the riches of NBA stardom or the promise of an education, are left with few viable options.

As past president of the National Basketball Retired Players Association, I saw firsthand the pain of failure felt by those who ignored education opportunities and either didn’t make it in the NBA or had a brief career in the game and now beseech for help.

How much damage, if any, would have been done if LeBron James had been required to go to college for three years or to wait until his college junior class was complete before entering the NBA?

Maybe the shoe company or the NBA marketing machines would have been forced to wait before exploiting his considerable talent. Those who make a living advising or otherwise clinging to a young star would have a delayed payday.

Jennings

On the other hand, delaying the emergence of a once-in-a-generation pro superstar for three years of college training would most assuredly have a positive impact on those followers who subsequently came out too soon.

In the “three years only” universe, those like Brandon Jennings would still be free to go overseas for three years. Of course, if there were to be a mass overseas emigration of high school seniors, sooner rather than later that marketplace would shrink.

Once the bottleneck occurs, there will be no choice for others but to find a way to college or to settle for a minor league experience in the NBDL, receiving fast-food wages.

Time of crisis

The utilitarian concept of removing the pro option until junior year might seem blasphemous in our era of celebrity worship and instant gratification. But especially in times of crisis, our society has often legislated for the greater good.

Young black men are in crisis. Every step taken toward eliminating the cause for the crisis is the right one.

It will take a labor agreement to make the three-year rule reality. The NBA and its players union can take a definitive stand to demonstrate that they truly care.

Sociologist, author and civil rights leader W.E.B. Dubois said, “Education must not simply teach work, it must teach life.” Teaching leadership is the primary goal of colleges and universities. Under the NCAA academic reform measures, the institutions must do their part better than they have done in the past.

The college experience offers skills that can eventually transform spoiled, aimless and sometimes rich athletes into postcareer autonomous and community-responsible leaders. The college experience will certainly teach that there is more of life beyond a European fling and a few years in “the league.”

Len Elmore is a former high school and college basketball All-American and 10-year ABA/NBA veteran. He is an attorney and college basketball analyst for ESPN and CBS Sports.

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