From February 12, 2006: The problem with college hoops

On the John

The problem with college hoops

Originally completed on February 12, 2006

Greg Oden of Indianapolis' Lawrence North HS (far left) and Jon Scheyer of Illinois' Glenbrook North HS (far right) were two of the main attractions at the City-Suburban Showdown of 2006.
Greg Oden of Indianapolis' Lawrence North HS and Jon Scheyer of Illinois' Glenbrook North HS were two of the biggest attractions of high school hoops in 2006.

High school sports in America have always been a big deal for people with strong attachments to their respective communities, but with the influx of high school players entering the NBA over the past ten years, high level high school hoops have grown in popularity and notoriety.

High school basketball used to be a feeder into the college game, but now it is often a feeder into the pro game. In response to the growing number of players gambling their futures on their chances with the NBA, the league instituted an age limit this season. Still, there’s no slowing the natural progression of sports, a.k.a. business, and thus high school hoops are bigger than they’ve ever been. ESPN has been airing big time HS hoops games for the past four years, beginning back when LeBron James was still but a wee lad of a high school senior. This is wrong, the people shouted, but who could blame ESPN for wanting to televise a kid who, as a junior, had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated?

And it was that convergence of youth sports and national media that served as the catalyst for this past Saturday’s meeting between the number one hoops team in Indiana and the number one team in Illinois. It wasn’t simply that Indianapolis’ Lawrence North and Illinois’ Glenbrook North were the top two teams of neighboring basketball-crazy states; certainly this was part of the draw, but both states have top ranked teams every year. No, the interest came from GBN’s Duke-bound guard Jon Scheyer and LN’s Greg Oden, a future number one NBA draft pick. Oh, how the stars do shine.

LN defeated GBN 79-61 in front of a standing room only crowd of 8,494 at Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena. The stadium’s capacity is 8,117. Scalpers were making a reported $100 for $12 tickets, and after the game police and event staff had to lead Oden out of the gym and through the hoards of autograph hounds.

With national media attention now frequently being paid to the nation’s best high school players, the major problems facing college (and pro) hoops continue to grow. On a practical level, the high school super star syndrome is diminishing the quality of play in the NCAA and NBA. On an ethical level, the money produced by college basketball continues to make everybody around it rich except for the players on the court. And on a moral level, America’s basketball machine continues to exploit talent without paying mind to the social and educational well-being of teenaged players.

The first problem would be quickly and easily improved upon by the creation of a legit farm system in the NBA. This probably wouldn’t help the quality of play in the NCAA, but it would help lessen the number of academic scandals and suspensions that take place nearly every year.

The second problem is one that is often discussed, and there are basically two schools of thought. The first is that the players are already paid: they attend school for free. Tis true, yet no different than any other student who receives a scholarship. I am in the second school; to me, it’s a question of fairness. A student who receives an academic or musical scholarship does not generate the kind of money and publicity for the school that a big time athlete does. How the salaries would be determined is another question, but it seems perfectly reasonable that here in capitalist America, players should get a cut of the pie that they’ve helped bake.

But the third problem is the most abstract, and in turn the most problematic. The term student-athlete is an absurdity for many big time collegians; with the number of classes and tests that are missed, and with the lowering of academic standards and the use of illegal “aides,” college has become a toll way rather than a desired stop. I would like to say that the answer is just a full-on reversal of policies that “cracks down” on academic fraud, but let’s face it: money is the name of the game, and there is too much involved for big time schools to take the moral high ground by passing on athletes who don’t make the grade, so to speak.

My solution? Cut out the B.S. and accept the fact that big time college athletes have become separate from the rest of the student-body. Make class optional for athletes who receive a full-ride, and allow them to take advantage of their academic scholarship from their freshman year to five years after they leave school, the provision being that they maintain the required GPA. With this policy in place, athletes would be more likely to stay in school three or four years to develop their games and to mature as people, and they would still have an opportunity to get an education, if they so desired.

Division 1 football and basketball have become the unofficial fifth and sixth pro sports in America. It’s time for universities to face those realities and create new policies that support teenage athletes rather than exploit them.

Copyright 2006, jm silverstein

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