Home > Uncategorized > Arne Duncan, David Stern, and a College Hoops Education…

Arne Duncan, David Stern, and a College Hoops Education…

The NCAA tournament always brings a litany of stories relating to education, often in the form of how long NBA prospects should be required to stay in school and occasionally related to the graduation rates of top college basketball programs. This week’s tournament is no different.

On ESPN, two of their NBA columnists are going head to head over the NBAs age restrictions (sorry, requires ESPN Insider), meanwhile early last week the Secretary of Education made headlines by proposing (to the media) that college basketball programs with graduation rates below 40% should be banned from postseason play. Since these issues are on some level related, I’m going to tackle them together, starting with the latter and then tying it back in to the former.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is a former college basketball player from Harvard, which superficially gives him credibility when he discusses college hoops. He’s using that supposed insider status to attack the institutions whose graduation rates are floundering, which would be fine, except that in doing so, he shows an absurd ignorance about the purpose served by big time college hoops.

Right off the top, I am in no way arguing that education isn’t important, or that collegiate athletics shouldn’t be structured such that athletes have every opportunity to achieve a real education from their talents, but that has very little bearing on the majority of top flight basketball players who attend institutions like Kentucky, Louisville, and Maryland (three of the twelve schools that would be expelled from this year’s tournament under Duncan’s proposal). Most young men who attend these schools are doing so for one reason, to further develop their basketball skills in hopes of landing an extremely profitable career in professional hoops.

That’s their purpose, a basketball education. They aren’t there to earn one of those exceptionally useful History degrees, or to develop their math skills. They are there to develop their post-up game, to impress scouts, to hopefully be drafted to the NBA, but failing that to impress an overseas’ professional league. Is this any different than a world class cellist who attends university and earns a music degree? And what is the purpose of college? Is it the pursuit of academia, or is it to prepare young men and women for future employment? One could easily argue that the problem currently facing many educational institutions is that too many people believe it to be the former, when in reality it is, and should be, the latter.

Top flight college basketball, as opposed to say Ivy League basketball, is all about preparing kids to play professionally. In return for allowing athletes to hone their talents and display their abilities in a highly competitive atmosphere, the schools receive millions of dollars in revenue. This, of course, makes it an absurdly poor deal for the students, but that’s another fight for another day. Some kids earn professional contracts and most don’t, but that doesn’t change the fact that from the athlete’s perspective, that’s the purpose of college. Thus, when considering these graduation rates, Duncan has to include how many students left school to professional jobs in basketball, either nationally or abroad. Otherwise, you’re punishing the schools for doing what they are supposed to do. After all, nobody complains when technology geniuses drop out to pursue millions developing software, creating video games, or online social networking sites.

Then there’s is this, at some point each of these kids makes a choice about whether or not they want to continue their education. While the programs should probably have better support systems in place to ensure that the students have every opportunity to finish their degree, at what point does it stop being the school’s responsibility and become the players’? Without getting too personal, a few years ago I became disenchanted with the university experience and dropped out. While I eventually returned and finished my degree, because my graduation was more than six years after the start of my schooling, the qualifications used in the report that Arne Duncan is basing his proposal upon would not consider me “graduated.” Leaving school was nobody’s decision but my own, and despite the protestations of those authority figures in my life who would have encouraged me to continue with my studies, like Keyser Soze I was gone.

Complicating this problem is the NBA’s age restriction, which forces the very best basketball players in the country to attend one year of post-secondary school before being allowed to graduate to the NBA. This has created the hated “one and done” system. So, what should top college programs do? Ignore these kids who are talented enough to pursue professional employment directly from high school?

If you read my column from Thursday, you know that I have nothing but disdain for John Calipari, but his success is predicated upon the fact that he is upfront with kids about his goals. He wants to produce the very best basketball team every single season, and he believes that the surest way to accomplish this is to have preeminent talent every single season. So, he recruits young men like John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Eric Bledsoe. Both coach and player understand from the very beginning that this is a one year relationship. Calipari will teach these kids what he can, promote them as widely as possible, and give them his blessing when the declare for the NBA draft in June. In return, those three gave him a 29 win team that earned a number one seed in the tournament. That’s three guys who will not finish their degree, but who will find six figure employment before virtually every other student enrolled at Kentucky this year.

Duncan’s proposal puts these ‘one and done’ kids into professional limbo. If he is serious about his better than forty percent claims, then he needs to address the NBAs age restrictions. Ten years ago, I would have argued that David Stern was right that the NBA needed an age requirement. Now? With the success of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Garnett, what logical argument is there that allowing high school graduates to turn pro hurts anyone?

Who are the best basketball coaches in the world? Are they the college coaches who routinely flame out in the NBA? Or are they the world class, highly paid coaches employed by NBA teams? The answer, of course, is the latter. The players receive better instruction going pro, especially given the creation of the D-League, which allows NBA teams to send players to a development team for more playing time and closer instruction than they might receive with the big team. By contrast, consider that Duke is probably the top college program of the last twenty years. Yet, despite recruiting top flight talent, winning the majority of their games each season and having the great Mike Krzyzewski as their coach, Blue Devil players have a reputation as being professional busts.

Honestly, was the league worse off for having LeBron James drafted as an 18 year old? Was the league in some way more adversely affected by high schooler Darius Miles flaming out, than say sophomore Stromile Swift? Were the injuries that ruined Jonathan Bender’s career caused because he missed out on the “college experience”? No, no, and no. On the flip side, if Bender had suffered those injuries in college, would David Stern have paid him the roughly 30 million he earned in his star crossed career?

The NBA wants guys to go to college so that they can play at Kentucky for a year (or preferably two), become a star and then join the league. That’s it, that’s the reason. The NBA doesn’t have an age limit to benefit the players, nor to improve the skill level of teams, it has an age limit because it benefits the NBAs marketing machine.

David Stern might give lip service to how forcing athletes to attend two years of college better prepares them mentally to the off court challenges faced by professional players, but come on… Have Garnett, LeBron, TMac, or Jermaine O’Neal been hurt as people by missing college? Hurt financially? From a marketing standpoint? Really? How? Did Allen Iverson learn at Georgetown that excessive gambling was a surefire way to plummet into debt? Yes, Kobe Bryant was accused of sexual assualt, but then Ben Roethlisberger went to college and he’s been similarly accused. Besides, Tiger Woods went to Stanford and last I checked, that didn’t teach him that infidelity was wrong.

Finally, there’s this, Duncan is proposing to ban teams from the tournament whose graduation rates are low, which penalizes the kids who are still in school and could still potentially graduate, as opposed to the kids who failed to graduate. Exactly what purpose does that serve?

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