Friday, May 16, 2008

Amateur Hour At The NCAA

Yesterday I read a column about the O.J. Mayo scandal at USC. The writer claimed that the NCAA abuses athletes and uses them for their own financial gain, as do the universities. And the NBA is unfair in forcing them to wait at least one year after high school before being drafted or signed. It wasn't Mayo's fault, the writer claimed, because he only allegedly accepted benefits that he rightfully deserved.

Since this Mayo case hasn't been proven to be true yet, I won't use that example because typing "allegedly" that often is annoying. Instead I will discuss a fictional basketball player named D.J. Mustard who attended the unusually and suspiciously named fictitious University of Sneaky Cheaters (also known as USC). Let's say Mustard was a star in high school who would have gone pro after graduating if it had not been for the NBA's one-year out rule.

First of all, is it age discrimination that the NBA has this rule? No, because they don't say you cannot work in the profession, they just say they won't hire you. If a young person wants to be a professional basketball player (or football player) right out of high school, he can go find work at leagues around the world, just not immediately in the NBA or NFL. They could also sit at home and play video games or work at McDonalds for a year if they wanted.

Mustard has scholarship offers thrown at him from around the country but chooses USC because it is in L.A. and his media exposure will be better there than most places. Through the course of his one year there, he accepts various gifts and cash totalling somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000. In the grand scheme of things, it is not that much money, but it is illegal and he is caught.

Mustard is smeared in the press (pardon the pun), but that is the most negative consequence that comes his way. However, USC received sanctions from the NCAA because this is not (close to) the first such violation in the last few years and it is ruled that they have a lack of institutional control. They lose scholarships and are banned from postseason play for three years.

So the only people punished are the coaches and administrators who did not do anything wrong, but also did not stop bad things from happening, and an entirely different group of kids that have nothing to do with it. Mustard walks, and more importantly the adults who handled him and used him despite knowing it was illegal walk.

This situation is a mess and needs to be fixed, but where do we start? Clearly the universities need to do more to keep these things from happening, but there is only so much they can know is happening. We can make the players pay back all the money (or donate the value to charity) but what lesson does that teach: you can cheat as long as you get ahead and then when you are rich, you can just pay your way out of it. Or we can crack down on the agents, coaches, parents, friends, boosters and confidants that are the real guilty ones. Take away part of the rookie's salary (which takes away part of the offending agent's commission), but they won't bat an eye since they'll make it all next year anyway.

Should the NCAA allow universities to pay athletes so they won't be tempted to take money under the table? Should we cling to the idea that college athletes must be amateurs? Isn't calling them "student-athletes" a sham anyway? Should the NBA start drafting kids at whatever age they feel like it? Should Mustard be excused because he is a star and stars get star treatment?

College athletics have become a business. A huge business. But ultimately, they are still extracurricular activities offered by schools. Perhaps it is the former teacher in me, but I tend to think that education in general is a good thing. Perhaps the NBA, fans, sports industry and media can scoff at the education side of it all, but the universities cannot. Their reasons for being are to educate young people in order to improve the lot of all of us. Every concession they make against that mission hurts our society.

Yes, the schools make money off of the athletes' exploits, and they reinvest that money into their facilities, programs (athletics and otherwise), staff and into the kids themselves. Those kids are given free educations. This fictional USC that I created, like most real schools, offers free tuition scholarships, free housing, free books, free meal plans, free career counseling, and free tutoring to athletes. Add that all up and it is more than the average American's annual salary. So they do pay their athletes.

People say that that is great but the kids have no money for their social lives. So get a job. People say they can't get jobs because they have practice and school. School is about 3 hours a day. Practice, weights, the trainers, etc. is about 3-4 hours a day. You sleep about 8 hours a day. That leaves around nine hours a day for meals, homework and whatever else. If you have time to go to a movie and hang out with friends some days; you have time to work to pay for it on other days. I am a lazy bastard and I was a four-year college athlete, graduated in four years, worked 5-15 hours a week and was active in the student government and university ministry.

Are the NCAA's illegal benefits rules a little too sweeping? Should it really be illegal for a student trainer to buy a birthday present for an athlete she met in the training room and became friends with? Perhaps not, but that is the way laws work too. Stealing a candy bar is not as great an offense as stealing a car, but either way it is still stealing right? A line has to be drawn somewhere and they drew that line.

Is the NBA's age rule just a way to make colleges make more money because the stars bolt for the pros? Do you really think the NBA would rather have another institution making boatloads of money instead of themselves if it did not benefit them somehow? It benefits the NBA because teams have a far more realistic understanding of a players' abilities before they sign him to multi-million dollar contracts. And if the kids go to five classes in the first semester and then drop out once the season ends, at least they went to five college classes. The alternative is opening the doors and letting NBA teams draft sophomores in high school thus insuring their utter failures in life once their three-year NBA careers are over.

So is Mustard at fault for taking the money? Absolutely. So are all the people who gave it to him and those who turned a blind eye. Is the NBA wrong for insisting on getting an extra year to scout its prospective employees? Absolutely not. Teams can offer contracts to whomever they want whenever they want, just like any other business. Is the NCAA wrong for insisting upon amateurism? Absolutely not. They are students who play sports, nice visa versa.

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