Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Stop the Madness

With March Madness nearly upon us, this might be a good time to reflect upon the effects of the "one and done" phenomenon. A couple of years ago, the NBA changed its rules so that rookies are not eligible until they are at least 19. As a result, high school players who would have gone right to the pros (think Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Lebron James) now must wait a year, and so most of them end up playing college ball for exactly one year before declaring themselves eligible for the draft.

Reasonable minds can differ over whether the 19-year age minimum is, on balance, a good idea. The NBA adopted it in part because it wanted (slightly) more mature players. Yet there are many reasons in principle to think the policy does more harm than good, aptly summarized by the Big O, NBA legend Oscar Robertson, in a NY Times op-ed last year. To be sure, the minimum age of 19 has been defended on the ground that it leads star high school basketball players to go to college for a year, where perhaps they'll discover that they like the idea of getting an education. Even if they don't finish as 22-year-olds, they might go back later.

There have been star athletes who, to their credit, did just that. Julius Erving (aka Dr. J), who went to U. Mass, is one famous example---although in the case of such superstars, the degree is more about a personal sense of accomplishment and being a good role model than preparing for a post-basketball career. Dr. J rightly earned kudos for persevering to get a degree when he didn't in any practical sense need it, but the policy won't do much good for the many athletes who ultimately don't make it in the pros, and as the Big O notes, those are the ones we should be worried about.

Moreover, it seems highly unlikely that a ball player who otherwise would have declared himself draft-eligible but goes to college to wait for his 19th birthday will learn much of anything in that time, unless he actually wanted to go to college in the first place (in which case the policy was largely unnecessary for him). The reason is that a student planning to go to college for only one year need not take his studies seriously. Failure to maintain a minimally adequate record would result in a player's academic ineligibility but not until after the NCAA Tournament is over, and by then the one-and-done athlete is, well, done.

So, on balance, I side with the Big O on this policy. Universities committed to winning big-time Division I men's sports (i.e., football and basketball) already field teams with only a tenuous connection to the larger student body. One and done removes even the pretense that a college's sports teams are anything other than unpaid professionals that are sponsored by, but not part of, the schools.

And oh yeah, and in the spirit of hypocrisy, don't forget to sign up for the Dorf on Law March Madness pool.

Posted by Mike Dorf


Jason Wojciechowski said...

I don't think it's at all clear that persevering to get your degree when you don't need it is all that praiseworthy -- it values a college education for the sake of it, and that attitude is part of the "education inflation" the country seems to have seen over the last, I don't know, 50 years?

egarber said...

I don't think it's at all clear that persevering to get your degree when you don't need it is all that praiseworthy

As a parent, I think it is indeed worthy of praise. Of course, any good parent won't let his/her kids live and die by what their favorite athletes do, but there's also no getting around the fact that these folks are role models. And it's a lot easier on me if my son happens to like an athlete who is also a well-rounded individual.

[Right now, his favorite is Tony Stewart. Assuming there aren't many NASCAR followers on DOL, I can tell you that Tony is a hot head. It would certainly be easier on me if my son preferred somebody like Jeff Gordon :).]

PS: My Atlanta Hawks are 9 games under .500 and a half game ahead of NJ for the final playoff spot in the East. Only in the NBA :)

Unknown said...

I don't think many serious basketball fans believe the new draft eligibility rules have anything to do with the NBA's desire for more mature players. The rule was driven by two forces: older players who were tired of losing roster spots to young kids drafted purely on "upside," and team executives tired of having to gamble on unproven high school talent just because you could fired for missing the next Kobe or Lebron. Taking a bust seems to look better than missing a gem.

Now that elite high school players have to play college ball for at least one year, NBA teams can better scout prospects and find out who will turn out like Kwame Brown and who will turn out like Dwight Howard. This has happened. Several players who were projected lottery picks out of high school have lost their draft stock after a year playing against tougher competition.

This has worked. Many high school stars projected to be lottery picks have lost their draft stock after playing a season of college basketball and returned to school.

Lastly, it seems difficult to claim that this rule further undermines the academic integrity of college athletics anymore than it already has been. College basketball was a minor league for professional basketball long before this rule went into effect.

Jason Wojciechowski said...

It's precisely because they're role models that getting an unnecessary degree isn't praiseworthy. Forcing kids to go to college because that's what kids today are "supposed" to do doesn't do anyone any good.

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