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