By Nate Jones
Len Elmore is a man I respect for his accomplishments on and off the court. He’s a rarity in that following his playing career he pursued and completed a law degree at Harvard Law. However, I must respectfully disagree with his comments in his op-ed piece for this week’s Sports Business Journal.
In his article entitled “Education Must Teach That There is More to Life Than Hoop Dreams”, Elmore suggests that the NBA should raise its age limit requirement to at least three years out of high school so that “hoop dreams don’t eschew young black males chances to develop tools that will last a lifetime rather than a short lived basketball career.“ Elmore believes that it is time to “practice more responsible paternalism and remove the pro option after high school”. He says that he doesn’t worry about the top prospects and that he “only worries about the thousands or tens of thousands of pretenders who without the riches of NBA stardom or the promise of an education, are left with few viable options.” His solution to this dilemma is to force kids to play college basketball for at least three seasons.
Elmore’s argument has several flaws. Most notable is his belief that NCAA Division-1 revenue generating athletes (football and men’s basketball) actually have the same opportunity to learn in a college setting as the rest of the students on campus. The honest truth is that most of them are not prepared to succeed in college academically due to the circumstances they grow up in.
It’s no secret that the top college football and basketball players often come from low-income, single-parent, inner-city situations. Students from those environments often don’t make it to college, not because of their misguided hoop dreams, but because of lack of opportunity and preparation. If they are accepted into college on an NCAA athletic scholarship (remember the key word here…athletic), they are expected to perform at the highest level on the court, and just get by off of it. This is basically for two reasons: 1) College Basketball is a big business, and inner-city blacks playing for top schools across the country are the main drivers of that business. With all the rah-rah about the NCAA, the schools, the administrators and the coaches wanting to see kids succeed academically, the bottom line is that the priority is on the court performance. 2) Even if the colleges wanted them to succeed academically, most of them wouldn’t be able to because the education system they were funneled through failed to prepare them to achieve academically at a top university. This has NOTHING to do with chasing a hoop dream and everything to do with socio-economic inequity.
The bottom line is that college football and college basketball are big business. While the NCAA and its members often tout the academic side of college athletics, there are far more economic incentives in place to keep the best players (who are often the most at-risk students) eligible than to provide proper mechanisms to receive a meaningful education.
But beyond the reality that most revenue generating athletes aren’t prepared for and/or aren’t given the opportunity to succeed on college campuses, Elmore’s suggestion that forcing kids to stay in school for three years will have a trickle down effect of getting more blacks to aim for the college diploma is just ridiculous. Again, low income, inner-city blacks aren’t failing to graduate from high school because they are chasing hoop dreams. They are failing to graduate from high school because many of them come from unstable, single-parent, low-income homes; grow up in rough inner-city neighborhoods; and attend run-down, under-financed schools, with overworked and/or uninspired teachers and administrators.
Mr. Elmore is correct to believe that education must teach that there is more to life than hoop dreams. However, having the NBA raise its age requirement is not the way to get there. If you’re worried about young blacks making the mistake of forgoing education at an early age in favor of focusing on an unlikely career of professional sports, entertainment, or whatever, I think your focus shouldn’t be on preventing surefire first round picks from becoming multi-millionaires (and uplifting their families beyond anything they could ever do for them with just a college degree), but on fundraising, lobbying houses of government, and reaching out to the inner-city to help open up more opportunities for low-income black males, so that the idea of achieving in the classroom and completing a college education seems more attainable than becoming great a professional athlete, a rapper, or in the worst case, a criminal.
Lastly, I must say that Mr. Elmore is wrong to state the Brandon Jennings “is neither a pioneer blazing a trail for other young men to follow nor a hero” and wrong to write him off as “simply another impressionable young man, susceptible to the hawkers and hangers-on who tell him what he wants to hear instead of what he needs to hear.” While no reasonable person is ready to anoint Jennings, he has every right to pursue his professional aspirations sooner rather than later. And Jennings may well become a pioneer. With his move, he's opening top prospects eyes to the opportunities to play basketball outside of just the NCAA, the D-League and maybe even the NBA.
There are only 450 roster spots in the NBA, but there are also many more opportunities to play basketball for good money all across the world. But because of the market power of the NCAA and the NBA, many players have limited themselves to the traditional path of playing for the NCAA for no money (while coaches, administrators, broadcasters, sponsors, NCAA executives, etc. all benefit financially from the system) and then fighting for one of 450 spots in the NBA.
But with basketball leagues continuing to grow all across the world, and guys like Jennings, and Josh Childress showing that it’s okay to utilize the entire world market, not just the traditional path of the NCAA and the NBA, you are going to see more and more opportunities open up for talented basketball players. While the NCAA is often slow to recognize and embrace change (mostly because they've never had serious competition), the (Basketball) World is Flat, as Thomas Friedman pointed out in his seminal book. Basketball is the fastest growing sport in the world -- and becoming more economically prosperous every day. In future years we will likely see more young men blaze the same trail as Jennings, especially if Jennings shows there is a viable path to professional basketball that does not include a pit stop in college and also provides an opportunity to earn money and get their families out of poor circumstances at an earlier date. The NCAA should either respond to this fast-changing world by letting go of its notion that U.S.-born players should be compelled to attend college for a set amount of years or by enhancing the experience it provides these gifted players.
Nate Jones is an aspiring sports agent and a rising 2L at the UCLA School of Law. You can read more of his work at http://jonesonthenba.blogspot.com/