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Kentucky Basketball: The Courier-Journal Says Intentions Should Govern Recruiting

This is an unsurprising sentiment from the Louisville Courier-Journal, but it serves as a perfect vehicle to explore the issue of "one and done" players further.  Consider this quote:

More important, however, one-and-done runs against the grain of what universities are supposed to be doing. Inevitably, some students will depart before graduation. But no university should seek out students, for any program, who have no intention of completing a degree program, and university officials should encourage students in good standing to stay in school. (Mr. Calipari counseled the freshmen to put their names in the draft, although he probably hopes some will be disappointed with the result and decide to return.)

Let's de-construct this bit of emotionalism (I hesitate to call it reasoning) and see if it makes sense.

The first sentence is unquestionably right.  Universities are in the business of educating people, presumably to enable them to better do the things in their life's work that they want to do.  Nobody is compelled to get a secondary education -- it is completely elective, assuming that the person who elects to attend college can afford tuition and is capable of earning the requisite academic credentials to enter and remain there.

The money aspect is instructive.  Colleges are a business.  They operate in order to make the money necessary to run the school, provide facilities, professors, and support staff.  Even if they are not exactly "for profit," and all their resources are plowed back into the school to make it bigger, better, or more desirable, it is undeniably operating for the purpose of growth and improvement at the expense of those who attend.

But then there are college sports.  When college sports were first begun, they were largely just intramural teams playing each other in their free time, after class.  As time wore on, more and more people became interested, then willing to pay to see college sports.  Sports scholarships were created, and we have now arrived at a place where college sports, at least some of them, are a huge industry generating billions of dollars per year in revenue.

Having established those things, what the Courier-Journal is telling us is that colleges essentially should not offer athletic scholarships to players who "... have no intention of completing a degree program ...".

I think you can easily see the problem with that statement.  Very few players, given this restriction, would tell colleges that it is their intention to attend school only for as long as it takes them to get noticed and drafted by the professional leagues.  But that is exactly the true intention of almost all college athletes in the "revenue" sports.  Almost every one of them would gladly sacrifice whatever college eligibility they have left if they were sure to be drafted by the professional sports leagues.  The few that would not are outliers -- there are no rules without exceptions.

So assuming we could hook up every prospective student athlete to an infallible lie detector and ask him/her, "Will you eschew the professional sports leagues and finish your education?", I'd be willing to bet that 95% who could be subject to earning millions of pro dollars would either answer "No" or be caught in a lie.

Does the Courier-Journal really believe what they say?  The number of players that have eventually come back to finish their college careers, however brief their initial college experiences were, after leaving early for the professional leagues far exceeds the number who have done so without any exposure to college at all.  That may be cold comfort, but it is comfort nonetheless.

Implicit in this argument is that colleges should reject otherwise qualified athletes who intend to leave school if they become viable candidates for the professional leagues.  So then, what is to happen to these young men and women?  Are they to work at a local McDonalds until they are old enough to be eligible?  Travel overseas and try to play there?  Play for the D-league?  What?  The Courier-Journal doesn't say, but I say that would look very bad for universities to have such a policy.  It would send the message that a college education is more important than success, and that education, not the life goals a college education enables, is of paramount importance.

Is it ethical of a college coach who knows one or more of his charges are ready to be drafted in to a professional league to advise him to  stay in school, ignoring the injury risk that might make them unable to realize their dream (financially and otherwise) to play professional sports?  That seems not only a stretch, but a major ethical reach.

Encouraging an athletic talent sure to make millions to delay those millions (and their dreams) to stay in school and obtain a degree that will have the potential to earn them only a fraction of what they can make as a professional athlete seems unethical to me.  College educations do not come with a time limit, or an expiration date.  Professional sports do, although it does vary from player to player.  Education is not an end in itself, for most people -- it is a means to an end, and if a better means to that end shows up mid-stream, should we advise him or her not to take advantage of it?  Bill Gates?  Bueller?  Anyone?

I don't want you to think that I am unhappy with the Courier-Journal, or that I don't share their desire to see every student athlete get a college education.  I am also sympathetic with their argument that "one and done" players are not consistent with the mission of an academic institution. 

But the reality is, college athletics became incompatible with the mission of universities back in the 1970's.  That the incompatibility has become wider and wider ever since is both predictable and regrettable in some ways, but to throw out the baby with the bath, or behave in an ethically challenged way as the C-J seems to suggest is not the answer.