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Kentucky Basketball: Are Athletes Shortchanged by "One and Done?"

The proximity of the NBA draft got me looking around this morning for more "one-and-done" commentary, and I came across this article by David Jones at Florida Today.

The article essentially accuses coaches, John Calipari in particular, of doing harm to players who wind up being "one-and-done:"

The one-and-done rule is in its fifth year, requiring a player to be 19 before going into the draft. So rather than build stability and educate kids, coaches [Editor's note: i.e. Calipari] trying to win quickly and hold on to jobs have to spend countless hours chasing recruits who will only be on campus a few months.

First of all, I would point out that John Calipari isn't the only coach recruiting these highly capable athletes.  Many coaches who have had great success (e.g. Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Bill Self and others) also recruit these same guys.  Calipari's exceptional success, contrary to Jones' implication, is not an indictment of him even if his premise is true.

But is his premise true?  For answers on that, we will turn to the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, and their conference entitled "Turning Pro Young" in April of 2005.  The Wharton School of Business is a highly respected institution that often studies controversial issues as it relates to business, and their insights on this particular subject are fascinating.

First, the question of whether or not athletes are "short-changed" by the "one-and-done" rule.  The report has a perspective on the subject that I had not considered:

Others say that [NBA commissioner David] Stern is just trying to save money for his bosses—the owners of NBA teams.  "The pro leagues, especially the NBA, want to minimize labor costs and ensure financial certainty," says Charles Grantham, a senior fellow with the Wharton Sports Business Initiative and former executive director of the National Basketball Players Association.  "An age limit just is a way to reduce labor costs over time."  In theory, a limit would shorten players’ careers and thus the period during which their salaries could grow.

I find this point fascinating.  It unintentionally makes a suggestion that preventing kids from entering the NBA early costs the players money and puts it in the pockets of NBA franchise owners.  Making players stay longer than one year costs them, understandably, substantially more money.  How much more?  The report has an answer:

[University of North Carolina at Greensboro economist Dan] Rosenbaum estimates that a likely star sacrifices $70 million to $80 million (in present dollars) if he goes to college and stays for four years. Even an average player can lose as much as $20 million.

So to put this in perspective, a four-year degree can cost a player like John Wall as much as 17.5 million per year, amortized over the entire length of his playing career.  Maybe I am just a heartless pinch-penny, but $20 million or $70 million dollars seems like too high a price to pay for education, even at the best Ivy League schools, Vanderbilt, or Duke.  Certainly it is a very high price to pay for an education at the University of Kentucky.

The Wharton report goes on to examine a couple of cases where large numbers of athletes have defected early to the NBA from college, like the four North Carolina Tar Heels who left in 2005, or the three early entrants from the Duke Blue Devils in 1999 (I'm sure UK's current class would have been included had this report been done very recently).

Wally Renfro, senior adviser to NCAA president Myles Brand, put it like this:

Still, examples such as these are the exception, not the rule.  "I’m not convinced that this is the problem that it’s being made out to be," says Wally Renfro, senior adviser to NCAA President Myles Brand.  "Even if the number of kids doubles, I wonder if it’s a problem.  There’s nothing wrong with people taking the opportunity to make money.  If a kid leaves school early to go into music or computer science, we call it a success." [Emphasis mine]

Why don't we hear this kind of candor from the NCAA more frequently, or from the media?  This is exactly the argument we have made numerous times on A Sea of Blue -- college is designed to prepare people for success, and if success happens before a player or other student is able to earn a degree, are we going to say that the college failed its mission, or that the student/athlete should have stayed on and ignored the millions?

The report even suggests some solutions similar to what I proposed in an earlier post:

The NCAA could lessen the risks for young players by loosening its scholarship eligibility rules.  Under current rules, for example, a player relinquishes his right to play college basketball if he hires an agent or signs with a team.  An alternative would be allowing players more latitude to change heir minds and opt for school after initially entering the professional ranks.

This is really describing the current professional baseball situation, which offers scholarship money to players to attend college after being drafted with the understanding that the drafting teams retain rights to them for "four years plus one."  Obviously, the player cannot play college basketball, but he can play other sports.  This is exactly the situation that got Xavier Henry's brother, C.J., recruited with him as a package.  C.J. was taking advantage of the professional baseball scholarship money by the New York Yankees.

The NBA is not completely unaware of the inequity here, and intents to create more opportunity other than just college for players who wish to enter the NBA as early as possible:

The new collective bargaining agreement will create direct affiliations between NBA teams and teams in the recently re-branded NBA Developmental League.  It also allows players to be placed on Developmental League teams in their first two seasons in the NBA. Interestingly, the agreement also lets players enter the Developmental League at age 18, in other words, a year earlier than the age at which NBA teams may draft them.

What this is designed to do, obviously, is to ease the perception that college is the only viable option for a player coming out of high school who is ready to go straight to the pros.  The problem is, as the report points out, the player could almost make as much money flipping hamburgers at McDonald's as playing in the D-league, and it's also fairly obvious that not everyone would want to choose Europe or other foreign leagues like Brandon Jennings did.  It worked out for him, but we have hardly seen a parade of "one-and-dones" following him.

Indeed, it seems a much better deal for young players to spend a year in college where they will be adored and coddled rather than jump right into the cold, cruel world for a year.  That seems to be one of the reasons that the "one-and-done" players are still signing LOI's and going to school.

So it seems that the "one-and-done" rule is not only costing players millions of dollars (which, by the way, winds up right back in the NBA owner's pockets), but it is also being attacked as a bad policy because the players too often don't come ready to learn.  There are exceptions like John Wall, of course, but for every Wall, there seems to be a Daniel Orton, who eschewed finishing his schoolwork and hurt Kentucky's GPA and APR.

So should players be forced to stay in school for three years, as some have suggested?  I think it is hard to make the case for even one year, let alone three, and economically speaking, forcing an NBA-ready player to stay in college for even one year past his readiness is essentially stealing millions of dollars by disallowing him the opportunity to earn them.  This is not like baseball, where kids have a choice (and choose college only about 40% of the time, according to the report).  Basketball players are different, and the amount of money they stand to lose is dramatically more than that of athletes in most other sports, even football where 18-year olds are very rarely physically mature enough to take the pounding.

We could do with a bit more honesty on this issue, and less posturing.