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Kentucky Basketball: The New Definition Of Student-Athlete

Nobody who knows anything about Brandon Knight would question his commitment to education, one-and-done or not.
Nobody who knows anything about Brandon Knight would question his commitment to education, one-and-done or not.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's time.  In fact it's long overdue, and what I mean by that is that the traditional meaning of "student-athlete" no longer applies to college basketball players.  I sense that some of you out there are recoiling in horror from your machine as you read this, but as the old saying goes, "Denial is not just a river in Egypt."

Two different articles today take a look at this question.  The first is by Pat Forde of ESPN, who doesn't have a whole lot of credibility with many in the Big Blue Nation, but this particular piece does have merit.  It is all about Kansas 2010-11 player Josh Selby, and his trials and tribulations last season.  Forde writes:

The only reason Josh Selby was ever a college student was because the NBA's age minimum of 19 forced him to be one. According to media reports, he spent time in high school driving an acquaintance's Mercedes-Benz -- and he'll be able to get his own Benz soon enough. But in between he had to go through the mandated higher-education charade.

Forde is right, but to what purpose?  To beat the the dead horse of hating on the one-and-done system, already pulverized into protoplasm by every sports writer, coach, athletics administrator and educator in the land?  That hardly seems necessary.  This story could have also been written about Daniel Orton, and absent abandoning school before finishing classes, about innumerable players from almost every major basketball power since the rule was changed.

I would say that there is a consensus among college fans, administrators, university presidents, NCAA coaches and even the NBA management that "one-and-done" is a travesty.  That consensus has existed for several years now.

So the colleges, the coaches, the fans, the commentariat, and the NBA front office are all in agreement that the age of entry should be extended out to at least 20 and even beyond for the NBA draft.  So what is holding that up?  Only one entity -- the NBA players union, otherwise known as the National Basketball Players Association:

"We want to go back to the way it was," a source from the National Basketball Players Association said. "The players have always been philosophically opposed to it. The vast majority of players feel a player should have the right to make a living. If he has the talent and wants to make money to help his family, he should have that right. It's just a matter of principle."

The question is, what principle?  The principle that young men, otherwise unqualified for anything other than flipping hamburgers or other entry-level positions, should be able to go straight from the classroom to the hardwood without missing a beat?  That no apprenticeship is necessary before getting access to millions?  Well, it's an argument, and it isn't meritless whether or not I disagree with it.  We let 18-year olds die in war, why not the other side of the coin?  As I said, the NBPA's argument isn't meritless, it just doesn't seem desirable to most people, especially when colleges are lining up to give them free educations and place to hone their basketball skill.

Not only that, the NBPA isn't talking about the Major League Baseball system, either. They want to go back to having players come whenever they want to the league.  I imagine they would extend it below the age of 18 as long as a parent or guardian were willing to legally assist with the contract.

More from Forde:

If I were NCAA president Mark Emmert, I'd overnight a manila folder to David Stern labeled "Josh Selby."

As sympathetic as I am to Forde's argument, he is pointing the finger at the wrong guy.  You'd think a sports columnist of Forde's position would know that.  Maybe he just doesn't care one way or the other about getting the details right, I don't know -- somebody will have to ask him.

But that letter should be addressed to NBPA director Billy Hunter and not Stern.  Stern is on board, and has been for a long time.  I think it's high time we all stop blaming the NBA commissioner and start painting this scarlet letter on the proper forehead.

The second article of interest is this one by Jeff Eisenberg of The Dagger.  Here's the gist of his argument:

It's important to note that nowhere in these three parts [of Calipari's essay about a players-first program] does Calipari mention education, but then he would probably have to rename the program the "Student-Athlete-First" program.

The fact that nothing about education was noted doesn't really help Calipari's case against the accusations levied by Knight. If anything, it actually shows that Calipari's sole focus is getting players to achieve whatever level they desire in their basketball careers and not work toward their degree.

What Eisenberg and others fail to understand (or at least acknowledge) is that one-and-done has fundamentally altered the meaning of the term, "student-althlete."  Virtually every athlete of sufficient skill, as I argued here, is essentially a one-and-done.  The reason Harrison Barnes of the North Carolina Tar Heels and others are not one-and-done this year is primarily due to the uncertainty surrounding the NBA lockout.  But for that, they'd be one-and-done, too.

Barnes, Brandon Knight of Kentucky, and some others are all good students, so the Josh Selby missive does not apply to them.  But does that make them "student-athletes?"  Hardly, at least by the former understanding of the term.  Student-athletes these days earn that term based how many years they stay in college rather than by any other definition.  That, of course, has little to do with any actual commitment to education that these kids have.  Would anyone question Knight's commitment if he leaves this year, or Barnes if he leaves next year?  Not if they want to have any credibility.

So really, what difference between players and student-athletes?  The definition of "student-athlete" used to mean "a student who is also an athlete."  One-and-done has turned that definition on its head, to "athletes who are also students," i.e. players.  So Eisenberg's complaint is really a matter of semantics and a failure to acknowledge how modern reality has changed which word in "student-athlete" gets the emphasis. 

Further, Eisenberg's observation that Calipari's players-first essay "doesn't really help Calipari's case against the accusations levied by Knight" misapprehends what those charges were.  Knight claimed that the UK starting five didn't attend spring-semester classes.  Calipari's essay had nothing to say about those charges, and why should it?  Knights charges were manifestly false in every particular.

Of course, Knight's larger point does apply, that kids should stay in school, but neither coach Knight nor Pat Forde even seem to understand why the one-and-done rule exists, or even who is responsible for it.  That being the case, how can either be seen as a credible advocate for change?