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NCAA Basketball: The One And Done Rule Re-examined

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Do two years in college convert a player from a "mercenary" to a "student-athlete?"
Do two years in college convert a player from a "mercenary" to a "student-athlete?"

Mike DeCourcy today returns to form after his strange column that reverted the Kentucky job to a head-scratching fourth among college basketball coaching positions with this piece on the one-and-done rule.  The one-and-done rule has been almost universally criticized by the sports press as well as by coaches, who either want to see the rule completely eliminated and players allowed to enter the NBA out of high school, or the rule lengthened to force players to attend at least one more year of college, and preferably more than one.

DeCourcy takes on one-and-done hater Bobby Knight's claim that basketball players need only attend one semester of college under the current arrangement.  The reality is, it has always been this way since the Spencer Haywood case back in 1971:

The problem with this stance is it ignores the fact there was nothing stopping a freshman player from doing the exact same thing before the age limit was in place. Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Luol Deng and Marvin Williams went pro after one season each in college, and that was before the 19-year age limit was in place. Whether they went to class depended on how much it mattered to them, and how scrupulously their programs policed the issue.

That's exactly right.  The new rule, legally allowable only because it is part of a collective bargaining arrangement, merely required players to wait one year past high school (and attain an age of 19) before entering the draft.  It does not, as we all know, require players to attend college at all.

Of course, college is the best way to get TV time and to get noticed.  Even though other routes such as the European leagues have been tried by players desiring to get paid immediately with varying levels of success, the college route is still the preferred way go go.

DeCourcy's point is that the one-and-done rule has been good for everybody, and objectively, he is unquestionably right:

  • It's good for the NBA -- Players entering the league out of college, even after only one year, seem to have better success than players entering right out of high school (see Brown, Kwame or Young, Korleone);
  • It's good for colleges -- there is no doubt that "one-and-done" players benefit NCAA basketball viewership and create a lot of excitement year round (see Durant, Kevin or Rose, Derrick).

The question remaining is, is one-and-done good for the players?  There are two schools of thought on this issue -- one is that it forces players ready for the NBA into an unwanted apprenticeship, potentially harming their market value and even threatening their future.  Another is that the NCAA crucible prepares players better for the NBA while giving them an out should they not be quite ready after their "apprenticeship" (see Jones, Terrence).  Both arguments have something to recommend them.

What the one-and-done rule isn't good for is the perception of the student-athlete.  This is the real basis for most of the complaints against the rule -- that it corrupts the purity of the college sport by introducing players into the game that have no intention of obtaining a degree, and are merely marking time until they are draft eligible.

Note that this complaint has little to do with genuine student-athletes.  The vast majority of people who go to college on athletics scholarships fit the definition and perception perfectly.  It seems extremely illogical to worry about the impact of the scant few who do leave after one year and ignore everyone else, yet everyone from coaches to athletics directors to college presidents take heat over the one-and-done issue from the press and activists like Knight, despite the fact that they have nothing to do with it at all.

What really bothers me is the prejudice implied in the criticism of the rule -- not racial prejudice, really, but prejudice that assumes a talented athlete, especially a basketball athlete, will not be a good student (see Knight, Brandon, Wall, John, and Barnes, Harrison) or have any intention to further their education.  As we discussed in an earlier article on the matter, nobody complains when a musical prodigy or entrepreneur goes "pro" early before completing college.  This seems to be a criticism reserved for college basketball players alone, and mostly because they are the only high-profile team sports athletes that can go pro after only one year of college.

In the end, criticism of the one-and-done rule is not based in hard evidence or objective facts, but in perception.  The facts are it has been good for arguably everyone concerned, but you rarely see that article (Mike DeCourcy's being an exception).  Further, are we really prepared to argue "two-and-done" makes all the difference?  Are we seriously going to say that keeping an athlete in school for one extra year converts him from a "mercenary" into a "student-athlete?"

This is the kind of risible absurdity that Bob Knight and most other people who despise the one-and-done rule would ask us to accept.  Everyone can accept an argument that more school is better, but if that is the case, why is not one year better than zero?