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College Basketball: Desperately Seeking Clarity On Early Entry

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Stern wants to change "one and done" to "two and through," but convincing the league to give up something for it is proving to be very difficult.
Stern wants to change "one and done" to "two and through," but convincing the league to give up something for it is proving to be very difficult.

The Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy and I are walking almost in lock-step, these days. As the debate over the value of one year of college rages on in the commentariat, we keep getting mixed messages from the NCAA, and a lack of clear thinking from everywhere else. It's as if many people have just chucked reason out the door in favor of whichever stance makes them feel morally superior to everyone else.

DeCourcy's most recent column on this subject points out the difficulty Mark Emmert is having even expressing his position on the matter with anything even vaguely resembling consistency:

"We, the U.S. society, apply fascinating double-standards to that, because if a young man or woman comes to the University of Washington, dances for a year or two, and then the New York City Ballet calls them up, we say, "Isn’t that great?" We do!" NCAA president Mark Emmert said this to me roughly 16 months ago, at a dinner to introduce him to national basketball reporters.

"I don’t like the notion an athlete, a young man, would come to us and see us not as being a student at a university that is playing a sport, but as a necessary step that they’ve got to touch that bag before they move on. I think that makes it extremely hard with a straight face to say these are student athletes." Emmert said this only a few days ago, at a session with members of the Associated Press Sports editors.

Emmert’s message appears to be somewhat jumbled here. He seems to be applying the same fascinating double-standards to the case of the "one-and-done" basketball player as he mentioned on that night at St. Elmo’s. However, according to the NCAA, Emmert’s message merely is to underscore that those basketball players who choose to attend college, for however long that may be, need to be invested in the totality of that experience. That means attending class, doing the work.

Jumbled, indeed. In fact, pinning Emmert down is a little like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle -- it's impossible to figure out where he is and which way he's headed at the same time. He's like a cloud of Emmerts surrounding the nucleus of "one and done."

While I appreciate DeCourcy's intuition that Emmert is simply trying to say that the players must be "invested in the totality" of the college experience, I really do wonder if that's it. If so, I think he's in the right ballpark, at least.

What we all have to come to admit it to ourselves sooner or later is that anything short of allowing high schoolers into the NBA isn't going to please anyone who takes the position that when you reach the age of majority and are otherwise qualified, you ought to be able to apply for any job. Such freedom obviously conflicts with the desire of management for a certain level of maturity and experience, but an outright age limit is simply not in conformity with U.S. employment law, unless -- and this is how the NBA does it --it is done through the collective bargaining process.

While I might be sympathetic with the "they are old enough, let them play," argument, I am also sympathetic, as a businessman, to the fact that players fresh out of high school, however talented, are a much riskier investment than older, more experienced players, and we aren't talking about investing pennies here.

Related: John Infante -- A Healthy Sibling Rivalry

Leaving all that aside, what I am not sympathetic to is the notion that one and done guys compromise academic integrity at schools. I find this to be nonsense. Whether they are "invested" or not, they are exposed to at least a modicum of academic rigor at the college level. Now, that may or may not translate into future follow-up and ultimately a degree of some sort, but at minimum, a person exposed to a year at any Division I school is a more mature, better rounded and more educated person when he leaves, even if he is less than totally "invested" in the process. No, it isn't a degree, or anything remotely like it, but it does have value, and it betters the person, something at the core of every college's mission. In defense of this position, I offer this paragraph from DeCourcy's piece:

Kentucky’s APR scores reinforce John Calipari’s position that four of UK’s previous five one-and-done players completed their spring coursework before moving on to prepare for the draft, and the three freshmen leaving this year all publicly pledged they’ll finish their current terms.

I think this is the rule rather than the exception these days, at least everywhere but at UConn. College coaches have found it necessary to emphasize academics, at least the minimum buy-in DeCourcy talks about, as a method of self-preservation as much as anything else. While Jim Calhoun can withstand a one-year ban from the NCAA and Big East tournaments without breaking a sweat because of his outstanding coaching record, not every coach could make that claim, even at powerful basketball programs.

Who benefits from "one and done," and who doesn't

The question before us, really, is this -- Is a one-year college student better off than a straight-out-of-high-school person, both as a player and as a person? My opinion is, unquestionably yes. Is it valuable to the NBA management? Again, yes -- fewer failures sucking up big rookie contracts are good for the league.

Setting aside academics, is one and done good for colleges? The answer is also yes, compared to simply having no age limit. It allows some of these great young players to excite fans and draw more people to arenas, televisions, and apparel stores, all of which ultimately pay off for colleges.

So who suffers? Well, arguably the wunderkind players. By being forced to attend college, go to Europe or Asia, or spend a year flipping burgers, said wunderkind is being denied a large sum of money which he can, in all likelihood, never recover. It may be remotely possible that his improvement is so vast as to dwarf his draft position out of high school, but those situations are likely to be in the minority. So if one and done is extended to two years, does that really help the player by forcing him to give up two years of NBA salary?

It depends on who you ask. A more seasoned player is more likely to stick, and not spend his money on drugs, alcohol and women than a green pea fresh off his senior prom. But to be fair, Kobe, LeBron, and Kevin Garnet, among many others, were unbothered by temptations despite their tender years. DeCourcy thinks the players are better served in college, though:

It was disappointing to hear that Emmert told an assembled group of Associated Press Sports Editors, which included the Sporting News’ editor in chief, that he would like the NBA to return to drafting basketball players out of high school. This runs counter not only to the NBA’s best interests, and to college basketball’s—it’s also, for the majority, counter to the athlete’s well-being.

It's not hard to see that the group who benefits most from one and done or "two and through" is NBA management. Forcing players into two years of college would, on balance, be detrimental to the financial future of the prodigies in question, but at least they would get a chance to get a head start on a college education, something that has significant intrinsic as well as extrinsic value, as does the playing experience they get in college. Weighing against this is the chance of injury, flunking out after one year, or other distractions found on American college campuses as well as the aforementioned loss of income. Some of that can be mitigated by insurance, but not all.

NBA management benefits by having more time to evaluate players, a better read on their usefulness and skill, and a better judgment about where they belong in the investment pecking order. It may well benefit the NBAPA as well by providing better teammates and slowing the relentless advance of the "you're too far past your prime," calculations.

The biggest reason the players do not want to agree has less to do with moral positioning than it does with having a chip to play in bargaining with league management. By staking out a position against higher age limit, the NBAPA knows they have something league management wants, and the league has been reluctant to surrender anything for a greater age limit. One and done, although not perfect, works well enough that David Stern has not been able to persuade league management to actually bargain for it. He blames the players, of course, but the truth is more complicated.

The future

We all would like to know what the ultimate future of the one and done rule will be, and for the moment, it appears to be unlikely to change anytime soon. Stern continues to drive the issue, but the major stumbling block appears to be the same is it has always been -- top league management feels more strongly about the issue than the individual team ownership does.

Predictably, we are to the point now of talking (operative word) about forming commissions to investigate the matter further:

This isn’t the first time David Stern has went after the leagues eligibility rules, his team of negotiators tried to up the age requirement during collective bargaining last year but a deal couldn’t be reached with the players association. The NBA players association however did agree to form a committee to discuss an age requirement change which would come with some concessions from NBA owners.

Can you say, "Kick the can down the road," boys and girls? I knew you could. That's what this looks like to me, anyway. In politics, whenever something is popular with the masses, but not with the people in government, we get "blue ribbon" commissions that come up with ideas, issue lengthy reports, and help bury the issue under reams of paper and lots of lip service.

I suspect that's what will happen here, too. So if you are looking to wave "bye-bye" to one and done, I suggest you pull up a chair, get a cold beverage, and be prepared to wait a while -- maybe a long while.