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Education or Professional Sports: Is it Truly an Adversarial Relationship?

The Kentucky starting five, declaring for the NBA draft.
The Kentucky starting five, declaring for the NBA draft.

David J. Pate, Jr., an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Helen Bader School of Social Welfare, has an article today for CNN International entitled, "Education vs. the lure of pro basketball." The article is heartfelt and thoughtful, avoiding the superfluous and hyperbolic sort of exposition we have been forced to read so many times, but still lamenting that so many young minorities abandon their opportunity at college in favor of professional sports, using the Kentucky starting five of Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb as the primary example:

I understand why [Kentucky's starting five] made the choice, but their collective decision says something about the options in front of all young African-American men. The Great Migration that saw my elders move from the farm to the factory has shifted; these days, too many men of promise move from college to pro sports.

Dr. Pate has a point here, although he is comparing two things of vastly different scope. There is no mass-movement of young black men into professional sports, because pro sports is simply too small to support it. While I appreciate the analogy Dr. Pate tries to draw here, I find it wanting for lack of comparable breadth. But for the nonce, let's accept it as valid.

Dr. Pate goes on to explain the frustration of young black men with the fact that they represent a very large group of the unemployed, explaining that data from a 2012 study shows that only 44.7% of black men in their prime earning years of 25-54 were employed. It should certainly disturb everyone that this represents a minority of the demographic.

Dr. Pate then goes on to make this point about an NBA career:

According to the Collegiate Basketball News Company website, only 51 players, or 11.9% of the players on the 2011-12 NBA opening day roster have more than 10 years of NBA experience. The average length of playing time is approximately five years and the median salary is $2.33 million. That's a big salary for one year, but not if it has to last you far beyond your playing years.

What he appears to be arguing here is that because players, particularly black players, are leaving college without a degree, that they are being exposed to a potentially challenging life because they will only make approximately $11.65 million during their career ($2.33 million x 5 years).

This is where Dr. Pate and I must part ways. While it's tempting to visit the land of admonishment (Almost $11 million dollars exposes people to financial ruin? Seriously?), I will resist in the interest of keeping this article as rational as Dr. Pate attempts to keep his.

Let's put this in perspective. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, lifetime earnings at various levels of education look like this, from a study done in 2000:

Level of education Lifetime earnings in millions
Doctoral degree $3.40
Professional degree $4.40
Master's degree $2.50
Bachelor's degree $2.10
Associate's degree $1.60
Some college $1.50
High school graduate $1.20
Non-high-school graduate $1.00

Amounts in 1999 dollars

Now, this data is a little dated, but I imagine it's still relatively close to the mark. What this points up is that there is no level of education at which a person can hope to earn over $11 million in a lifetime on average, let alone in five years. Even if we assume these players leave the NBA an accept the same sort of ordinary position that "Joe Average" possesses, his lifetime earnings will be vastly greater than even the most highly educated "Joe Average."

Even if these players never come back to school, as long as they are able to even modestly manage their money, they should be set for life with these types of earnings. I will take a "but to be fair" moment here and note that the NBA is by far the most lucrative of the professional sports, and it is quite likely that the windfalls in other sports, such as the NFL and Major League Baseball are not as large, although the median NFL and MLB careers are slightly longer.

Dr. Pate summarizes thus:

So, my heart breaks when I think of these young men from Kentucky. But it's not breaking at the choice they made. The sad truth is, I understand it. If you look out on a landscape where so many black men are unemployed, rolling the dice on the pros can feel like a rational choice -- the only choice, maybe, when there are so few options, despite the terrible odds.

I think Dr. Pate's lament is misplaced. A merely average NBA career for the UK guys will set them up for life, a life in which they will hopefully have an opportunity to come back to UK and complete what they started, but even if they don't, their choice in this case is not only understandable and rational, it is absolutely the smartest thing to do under the circumstances. Even if the player in question is not drafted and never plays a day in the NBA, he has at least one year of college with which he can quickly earn an associates degree or greater, if he wants, and live the dream of "Joe Average."

Unlike the average worker, the clock starts ticking on a talented athlete at a very young age, and a potential NBA player's lifetime earnings substantially erode with each year a player stays in college, according to a study done by the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business:

Faced with earnings restrictions, players wanted to enter the league early to extend their careers, Rosenbaum says. Doing that lengthened the portion of their basketball career not covered by the [salary] caps. 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 what would Dr. Pate's advice be to Davis, Jones, Kidd-Gilchrist, Teague, and Lamb? Would he advise them to stay in school for four years, and that a college education is worth $20 million at least, and almost certainly more in the case of a player like Davis? In what college, and in what specialty would that be true? The longer players stay in school, the shorter, on average, their careers are likely to be, and their career earnings shrink as well.

In what universe is a 5-year hiatus from college a tragedy? This is the question that I think many rational people would like to see answered by Dr. Pate, and those with similar views. While there are more benefits besides filthy lucre that accrue from a college education, why has it become de rigeur among intellectuals to demand that college be finished by 25, especially in the case of athletes?

Isn't it time we changed that thinking? Does anyone but me find it suspicious?