Monday, January 28, 2013

(Back)Packing it In

By Corrie Trouw

Last week, Yahoo!'s Pat Forde stirred some interest when he dove into the seedy intersection of high fashion and college athletics. Following UCLA's big win over Pac 12-front runner Arizona, Forde noted that Bruins' freshman Shabazz Muhammad left the arena with a Gucci backpack, unlike the standard school issued bags most of his teammates sported.

Forde didn't have the courage — or, you know, evidence — to actually accuse Muhammad of violating NCAA rules in acquiring the backpack (later, Muhammad's sister tweeted at Forde, saying the backpack was a gift from her and offered to show him the receipt). But considering Muhammad missed the first three games of his UCLA career while being investigated by the NBA, Forde's implication was clear.

We'll leave Forde's lapse for 500-level journalism ethics courses. But he is not alone in the sentiment that was on his mind: Whether explicitly or subtextually, many people think there is something wrong with college hoops' one-and-dones. Are they right?

Eight years ago, the NBA instituted the rule requiring players to be one year removed from the graduation of their high school class to be draft-eligible. This rule has greatly shaped college basketball's place for everyone involved.

From the day they set foot on campus, players like Muhammad are different from their classmates and even different from their high-profile football peers. While the Johnny Footballs of the world have to play by the rules for at least two and a half years (the semester after their third season only matters if they intend to return), top basketball players only need to stay eligible for their first semester on campus before they bolt for a better paycheck. And really, not to be cynical, but they only need to appear to be eligible during the period.

The question of whether college athletes should be compensated is pure talk-radio fodder, a lightning-rod straw man often used to introduce semi-political topics like labor or wealth redistribution to drive the conversation.

But outside of those red herrings, the conversation often turns "the college experience." Many pundits glorify this concept, a magical process by which boys and girls begin their metamorphosis into men and women through their time, however brief, in college.

This may have been true at many points in the past, but the college experience for today's star athletes like Muhammad is more conducive to building a network than personal character. By the time elite players reach campus, they already have developed a collection of advisors, family members, and others to whom they are more attached than a coach or teammates they will spend six months with. Heck, even John Callipari gladly says he'd rather see his players get drafted in the lottery than win the national championship.

Other coaches have embraced the one-and-dones to varying degrees. Ohio State's Thad Matta and UCLA's Ben Howland have welcomed many and accepted the year-to-year ups and downs that come with roster turnover. Others, like Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina's Roy Williams, have augmented their programs with these players, but focused primarily on building a foundation from the next tier of talent.

But really, the one-and-done rule was created for the NBA's benefit. In short, the league grew tired of trying to scout 18-year-old players sparring with far inferior competition. In order to reduce the risk in drafting young players, the NBA wanted to see elite players compete in a more controlled environment if only for a season.

Perhaps some players that would have been drafted in the lottery out of high school have been exposed by a year in college, but far more remain question marks as 19-year-old draft picks. These players are often incongruent pieces poorly integrated into systems designed to develop players over the course of years, not months. Their talent is obvious, but wasn't that the case in high school, too?

The one-and-done system is broken for everyone. Personally, I would scrap the amateur model for the Olympic model and let players get paid as long as it is not by the school. But barring that, if quasi-amateurism is a requisite in any realistic plan, here are the steps to smooth the system for nearly everyone.

1. Serve the NBA's purpose and create a separate an 18+ supplemental draft aimed at players ready for the NBA straight out of high school. Selected players would go to the D-League, and if they get promoted to an NBA roster during their first two seasons, the franchise would give up a corresponding main draft pick. This would remove the cost of these riskier draft picks being busts, while funneling players not served by the college system to an alternative route. Meanwhile, the current NBA draft would be reserved for players 20+ (or two years removed from high school graduation).

2. This system would force a stronger commitment from the players who choose to attend college. Under this scenario, if a player chooses to go to the NCAA, it represents a commitment of two years. The price for breaking NCAA amateurism status is a "lost" two years, rather than a few months.

3. College coaches would be protected from the Calipari-style mass exodus, as well as the Myck Kabongo or Shabazz Muhammad hostage situations. Coaches at top-level programs have little choice in recruiting these players; after all, the year is divided into basketball season and basketball recruiting season. Having players for two years, including one full offseason, would bring added stability to programs. And in addition to deterring players from accepting benefits that would jeopardize their eligibility, this would lessen the blow of having a player sit out while his status is investigated. Losing the first 10 games of a season is brutal if a player will leave after one year; that blow is greatly lessened if, after his eligibility is verified, the coach knows that player will be back for another year.

4. Petty writers jealous of 19-year-olds' accessories will probably not benefit from this plan.

Even if players are eventually paid by the NCAA, those checks will pale in comparison to what they could make on the free market, either from the NBA or in benefits from boosters. If the current amateur ideal is worth upholding, any path forward must include two divergent roads to the NBA. Those uninterested in making the sacrifices the NCAA requires must be offered another route to the pros, and those who commit to uphold the NCAA's requirements must stand to lose more than a piece of one year of their young basketball lives should they stray.

Until then, we'll be stuck with grown men trying to identify amateurism violations through stylish Gucci McCarthyism.

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