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March Madness 2014: Should NCAA stars stay in school?

marchmadness 600Starting in the middle of March every year, America's attention is focused squarely on March Madness. Sports – and non-sports fans alike – are tuned in to every bit of news around the tournament in hopes it leads to lucrative bracket paydays.

And in the middle of March each year, there's another story that doesn't get nearly the same attention as the tournament. This week, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida issued its annual report examining the graduation rates of all of the schools participating in the tournament.

Some highlights of this year's report include:
• Eight teams in the 2014 men's bracket fall below the NCAA-mandated Academic Progress Rate (APR) score, meaning they graduate less than 50 percent of their players.
• The Graduation Success Rates (GSR) for white players was 89 percent. The GSR for African-American players was 65 percent.
• Nearly 40 percent of tournament teams had a GSR disparity greater than 30 percent between their white and African-American players.

The findings, unfortunately, aren't all that surprising, and are similar to findings in previous reports. It's not a shock to learn that many black players attend colleges to major in basketball, intern at the NCAA tournament, and get their first job in the NBA.

That mindset has been on full display ever since the "one-and-done" rule was put into effect in 2006. Players and coaches no longer hide their intentions – the top players go to a high-profile school (i.e. Kentucky, Kansas, etc.), showcase their talent to a national audience for a year, and bolt for the NBA Draft. The player never had an intention to take advantage of a free education. The coach never expected to have the player as a building block for the next several years.

The rule has had negative effects for both the college game and the NBA. New NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has expressed a desire to set a minimum age to enter the NBA at 20 (it's currently 19). The rule can't be negotiated until 2017 at the earliest.

Raising the minimum age would force players to attend college for probably two years, at least. That would help colleges build a program. It also could, in theory, entice a student to stay long enough to graduate, or at least earn enough credits for it to be realistic to get a diploma even after leaving early to enter the NBA.

It's a nice thought to think the NBA is doing this as a way to help college athletics, and to encourage students to take advantage of a great opportunity for a free education. Of course, that's not the case. Forcing kids to go to school for two years ensures that the players that come into the league are better prepared to handle the NBA game, and better the NBA product. It also allows fans to follow college players better, which helps the league market those players.

It's doubtful the rule change would actually have an effect on graduation rates. It's not the number of years a player goes to school; it's that kid's overall mentality for wanting to be there.

If the kid is using school as a stopgap between high school and college, and is only attending to get better at basketball, having to stay another year in school won't have any affect on whether he takes school seriously and graduates. If graduation rates were really all that important – and college basketball wasn't just big business for everyone excluding the players – it's hard to believe that taking them out of class for weeks to play in conference tournaments and travel to the NCAA tournament is promoting the importance of education.

Silver is right that the one-and-done rule is a joke, and essentially makes a mockery of college athletics. But raising the age limit isn't the answer either. Some of the best players in the game – LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Anthony Davis, Kevin Garnett, Derrick Rose, and more – either played in college for one year or left right from high school.

If NBA general managers – positions only 30 people in the world are able to hold – can't help themselves from drafting a player not ready to contribute, that's on them. If a kid who comes from a bad situation can become a millionaire, he should be allowed to. And he shouldn't have to take a scholarship from a kid who actually needs it by going through the motions of attending college.

Instead, if a player is ready right out of high school, he should be able to enter the draft, regardless of age. If he doesn't want to go to school, but also isn't ready for the draft, let him join an NBDL team or play oversees for a few years before entering. Then, if a kid decides to go to college, make it a three-year commitment to stay with the program.

With this new rule, if a kid commits to play college basketball, he is actually making the choice that he wants to be there. Those are the kids who should be playing in college. Those are the kids college coaches can build around. Those are the kids who know they may not have a post-college career in the pros.

And ultimately, those are the kids who are interested in getting college diplomas.

NOTE: The TIDES study of Academic Progress Rates puts Memphis in a second-place tie behind Kansas.

(Follow Stefen Lovelace on Twitter @StefenLovelace.)

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