Commentary: So What If Basketball Players Are Skipping College?

By Darnell Little

After four of the National Basketball Assn.'s top eight draft picks this year came straight out of high school--including No. 1 selection Kwame Brown--sportswriters, college coaches, and even some NBA brass began a furious bout of hand-wringing and sound-bite moralizing: How awful it is, they said, that these athletes are skipping a valuable college education to jump into the pros.

"N.B.A. Continues Youth Trend, picking Schoolboys No. 1 and 2," read the disapproving front-page headline in The New York Times. The lead sentence was even more pointed: "Going to college may be a time-honored path to success in many professions, but apparently not in the National Basketball Association." In fact, the NBA is so concerned about the number of high schoolers and college underclassmen taking a shot at the draft that NBA Commissioner David Stern is stumping for a minimum age requirement of 20 years.

SERMONS. But why do you need a degree to play pro basketball, any more than you need one to be a plumber or a Web designer or the world's richest man? If a high school player has the goods and if the marketplace is demanding his talent, why shouldn't he go pro? Baseball, hockey, and tennis have employed teenagers for years, with few voices raised in opposition. In this year's Major League Baseball draft, 8 of the top 20 picks came from the prep ranks, including No. 1 Joe Mauer. Why is basketball singled out for such sermonizing?

One reason: self-interest on the part of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. and the sports media in preserving the college farm system. College hoops is a big-time spectator sport with a lucrative TV deal. This year's NCAA men's championship drew 24 million viewers. By comparison, 16 million watched baseball's 2001 All-Star Game. Clearly, the NCAA feels threatened as top players leave college early, or skip it. "The NCAA is concerned about losing a lot of that revenue if athletes don't go to college and instead play for the NBA," says Bruce Stern, president of the National Rookie League, a Maryland-based independent basketball minor league that hopes to be a springboard for players aspiring to the NBA.

Another reason for the finger-pointing at basketball may be race. The sight of mainly African Americans walking away from college to chase millions in the pros is more disturbing to some than the sight of white athletes doing it. Why? Opportunities in the pros are rare, and some say Brown and others send a destructive message to black youth: Pursue riches in sports instead of in education. "It's a kind of warped paternalism," says Richard H. Burton, director of the University of Oregon's James H. Warsaw Sports Marketing Center.

Kwame Brown isn't a messenger. He's a young man with opportunities and choices. One opportunity is to make millions doing something he excels at. We should all be so lucky. Using him or other star athletes to debate the value of higher education is silly. Why not ask if Bill Gates could have made more of himself if he had finished Harvard University? And if the evils of pro sports employing teenagers must be a topic, let's include all sports--not just basketball.

Little is a correspondent in the Chicago bureau.

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