Paying college athletes isn’t just fair to players; it could improve college basketball.
Slam dunk for LeBron, air ball for the NCAA: Former high school star LeBron James rejected an unpaid college career for a lucrative gig in the pros. Paying college players could arrest the inevitable decline of college basketball if too many more players follow James’s example.
The name says it: the NCAA Elite Eight, the eight best teams in college basketball, survivors of a long, highly competitive season and three hard-fought rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament, March Madness. And yet players from seven of the eight colleges, underclassmen with up to three years of eligibility left, won’t be back this fall. What’s more, nine of the top ten picks in this year’s June NBA draft, six of whom played in the NCAA tournament, are leaving college basketball before exhausting their eligibility.
The departure of so many high-performing players has taken its toll on the NCAA’s product, intercollegiate basketball. College basketball “this season has been a long, fitful snooze,” wrote columnist Dave Kindred in the Washington Post. The departure of players who left for the pros after their freshman year, Kindred wrote, “left spaces filled by lesser players.” “Put bluntly, college basketball stinks,” wrote the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Mark Bradley. “After nearly two decades of descent the sport has hit bottom.”
For years, NCAA basketball was the only game in town for players with ambitions to play in the NBA. Now, dozens every year desert the college game for something they can’t get in college—the chance to share in the revenues their performances create—and their departures have fractured the college basketball cartel’s hold on its sport.
It’s more than just a basketball story. Like many a monopoly and oligopoly before it—like Standard Oil a century ago, like Detroit’s Big Three, like IBM, like Polaroid—the central tenet of the NCAA’s dominance, the unpaid student-athlete, has been undermined. Like them, it can learn to compete under the new rules, or it can dig in its heels and risk irrelevance.
In 1990, I suggested in the Washington Monthly that college players ought to be paid and should not be required to be students at the college whose team they play for. They should have done it then. They should do it now: give players what they need and what they deserve to stick with college teams. Think of it as kind of a koan: To hold on, they must let go. But will they? Will they adapt and survive, like IBM has? Or will they hold on, like Polaroid, until they go into bankruptcy and are sold for their parts and brands?
The NCAA is often referred to as a cartel. But its power has historically been dependent on its symbiotic relationship with the NBA. The NBA prohibited its teams from signing college players before their class graduated, guaranteeing the NCAA a steady supply of unpaid labor whose performance could be monetized in the form of tickets, T-shirts, and TV rights. And the NBA used college basketball as a free minor-league system.
So it worked for college basketball and the NBA. For the players? Well, not so much.
Yes, they got four years of college, provided at wholesale, priced at retail. But recurring scandals surrounding college players’ academic eligibility called into question how high a value some colleges and some players attached to whatever education was taking place.
Players also ran the risk that injuries would diminish or destroy their value to pro teams and thus their career prospects. And, of course, they played for free, donating services worth millions of dollars.
In recent years, the manifest unfairness of this arrangement has attracted more attention and criticism from writers like the Atlantic’s Taylor Branch, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, ESPN’s Michael Wilbon, and Fox Sports’ Jason Whitlock, all of whom have called for college players to be paid.
But while writers have debated, the market has moved. Dozens of the players whose exploitation writers decried started getting paid. Not by colleges—NCAA rules on that haven’t changed. Rather, having been refused compensation by the colleges that make millions from their performance, they now sell their services to teams that will pay them to play, whether or not they attend college.
The NBA’s refusal to allow teams to sign players until their college class had graduated began when the league was founded in 1946. It lasted until 1971, when Spencer Haywood, a sophomore All-American and the leading scorer on the American gold medal-winning team at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, won a Supreme Court ruling that blocked the NBA from enforcing its rule against signing high school players and college underclassmen. “This group boycott issue in professional sports is a significant one,” wrote the federal district court that issued the injunction the Supreme Court upheld. “If Haywood is unable to continue to play professional basketball for Seattle … a great injustice will be perpetrated on him.”
The NBA struck its colors with a face-saving settlement, establishing the “hardship rule,” which permitted teams to draft athletes from low-income families—a category that could be (and was) interpreted to include virtually every player who wanted to enter the pros before exhausting his college eligibility.
The hardship rule, and its successor, the “early entry” rule, brought just two high school players to the NBA, then no more for twenty years. But it wasn’t only high school players but also college underclassmen for whom the Haywood case opened the door. One underclassman was drafted in 1972, six in 1973, and eight in 1974. The Haywood case wasn’t the only breach in the NCAA-NBA cartel’s grip on basketball. From 1967 until 1976, the NBA had another league to contend with, the American Basketball Association. The ABA competed mostly in markets uncontested by the NBA, such as Denver, Kentucky, and Miami. And it had no rule against drafting high school players and underclassmen, and signed some of the most charismatic players in basketball, including crowd pleasers like Julius Erving, Moses Malone, and George McGinnis.
Weakened by the Haywood case and facing competition from the ABA, the cartel began to crumble, piece by piece. The lure of NBA-ready high school stars was too strong for teams that needed success, and bankable stars, right away. In 1995, the Minnesota Timberwolves, one of the league’s weakest teams, drafted a Chicago high school graduate, Kevin Garnett, in the first round, the fifth choice overall. The next year the Los Angeles Lakers, badly in need of some magic in the post-Magic, post-Abdul-Jabbar era, drafted seventeen-year-old Kobe Bryant out of high school. Also in 1996, the rebuilding Portland Trailblazers drafted Jermaine O’Neal, also out of high school. The following year, the Toronto Raptors, struggling in just their third season in the league, picked a North Carolina high school star, Tracy McGrady.
Of course, not every player who has turned pro out of high school or early in college has hit the jackpot. Quite a few have gotten NBA tryouts and gone on to play in Europe or, even farther down the food chain, in the Philippine Basketball League. It may not be the NBA, but it’s still basketball, and it’s still a paycheck.
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