On the NBA: Let them play!

Right before Kevin Ware’s tragic injury, he closed out on a three-point shooter like a champion—it was unlikely that he was going to effect the (made) shot of Duke’s Tyler Thornton too much. But, he closed out anyway. That’s because he’s a hard-playing player on a hard-playing team; the only kind that can make it through all rounds of the NCAA bracket. And it’s only hard-playing players like Ware that make it possible for his coach Rick Pitino and his college colleagues to make millions of dollars per year (Pitino’s base salary is $3.9 million dollars). No coach’s tutelage and system is good enough to overcome lack of talent. None. Yet, Ware and all of his teammates (and the rest of all NCAA athletes, combined) are paid exactly $3.9 million less, per year, than Mr. Pitino.

This is, to say the absolute least, an aberration in the landscape of contemporary American economics, which—while rife with profound injustice— does usually offer some miniscule glimpse of meritocratic validity. For comparison point in compensation discrepancy between NCAA coaches and players (who, let’s get real, are the real source of profits for the programs that turn many a university into hedonistic utopias throughout the country) we’d have to look at off-shore sweatshops, or travel back to some of America’s darkest eras.

The NCAA should pay its players. While full scholarships are nice, many athletes don’t get them, and still have to pay to play, themselves. Others, less fortunate than Ware—whose national spotlight, and playing for a big-time program insure he’ll be taken care of —lose their scholarships to injuries of this magnitude, and are footed with crippling medical bills. And, in the case of basketball, those who do get these scholarships are all aiming to leave for the NBA in just one year, anyway—so what’s the point of their education? Star NCAA athletes’ day-to-day lives are defined, utterly, by the game they play; traveling and practice regiments, slightly less intensive than professional ones when in-season, dictate this truth. Player payment in the form of full scholarship (illegal, mysterious, and hard-to-quantify gifts aside) boils down to “room and board” when you factor out the classes they’re only technically enrolled in. (When was the last time you heard of an NCAA athlete being out of a game for not making grades? Ever? Do you think a coach like Pitino would ever let something like that happen?) And “room and board” is not enough—not even if it means something as impressive as what John Calipari’s brought to Kentucky.

But equally important as the payment of these players, who risk their bodies (a phrase which Ware’s spaghettified leg proves is not just hyperbolic bluster) to turn their schools into mega-profiting corporate brands, is doing away with the ridiculous requirement of their even being there. Don’t get me wrong: college is great—I’ve been twice myself, and hope to have children who do the same. But if going to college is a privilege, not having to go is an even greater one. In its ideal form, college is a place for undeveloped adolescents to learn about the world, attain employment skills, and ultimately excel as citizens. If you can do that without going, you should—college is expensive (even for star athletes who go for free; their earning capacity within their field is twenty years at the very most, and college cuts a significant slice of that time away), and also takes time. This is why young, successful entertainers—who get paid well because the market proves they’re worth it; because they perform a very valuable civic role—regularly skip college to pursue a career that took off without it. Does anyone think Taylor Swift needs to go to college? Justin Timberlake? Both seem to have more career success and worldly experience than anyone I know with a Master’s or PhD. (Plus, neither ever had to put up with the likes of Rutgers’ recently-fired demon-coach Mike Rice, who would have been rightfully punched into oblivion for behaving that way for a roster with any NBA veterans on it). And many NBA players are equally elite entertainers, too, as just making it into the draft means you’re within the top two-percent of your career field—and that’s a conservative estimate, considering the amount of people who want to play basketball for a living, and have tried.

Why the requirement of one year of college exists for NBA players is not exactly mind-boggling, though. It’s just one more notch of oppression that franchise owners (led by David Stern) have staked onto professional players, for the sake of their own bottom lines. The compulsory year has been strategically set up as a net of cost-minimization, and also risk-management. Not every high-school phenom pans out on the next level (though successful straight-to-the-pro players are actually far more common, albeit from a much smaller sampling, than college-to-the-pros players*), and making everyone play an extra year at a different level moves the factor of chance out of the NBA’s court. It also takes a year of salary away from team payrolls, and delays the moment when a player is eligible for a max salary. (In David J. Leonard’s excellent book “After Artest,” discussed here, he convincingly argues that this structure of the compulsory year is, additionally, a clear stamp of racial oppression).

Kevin Ware lost a year of his career to injury, but countless more have been losing one to college since this rule was installed, eight years ago. Ware’s case is terrible, but the silver-lining to many a tragedy-turned-public-spectacle is that they can give fuel to reform. Let’s hope that’s happened here.

*Of 42 players who went straight from high school to the NBA, 10 have been all-stars, 7 have been All-NBA, 2 have been MVP, and the list of those who have done none of these things includes such stellar players as Lou Williams, Josh Smith, Monta Ellis, Al Jefferson, J.R. Smith, and Kendrick Perkins.

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