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FanTake: Should College Athletes Stay or Go Pro?

Justise Winslow Duke
Photo: Jeremy Brevard-USA Today Sports

This latest FanTake from Steve Fortosis looks at the question of whether college athletes should stay in college or go pro. Steve breaks down the topic with ten topics to consider.

There are obviously many pros and cons in regard to whether star-quality college athletes should remain in college or roll the dice for the money in professional sports. Here are some viable points that examine both sides of the question.

  1. The most obvious reason a majority give for players to leave college early is the risk of career-ending injury. While it’s true doctors are becoming proficient enough to enable many players to overcome serious injuries and return to sports, there are still some injuries that cannot be overcome or that affect the players’ efficiency just enough to lower their dominance.
  2. Of course, the money one receives in professional sports is a powerful lure. And, especially for those from low-income families, this is perceived as their only shot at climbing out of poverty and enjoying the American Dream. If they use the money wisely, they can secure their future, their parents’ future, and the future of their spouses and children. If they care about their communities and worthy causes, they can also give in crucial ways that possibly enable other kids to make it in life.
  3. The idea that college athletes should and could be paid seems to mollify the idea that money is only in going pro. However, there are many inherent problems in this idea that many don’t consider. Actually, the only sports that bring in huge revenue are men’s and women’s basketball and football. Many of the other sports, even in Division 1, barely break even or operate in deficit, which the college must pay. So, right off the bat, if all scholarship athletes were to be paid, most monies would have to be siphoned from basketball and football.Then the questions come: Who decides the pay? Does the pay differ for each player depending on output? Do players still get paid even if they are injured? Does pay change if a player endures a slump? What if a non-scholarship player begins contributing significantly—does he or she qualify to begin getting paid? If universities can pay what they wish; would not the wealthiest schools draw the best athletes by offering the most money? If players blew thousands on parties with fellow students, are these parties policed to prevent things like drug issues, date rape, disorderly conduct, drunken brawls, etc? These are only a few difficult issues.
  4. Going pro does not necessarily preclude an education. It is true that if students make it big in professional sports, they will quite likely have enough money to pay for a college education later in life, especially if their professional career is cut short.
  5. There have been many players who went directly to the pros following high school (when allowed) or have gone pro after a year or two of college and they’ve been wildly successful. Most of these would probably heartily disagree with proponents of a four-year education or even a required two years.
  6. On the other side of the issue – Actually, many don’t seem to realize just how much elite college athletes are already receiving. Many are receiving a top class education that could practically ensure success in a field. The tuition alone at the best universities can cost as much as $60,000 per year. These athletes also receive free housing, all meals, all fees, access to world class trainers, medical services, tutoring, betterment in their sport, a platform for professional teams to observe, hotel and flight costs to endless fieldhouses throughout the nation, and more. The whole package can easily be worth $125,000 per year.
  7. Players sometimes leave their scholarships behind based on faulty information from acquaintances and agents. After all, if players shop long enough, they can eventually find an agent who will tell them they have a great chance of being drafted in a first round, when their skill level may not even result in being drafted at all. For every success story, there are scads of stories of players who never made it, or even if drafted were dropped when their upside did not match what was expected. To paraphrase a statement by Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks: For every Kobe Bryant, or Kevin Garnett, or Carmelo Anthony, there are a hundred lottery busts who never make it.
  8. Many college age players simply lack the maturity to handle a sudden influx of huge money. Shaquille O’Neal states that he foolishly spent “$1 million in about thirty minutes” after he received his first NBA check. Some of these young kids will buy a ten-room party house and a Maserati and then wonder where their first year’s NBA pay went. Surprisingly, O’Neal states the radical opinion that basketball players should have to stay in school at least three years—similar to the rule for NCAA football players—and Mark Cuban agrees.
  9. Remaining in college can assist players in developing both emotionally, physically, and socially. How does a 19-year-old NBA or WNBA recruit handle the sudden notoriety, the constant party invitations, the groupies, men and women stalkers, gold-diggers, negative media, and a host of other distractions they may never have faced before? Even riding the bench for a couple of years after being an NCAA hero is a huge ego-buster.
  10. College is just plain fun. Many carry the college memories with them for a lifetime—cherishing the friendships, experiences, specialties learned, and college sports played. The pressures of an 82-game regular NBA season are grueling. You play several times per week and you have to play at peak levels every game night in spite of outside circumstances, aches and pains, and personal problems, unless you want to get replaced by a tougher teammate.

It really comes down to a very personal family decision whether a player stays in college or goes pro. Jerry West stated that the real goal is “not to just get to the NBA…it should be to stay in the NBA.”

Have individual players developed in all the ways that count to the extent that they are prepared for the long haul or will they fizzle and burn out after a rocky year or two?

Both Coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke and [the late] Dean Smith of UNC made it their goal to treat their players almost like sons. Long after students left the respective schools, these coaches kept in close contact with them, even offering sage advice when asked.

Dean Smith used to say, “We have one rule here. We do what’s best for the player out of season and what’s best for the team in season.”

His general rule of thumb was that, especially if a player was projected to be a top ten draft pick, he encouraged him to go pro. Krzyzewski will advise players who ask for advice, but is unfailingly gracious whether a player chooses to go or stay.

Coach K has made no secret of his opinion that a two-and-done policy would please him. Former NBA Commissioner David Stern also believed that the college basketball ruling should be changed to a two-and-done. Current Commissioner, Adam Silver, agrees essentially, though he prefers to state the requirement as being 20 years of age.

Mark Emmert, President of the NCAA, believes that if players wish to attend college, they should stay more than a year, but if they don’t care to attend, they should not have to. He posits that maybe there could be an NBA D League in which such players could play, there seeking to prove themselves ready to play on the NBA level. The one-and-done policy could change in one way or another in spite of Emmert’s views.

Only time will tell.