Thrill of Victory

"Student-athlete" designation a bad joke

The start of every official NCAA post-game press conference begins with the moderator introducing participating players as “student-athletes.” Some days you wonder how the moderators do this with a straight face. Monday was one of those days.

In the press conference following Kentucky’s basketball victory over Kansas in the NCAA Tournament title game that evening, Kentucky coach John Calipari sat to the right of six “student-athletes,” several of whom will be leaving Kentucky after this season, long before they’ll have a chance to finish their degrees. Regardless of what the players do, the national title trophy will remain UK’s to keep.

This may not, however, even be the biggest affront to the term “student-athlete” we’ve seen this week. Recently, it was reported that LSU football player Morris Claiborne scored a 4 on the Wonderlic, the intelligence test that the NFL administers to prospective pro players.

The Wonderlic is a 50-question, multiple-choice test with each question having five potential answers. Random guessing would yield, on average, a score of 10. A 20 is considered average, while a score in the single-digits suggests that the test-taker might not be literate. (Incidentally, you can take the same test by clicking here.)

The point of this is not to skewer Calipari and Kentucky, or Claiborne. UK is only taking advantage of a gaping loophole in the rules, and isn’t the only school doing so, though the ethics of a university signing off on this can certainly be debated. As for Claiborne, I suspect the public humiliation he’s gotten this week has been quite a burden already.

The hypocrisy of the system is obvious. Many fans shrug their shoulders at the situation, and rationalize that the system improves the college game by putting more talented athletes on the field. Some well-intentioned apologists go even further to say that it exposes young men to the college environment who wouldn’t be there otherwise, and call this a good thing.

Both sets of people have blinders on, so I call “baloney.”

Somewhere in Kentucky is an 18-year-old who would have given his non-shooting arm to play for the Wildcats. Instead, he wound up at a lesser program, his scholarship going to someone at UK who’ll never graduate. That player then goes to a program a rung below UK’s, and displaces someone who wanted to be at that particular school. The domino effect continues on down the line until somewhere, a player who wanted to play for Northern Arizona or Binghamton is instead waiting tables or parking cars as we speak, hoping to earn enough money to pay for college.

Instead, the current system awards – ahem! – a “scholarship” to Morris Claiborne and UK’s biggest star, Anthony Davis. The first part of the word is “scholar.” Only an NCAA moderator can say that with a straight face.

Who’s to blame? On the basketball side of things, the NBA started this mess in 2005 when it no longer allowed players to enter its league out of high school. That meant that teenagers like Davis – who is clearly ready to play in the NBA right now – don’t get that chance until they go through the charade of being a college student for a year.

Technically, that’s not entirely true. Players do have the option of playing professionally overseas for a year. But how many 18-year-olds do you know who are ready to live alone in a foreign land where they don’t speak the language?

The NBA’s move was purely selfish. It affords its teams one more year of evaluating their potential multi-million dollar investments. Scouts get a much-better idea of how a player like the 6-foot-10 Davis would fare by seeing him play against Kansas’ Thomas Robinson than they would a 6-foot-2 post player from a rival high school who’ll never play college ball.

In some ways, though, football’s system is more absurd. At least Davis and his teammates will only spend one year as pawns making a mockery of the system.

Claiborne, on the other hand, somehow managed to maintain eligibility at Louisiana State for three years. Claiborne is far from the first player to do this: Patrick Peterson, his LSU teammate the previous season, scored a nine on the Wonderlic before also moving on to the NFL after three years.

At least the NBA once allowed players to bypass college and earn the money they deserved immediately. In the NFL, this has never been an option.

So, how do we fix the system?

While the NCAA cannot make the professional leagues develop and maintain a minor-league system designed for players who have the talent to play professionally, but lack the will or ability (or both) to succeed in college, it has tremendous political power. It can use the media as a bully pulpit to pressure the NBA and NFL into doing the right thing. Or, it can take other measures such as banning professional scouts from campus until the system is fixed.

If the colleges are serious about their educational missions, it’s a win-win for everybody. Players who are just using the college system as a means to get paid for playing sports later can get paid immediately, while the true student-athletes get the scholarship opportunities they’ve worked their whole lives to get.

The NCAA and professional leagues can then re-introduce academic integrity into the process by requiring that players who go to college stay until at least their 21st birthday. This is the system college baseball – which allows players to start playing professionally after high school – uses, and it works very well.

This system would have one more additional benefit: it would stop a lot of the under-the-table money given to blue-chip recruits. Why would an athlete illicitly or his family accept tens of thousands of dollars from a college booster when he could legally make millions by going the pro route immediately?

Of course, the NCAA and the professional leagues have little inclination to do this right now. The system’s too good for everyone – or at least everyone except the 18-to-23-year-old that the system is supposed to serve.

The irony of the situation is that on the very day that the NCAA trumpeted the Wildcats’ achievements on the front page of its own website, NCAA president Mark Emmert, just below that story, issued a statement about how academics are just as important as athletics. Emmert’s only been on the job since October 2010, so I’ll cut him some slack. Perhaps as he sat in attendance at UK’s big victory, the hypocrisy of the system weighed heavily on his mind, and the seeds of change are being planted.

At least I hope so.