By Dr. Emmett Gill
Last Tuesday, Arizona University basketball recruit Brandon Jennings decided to make an unprecedented move to forgo playing in college and instead pursue a professional career in Europe next season before likely entering the 2009 NBA draft.
While David Stern and the National Basketball Association (NBA) are well prepared for the subsequent trend Jennings may incite, universities with big-time basketball programs will soon learn the true value of a big-time student-athlete. Universities will no longer be privileged to the best athletic talent because an 18-year old could use $500,000 tax-free dollars until he is eligible to play in the NBA. Players must be one year removed from high school before they’re eligible to play in the NBA. Teams, athletic departments, and yes academics may experience some uncomfortable times if top-flight basketball students decide to study abroad in Europe. I have experienced firsthand how athletic success can breath life into a universities and how a lack of athletic success can suck the life out of campus spirit. When our team gets invited to the big dance or to go bowling the entire campus, even professors, go mad! When the donations from athletic boosters start to slide, marketing deals that carry free cable begins to subside, or enrollment dips, remember Mr. Jennings.
As a former student-athlete I still believe an undergraduate degree is like a union card and graduate degree can be an American Express Black card. Even so, I fully support Jennings’ decision. Back in the day the notion was that “student-athletes need an education to fall back on just in case…” Just in case can always happen, but if it does it’s unlikely “just in case” will prevent Jennings from pursuing a degree. Secondly, I believe student-athletes who compete in the big five sports -– football, basketball, women’s basketball, soccer, and baseball — should be paid – period. We can chat about the logistics later, but it’s feasible, trust me. You have to pay the workers. As much respect as I have for the NCAA and the efforts they dedicate to student-athlete development, neither the NCAA nor member institutions can ensure kids receive functional degrees. Until they set aside a trust fund for student-athletes who graduate (an idea proposed by former UNC Tarheel and current TNT analyst Kenny “The Jet” Smith 15 years ago) the Jennings effect is a threat. You oftentimes hear of basketball coaches who will “hug a thug,” meaning they will get marginal athletes in school or you hear “one and done” (in school for one year – see Michael Beasley and Derrick Rose). Those days may be gone, but is it for the better?
Mr. Jennings is primed to make more money in one year than a top-flight law school graduate might make in their first three. As much as we might want to mentor student-athletes and expose them to life outside basketball… raise your hand if you would go hoop for $500,000-plus tax-free dollars. That’s what I thought …not that I would ever trade in the social capital I reap from academia …
I never heard of this kid so I’m unsure of his academic or his athletic prowess. Still, when Mr. Jennings travels overseas I am sure he will have some field instruction/classes in foreign language, contracts, investment banking, etiquette, social history, and of course basketball. If you think about it Mr. Jennings’ course load might mirror a freshman at the Wharton School of Business… and Mr. Jennings is getting PAID.
Dr. Gill is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Rutgers University.