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In Defense of College Basketball

Get rid of one-and-done and love college basketball again

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

So, all it took was Zion Williamson and a blown-out NIKE sneaker to refuel the tired old debate of should we pay college athletes? Yet again, individuals and organizations of interest are lining up on both sides of the issue.

Anyone else find the irony in that deep thinker DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins was one of the first to speak up and suggest Williamson should shut it down for the rest of the season rather than risk injury or jeopardize his position in the upcoming NBA Draft this summer? Personally, I am just shocked to see Cousin’s advocating for someone to get paid other than himself. That California lifestyle must be getting to him.

I usually try and ignore this topic but watching it be debated all over the “media” has struck a nerve with me. Maybe it’s just this time of year? College basketball is entering its best stretch with conference play winding down and March Madness looming.

I willingly admit I am a traditionalist when it comes to this issue. I have been invested in college basketball for more than half a century. My father started sending me to Hoosier Basketball Camp in Angola, Indiana when I was just eight years old. There, I got to meet and hear from the likes of Tex Winter, Fred Schaus, Johnny Orr, Bobby Knight, Lou Henson, John McGlocklin, Tom and Dick Van Arsdale, and Kent Benson. The camp was run by Dave McCracken, son of legendary Indiana University coach, Branch McCracken.

So yeah, I’ve got some perspective on this issue. I also spent a lot of time around division one athletes during my undergraduate days at Bowling Green State University. It was very apparent that these students were well taken care of in exchange for their participation in college athletics.

First, their parents didn’t have to write the tuition/room and board check each semester that mine did. A four-year degree in today’s dollars easily equates to more than $200,000 at most schools. Then you add in all the ancillary support today’s college athletes receive. Tutors, gear, training table meals, personal trainers, nutritionists, first class travel, health insurance, career counselors and sports psychologists. Even at a non-Power 5 conference like the Mid-American Conference you could tell the student athletes were, and are, treated special. And good for them. They did put in many long hours practicing and traveling to competitions representing their school.

But in my day, most didn’t play college athletics to prepare for a big payday as a professional athlete. Playing college athletics was a privilege and you felt lucky to be able play the game you loved on a big stage with the words Kentucky, Purdue, Kansas, Butler, Ball State, Davidson, or Creighton across your chest. For more than 99% of today’s college basketball players that feeling still probably holds true.

The biggest argument for paying college athletes is always the fact that colleges and universities are making millions of dollars with their so-called “free workforce.” It is true that the popularity of college athletics, basketball and football specifically, have turned into billion-dollar enterprises. But just ask your local athletic director and they’ll tell you how those revenues from football and basketball often go to balance an athletic budget that includes cost centers such as wrestling, swimming, diving, soccer, golf, track and field, lacrosse, softball, baseball, field hockey and more. The whole Title IX issue is predicated on sexual equality in college athletics based on profits from the revenue generating sports. So, the narrative of college and universities lining their pockets with tons of cash on the backs of college athletes doesn’t resonate with me.

The NBA has just come out and said they intend to eliminate their requirement that an individual must play one year of college basketball, or an equivalent 12 months, before they are eligible to be drafted professionally. I whole-hardily agree that this so-called One-and-Done rule needs to be eliminated. If a 17, 18 or 19-year old kid has a path to a professional career straight out of high school, he should be allowed to pursue it. God speed young man.

But prior experiments with making high school players eligible for the NBA Draft have been met with very mixed results…at least from the NBA management side of the issue. Yes, we have all heard of the legends of Kevin Garnett and LeBron James. Two generational athletes that made the successful transition to the NBA straight out of high school.

But beware. Those are the exception rather than the rule. The overwhelming majority of high school players have no business taking on the men of the NBA on a nightly basis over a 9-month, 82+ game schedule. God speed young man.

It was NBA owners and general managers that originally advocated for the One-and-Done rule. They wanted to give the players another year to mature physically and have more time to garner additional information on them as NBA prospects. This rule was implemented after teams were pressured to take the high school phenomes of the day high in the draft so they wouldn’t miss out on the next LeBron or Garnett. Instead, they ended up with Kwame Brown, Eddy Curry, Korleone Young, and Leon Smith. Draft busts that set back their franchises for decades. So, it will be interesting to see if NBA franchises tread more lightly on drafting high school players this time around?

In the meantime, don’t mess with my college game. The NCAA Tournament is hallowed ground for me. March Madness is the pinnacle of my entire sports viewing year. My enjoyment of college basketball didn’t suffer one iota when James and Garnett went straight to the NBA. And, it won’t suffer once the new crop of high schoolers are scooped up by the NBA. You’ll still have kids playing their hearts out for their schools. You have effort, emotion, buzzer beaters, turnovers, cheerleaders, pep bands and devoted fan basses. What’s not to love?

College basketball has everything the NBA doesn’t have. Long live college basketball. God speed young men.