Here's my most recent Basketball Times article, which addresses the NCAA membership's decision last week to gut what remained of the rule allowing basketball underclassmen the opportunity to "test the NBA waters."
But wait, I am not done attacking the rule change and the people who defended it.
The NCAA's board of directors voted to affirm the rule which will require underclasmen who wish to return to school to pull their name out by April 10th, which is conveniently the day before the spring signing date. The new date goes into effect in 2012. (There's a convoluted system by which this could be overriden, but don't hold your breath: The power conferences have already spoken.)
I am under no illusion that NCAA members would do anything other than what is in its best interest. (In case you don't know, student-athletes, who are arguably the key component in this multi-billion dollar enterprise, are not actually members of the NCAA.) I just get irritated when the NCAA and its members attempt to frame this as anything but self-serving.
It is impossible for those not already a consensus high-lottery pick to make a fully-informed decision without going through the entire pre-draft process. And then to remove the safety net for those who might later realize they made a bad decision is low-down dirty.
In an ideal world, only 7-10 underclassmen per year would leave early for the NBA. The rest would be patient, get a meaningful education and their hard work and perseverance would be financially rewarded.
And...now...back...to...reality. Think about the state lottery: It is a horrible bet, but that does not stop millions from playing ("A dollar and a dream," to quote a famous lottery slogan that ignores the long odds.) Yes, it makes sense for the vast majority of players to put their hoop dream on hold until after college, but try convincing a 19- or 20-year-old basketball player with stars in his eyes to wait another year. Every year 50 or so young men ignore the evidence and enter the draft even if they have little chance to make an NBA roster.
Defending an insane system
Does anyone in the NCAA governance structure with actual power take the side of athletes? What about the NCAA's Student Athlete Advisor Council (SAAC), which allegedly represents the interests of college athletes...did they offer any opposition during the last couple years when the NCAA all but eliminated the test period? Not that it even matters since the SAAC is powerless by design.
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton publicly supported eliminating the evaluation period, telling the Associated Press in 2009: "Too many kids are putting their names in and they're taking their names out. Their names shouldn't be in there in the first place...You have so many kids making poor decisions, it's obvious some of these kids are getting poor advice."
Following Hamilton's twisted logic, that's like a parent saying, "Son, drugs are bad for you. And if you do them, you will suffer the consequences without my help." Back to reality: If someone you truly care about makes a bad decision, you don't kick them to the curb...you help them get back on track.
And do not forget: the only basketball players who would be able to return to school would be young men who actually want to be in school and took steps to protect their college eligibility. Imagine that.
When the NCAA's board of directors ratified the April 10th date, most coaches and administrators were smart enough to steer clear of defending the indefensible. One curious response was from David Pickle, who writes the official NCAA blog. He did what any good PR apparatus does when it can't argue on the merits: Claim media bias.
Pickle was responding to Percy Allen's article on the same issue. In Allen's lede, he went for the NCAA's jugular: "The NCAA is a greedy, money-sucking, self-serving, soulless entity that’s lost sight of its mission statement." After Allen's initial words, he settled into a well-reasoned attack on the new legislation.
Pickle avoided Allen's arguments entirely, instead writing, "This action was unpopular among basketball writers, many of whom used at as evidence to demonstrate that the NCAA shills for prominent coaches at the expense of student-athletes. Had the action gone the other way, writers would have been queued up taking the Board to task for not being sensitive to the plight of coaches (and returning athletes) as they struggle to determine their rosters for the following year."
Plight of coaches? Interesting phrase. I've always thought college coaches have pretty cush jobs, despite the constant complaining: million-dollar contracts, job security (at least compared to athletes who get one-year scholarships), country club memberships, free cars and a wee-bit of roster uncertainty if they are fortunate enough to attract NBA-caliber players. Tough plight.
This whole issue gets conflated into (Pickle's words) "we’ll-zing-you-one-way-or-the-other attitude"? A history lesson: The NCAA membership instituted various forms of underclassmen "testing the NBA waters” back in the mid-1990s. By Pickle's logic, the media should have been complaining about this athlete-friendly rule for the last 15 years. And yet...the media has spent the last 15 years not championing the cause of college basketball coaches who "struggle to determine their rosters."
This history will never repeat itself
Let's take a historical view of college players turning pro before their eligibility expires.
What if I told you, once upon a time there was a college basketball star selected 6th in the NBA draft who was offered a lucrative pro contract, but returned to school to play his senior season. Not only that, but this player led his team to a 33–1 record and lost in NCAA National Championship game.
Was this a compliance oversight? No way could an NBA-drafted player participate in an NCAA competition. Surely, the team's Final Four appearance was vacated. Or was it?
The player I'm talking about was Larry Bird who along with Ervin "Magic" Johnson, changed college basketball…for the better. Bird was selected in the 1978 draft by the Boston Celtics. Back then, this was legal: A player was automatically eligible to be drafted four years after high school, even if they still had college eligibility. Bird got to make a truly informed decision: The marketplace told him exactly how much his basketball skills were worth—and he could weigh that against the benefits of playing another season of college basketball.
And the college basketball world was better because Larry Bird was allowed to play his senior season.
So what is the solution?
First off, we don't need more NCAA rules. Institutions are perfectly suited to make these calls. A coach who does not want to be left in limbo can already force the issue: Don't renew a player's one-year scholarship. Just say, sorry, young man, if you can't decide by a certain date, we are moving on. Another coach may see the benefit of keeping the door open if a player's NBA hoop dream is not quite yet a reality. This is what some would call compassion. It's also good business, especially since the goal is to win games.
My overarching complaint against the system for underclassmen going pro is deeper than this particular rule. I actually do not think players should have to declare for the draft. You heard me. They ought to be allowed to find out what their actual market value is, then decide. Just like any other student exploring the job market. Get an actual offer, then accept the best one. Or forego immediate income and continue with school. The NBA will never tolerate a system that allows drafted players the option to return to school (like baseball). But there's a reasonable compromise: Follow the NBA's guidelines for withdrawing from the draft (currently set at 10 days prior to the draft). By this point in the draft process, there is far less uncertainty than in early April. Then watch college basketball spin off its axis. Or not.
A couple more points to consider...
The Al McGuire model for treating players
In 1972, Marquette star center Jim Chones signed a professional contract with an ABA team. In the middle of his college season. When his team was 21-0 and the number-2 ranked college team in the country. Can you imagine if this happened today?
Still, his coach must have been furious. How could a player abandon his team midseason? Of course, it's all how it gets framed. When Chones approached his coach, the legendary Al McGuire, he encouraged him to sign the pro contract, even if it was a devastating blow to his Marquette team. According to Chones: "Al says to me, 'Jimmy, you gotta leave, it’s a lot of money and it’s a great opportunity.' I told him that I didn’t think I was ready and you know what Al tells me? 'Jimmy, I don’t care and it doesn’t make a difference. You gotta go.' You see, Al had no fear. He wasn’t afraid to voice his opinion or stand up against anything or any institution. There will never be another Al McGuire or a revolutionary like he was...He saw the world not as people wanted to see it, but as it really was."
The always honest McGuire put it even more succinctly: “I looked in my fridge, and it was full. I looked in Jim’s, and it was empty. Easy choice.”
Contrast that with today's college coaches who want roster certainty for the following season just a few days after the last one ends, even if it means pushing a few dozen players over a deep cliff. Shameful.
A slight loophole (which the NCAA won't tell you)
Keep in mind, there are three important dates: 1) The NCAA's withdrawal date for those who want to return to college (as mentioned above, next year it is April 10th), 2) The NBA's date declaration date, which is 60 days prior to the draft, a date that is collectively bargained. (This year that date is April 24th) and 3) the NBA's withdrawal deadline, which is 10 days prior to the draft.
If a player is still on the fence or even if there is a slight chance he might want to return to college, the best strategy is not to file with the NBA prior to April 10th and keep the college option alive. I'm not sure how much additional information can be gathered in just two weeks, but after the NCAA's deadline passes, there's no turning back. Is this ethical? Please. If a player is turning pro, he should only be concerned with NBA rules, not NCAA rules. And a note to my friends at the NBA and NBPA: In the upcoming CBA negotiation, please shorten the official declaration date from 60 to 30 days, a move that would greatly reduce the burden of the NCAA's absurd rule.
Follow Marc on twitter @marcisenberg