NBA lockout? We've got your pro basketball right here

| November 23, 2011
N.C. State's Lorenzo Brown, Alex Johnson and Richard Howell join a huddle during a recent game against Princeton at the RBC Center.
- Photo by D.L. Anderson
N.C. State's Lorenzo Brown, Alex Johnson and Richard Howell join a huddle during a recent game against Princeton at the RBC Center.

The clocks fall back and we tip off another season of professional basketball in America. True, the National Basketball Association isn't in action. In that pro league, the owners have shuttered their teams and locked out their players (don't call it a strike) in pursuit of bigger profits. Still, the highly profitable pro league known as NCAA basketball is off and running, with the team owned by the University of North Carolina in hot pursuit of a national championship that, with the NBA sidelined, would be the national championship.

The Tar Heels' aspirations are aided by the fact that, just up the road at Duke, one of the top basketball-playing college students in the country is not permitted to perform for Duke's professional college team. Kyrie Irving, a point guard who continues to be enrolled at Duke and is attending classes as we speak, made himself available for the NBA draft in June and was the very first player taken (by the Cleveland Cavaliers). Thus, under NCAA rules he cannot play "college" ball any more.

The fact that the NBA does not, at the moment, exist, and Irving hasn't played a minute in it or gotten a dollar from it cuts no ice with the NCAA, which treats the Duke student-athlete like a disappeared person. Whether Irving would want to play again for Duke is unknown. Nor does it matter, because he can't.

However, the trio of NBA-quality ballers currently enrolled at Chapel Hill, forwards Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes and John Henson, are eligible to play for their NCAA team because they didn't enter the NBA draft.

"Be all you can be" is the Army's slogan, not the NCAA's. (Its motto should be: "Leave the money to us.")

Meanwhile, N.C. State's professional team is short on first-rate professionals. To fill a need at guard, State Coach Mark Gottfried signed a journeyman player named Alex Johnson, enrolling him as a graduate student after he'd put in three years for Cal State Bakersfield. Thank goodness: Johnson's experience helped State to a 3-0 start, including a clutch win over Princeton.

Genius like this is the reason Gottfried, a coach of no great distinction to this point in his career, is paid a reported $1.2 million a year. Not a pro league?

Johnson's signing points up another anomaly of the NCAA brand of professionalism.

Graduate students are generally not eligible to play for their schools unless they've completed an undergraduate degree in three years and retain a fourth—and final—year of eligibility under NCAA rules.

This is the reason Russell Wilson, the exiled N.C. State quarterback, was permitted to play football immediately at the University of Wisconsin. Wilson graduated from State in three years and, cut loose by Coach Tom O'Brien because he dared to play minor league professional baseball in th e spring, shopped his fourth year of eligibility to various NCAA pro football teams. Wisconsin needed a QB. Wilson enrolled as a graduate student there, keeping his dreams of a paid professional sports career in football or baseball alive.

Similarly, Johnson graduated from Cal State Bakersfield in three years, after which he shopped his services to major-college basketball teams in need of a guard. Florida State and N.C. State were the most interested in him, Johnson told me after a recent game. He chose Raleigh, coming to State as a master's degree candidate in family life and youth development. He may work in that field eventually, Johnson said. But first, he hopes to play professional basketball—the paid variety, that is—either in the NBA or, failing that (he's 5-foot-8, tops), in one of the many professional leagues abroad. Playing in a major conference—i.e., as an unpaid pro—is a step in that direction.

As a rule, though, graduate students can't play for dear old State U. or any NCAA member team once their four years of eligibility are up. Why? According to Paul Haagen, a Duke law professor with expertise in sports law, this rule dates back to the late 19th century, when Yale and Harvard were the best in the land at the leather-helmeted game known as football.

At the time, Yale had many more graduate students than Harvard, Haagen says. So Harvard saw to it that graduate students were excluded.

Moreover, except for cases like Johnson's and Russell Wilson's—athletes who earned an undergraduate degree in three years and are enrolled elsewhere in a graduate program—the NCAA does not allow athletes to change teams (schools) without sitting out for a year. (Significantly, this rule applies only to the revenue sports; one of UNC's star soccer players, for example, transferred last summer from Akron and was allowed to suit up in blue immediately.)

This rule applies to Division I teams—the big-time sports clubs owned by major universities, in other words—and it means that, if your son or daughter is stuck on the bench at Duke, say, but would be a starter at State, h/she can transfer to State, of course, but it doesn't matter: Under NCAA rules, not every State student can play for State.

Not even if they're undergraduates.

These rules and others are vestiges of a long-ago culture of amateurism in college sports, Haagen says, in which universities sought to preserve the purity of play from the corrupting influences of money.

Today, these rules crimp a student-athlete's chances at a critical time in his physical development.

But don't expect the courts to offer relief any time soon, Haagen adds. To date, judges have shown great deference to the old ideals. Change, he says, won't come before the public makes "a social determination" that the NCAA's rules—some of them anyway—are "too preposterous" or violate some important public policy objective.

One such policy objective could be the protection of healthy amateur participation in a wide variety of men's and women's sports not named football or basketball. Here, NCAA schools—most recently, the University of Maryland—are showing their true colors by pouring ever-more resources into their "revenue-producing" professional sports teams while they cut out track and field, swimming and other sports teams on which true student-athletes could compete. Sad.

With the NBA lockout now in its third month and the season cancelled through mid-December, its players have gone to court seeking antitrust protections from their owners. "Rich owners versus rich players" is the media meme on this. But as Dave Zirin, sportswriter for The Nation magazine, wrote last week, this misses the point, which is that the players union is fighting to protect not the highest paid stars in the league but the journeyman players of the future.

"After the players had given back $300 million [a year] in revenues," Zirin noted, "the owners wanted more. They wanted the freedom to limit the future compensation for the sport's 'middle-class' role players and to be able to send anyone on their roster to the National Basketball Developmental League for up to five years while dropping their salaries to $75,000 a year. The players, without dissent, said no."

The athletes, even the rich ones, should be viewed in Occupy movement terms as part of the 99 percent of working people who are pitted against the 1 percent who own and control everything, Zirin wrote.

By the same token, it's not the stars of the NCAA who are jeopardized by its hoary ways, it's the average players, along with the shrinking ranks of academically minded students who seek to play college sports at the highest levels.

The latter problem is especially relevant to basketball, which is played from October through March Madness, spanning two academic semesters. (The football season, by contrast, is largely confined to the fall semester.) Already this season, Duke's team has been to China and Maui, and UNC has played on an aircraft carrier in San Diego in a spectacle the Roman emperors would've appreciated. (Their performers weren't paid either.) When tourney time comes, players miss not just days of class but weeks.

Zeller, Barnes and Henson will soon be handsomely paid to play somewhere—no need to worry about that sheepskin. But what of UNC's supporting cast and bench players? If they play pro ball at all, it probably won't be for long or much money. Then they'll need a job and a degree. But with the demands of daily practice and travel for six months a year, four years may not be enough time to complete a degree.

It won't be, in all likelihood, if they're in engineering, the sciences or pre-med, or if, en route to a degree in the social sciences or humanities, they use their summers to travel and learn instead of racking up credits in summer-school classes.

There's a case to be made (and in the past I've tried to make it) in favor of true amateurism in college sports, with travel and practice times limited, no scholarships except based on need, and coaches paid at faculty rates. But as a practical matter, the professional sports model will endure in Division I for the foreseeable future. So the task, I believe, is to be fair to student-athletes by treating them just as any other students would be treated.

For example, if a student is a talented musician—who's paid for recitals, say, and sells her own CDs—that doesn't make her ineligible for the school orchestra. And if she should transfer, nobody makes her sit out from the band for a year.

The NCAA is considering paying athletes a stipend, reportedly up to $2,000 a year, on top of their scholarship aid for room and board. It's a start. And again, the top college players are in line for millions when they turn pro (if they or their families aren't already getting money under the table). But it's the average player who needs protections:

  • Players should be allowed to hire agents and sign sponsorship deals if they can get them.

  • Players should be allowed to transfer from one school to another and play without interruption.

  • The four-year eligibility rule should be expanded to five years or even six, allowing students more time to earn degrees and also more time to develop as athletes.

  • Players should be permitted to make themselves eligible for pro drafts. For that matter, players with professional experience should be permitted to return to school if they have continued eligibility and play for a college team again. Why not? What should matter is whether the student is making progress toward a degree. (And whether he or she can make the team.)

Start with the players and write the rules to be fair to them. Instead, the rules are written to make the players perform as vassals in a system that pays everyone but them. The "Roy Williams rule," for instance, gives an athlete 10 whole days to withdraw from the NBA draft once he's decided to be in it—10 days that fall weeks prior to the draft itself. Why? Because big-time coaches like Williams (who pushed for the rule) want to know by spring if their players are coming back, even though the draft isn't until June.

What if they stay in the draft and aren't drafted? Tough.


Follow Bob Geary's contributions to Triangle Offense @IndyweekSports and @rjgeary.

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