Hoop dreams


THE FIRST four picks in tomorrow's NBA draft are expected to be underclassmen.

Three of them have been in school for only two years.

In educational terms, the cradle-robbing trend is a disaster.

More than ever, this year's draft exposes the poisonous relationship between college and professional sports.

As an educator, I often see the destructive power of the Hoop Dream.

Granted, what I see in the nonscholarship Ivy League isn't the real thing; almost no one harbors serious NBA ambitions.

Yet even here it is difficult for some recruited athletes to make up their minds about why they're really in school and what they will do when the ball stops bouncing.

But the young men who cashed in their books in the draft are not starry-eyed wannabes; they are highly talented players who will surely earn millions anyway when they get to the pros.

So why the rush?

The main reason may be that NBA owners, staggered by the multimillion-dollar contracts they are bestowing on untested players, are threatening to impose a rookie salary cap.

In response, students who've gone far enough in school to count to eight digits are opting to get theirs now.

There was a time when such premature gold-digging was not an option. The NBA declined to draft students whose college class had not graduated.

In the early 1970s, as paydays grew fatter, the NBA began allowing "hardship" exemptions to the draft rules, so that financially strapped students could turn pro early.

By the 1980s, so many players were routinely claiming hardship status that the league dropped the pretense and simply allowed athletes to renounce their remaining college eligibility and grab the bucks.

As a result, this year's draft crop is unusual only in the number of prominent youngsters and the brevity of their college tenure. The last three No. 1 picks in the NBA draft -- Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Webber and Glenn Robinson -- were all underclassmen.

They've all been successful as pros, as the top pick should be. And their very success has helped to shatter the expectation that an outstanding college player should take school seriously.

The NCAA has been involved in the dropout phenomenon by doggedly upholding the tradition, honored by time and not much else, of amateur purity. This quaint ideal predates the modern condition of colleges' serving as unabashed minor leagues for the pros.

It also ignores the fact that basketball as well as football players generate enormous revenue for their schools. But in seeking to preserve college athletics from the taint of professionalism, the NCAA has devised a system guaranteed to make "student athletes" permanent nonstudents.

The solution is simple. Allow student prospects to be drafted by the pros -- and remain eligible for college play. Let them negotiate contracts that will bind them to their future teams for standard three-year stints. An insurance policy (paid by the pro team) could guard against income lost to injury.

As with ROTC, the pro team could pick up the remainder of a player's college scholarship and pay a minimum living allowance -- a minuscule investment for a multimillion-dollar asset.

Such an arrangement might stipulate that the draftee couldn't join the NBA until he actually graduated -- reinforcing the idea that college is something more than a highly organized tryout camp.

Because the primary beneficiary is the player, not the program, no school would have a recruiting advantage beyond what many now enjoy with promises of starting assignments, TV exposure and tournament appearances.

The "curse" of professionalism in this case is a self-serving illusion compared with the real problem of exploitation: students in school only to play ball, generating millions for their colleges and all too often leaving without their only tangible payment -- a college degree.

On the other hand, there may be some who don't want to be in school in the first place. Let them try their luck landing NBA jobs directly.

In order for any of this to work, the NCAA and college officials would have to pull their heads out of the sand and acknowledge that what's best for the athletic establishment is not necessarily what's best for students who play ball.

Encouraging students to stay in school, would be everyone's best move.

Dennis Williams is director of the Learning Skills Center at Cornell University. This is an excerpt from an article he wrote for Newsweek.

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