The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics can always be counted on for spirited debate, intense scrutiny and strong recommendations in its semi-annual meetings. The most fascinating product of last week's get-together in Washington, however, concerned a topic on which no resolution was reached - or could be.
It likely has more bearing on the progress, or regression, of the best-known college athletes than anything else discussed. It's composed of several elements - the NBA age limit, one-and-done basketball players, and the NCAA's graduation rates and Academic Progress Rates, just for starters - but it's tied into one issue: getting young men, mostly young black men, into college and getting them out in better condition than when they went in.
That's why the contributions of Len Elmore and Paul Hewitt to the Knight Commission meeting packed more of a punch than any recommendations that were made. Elmore, a commission member and former Maryland star, and Hewitt, coach at Georgia Tech, actually agreed on a lot. But not on this: Hewitt is fine, albeit not thrilled, with kids bypassing college completely for the NBA, and Elmore is dead-set against it.
It began when the idea was bounced around the meeting room that basketball and its players might fare better by adopting the eligibility rules of college baseball - under which recruits can go straight to the pros but, if they choose college, must stay a minimum of three years. That has to be better, many said, than the one-and-done.
Hewitt - speaking to the panel persuasively both in defense of his colleagues on the game's academic performance and in pushing for increased standards for incoming and current players - prefers the baseball model.
"Allow the high school players to come in," Hewitt said, "because I don't want to be the one who tells a LeBron James, or anyone else, that he has to go to college, that he can't play in the NBA if he's good enough."
"Get them into college. Don't think of ways to keep them out," said the former All-American, now a lawyer and ESPN game analyst. He cited studies that say 53 percent of African-American males in high school drop out before graduating, and said: "Do not give them an option to go pro. ... We should be building highways to college for them."
The difference of opinion took the issues the commission usually grapples with out of the meeting rooms and into the real world, the one populated by the people most affected by them - for whom both Elmore and Hewitt were standing up.
"The LeBrons and the Kobes, you don't have to worry about them; they're prodigies, they're one in a million," Elmore said after the session. "The other 999,999 are the ones I worry about. Those are the ones who have to succeed, and get a chance to go to college.
"But," he added, referring to the prodigies, "they should go to college for the greater good.
"For the greater good," he repeated.
As a member of the NCAA's men's basketball academic-enhancement working group and president of the Black Coaches and Administrators, Hewitt wants the same thing - more black males in college, via basketball if that's the best path. The way players are steered away from college to the pros, in fact, drives him crazy; he dubbed the largely unregulated, agent-infested atmosphere "the Wild, Wild West."
Still, he said: "I could be a selfish coach. I can tell LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, 'You have to come to play for my school, be in my sport.' But that's not necessarily in the kid's best interest; that's in the school's best interest.
"Strictly from an education standpoint, is Len right? Yes. But in reality, we cannot tell these kids that."
Elmore and Hewitt make it infinitely harder to pick a side on this - because they're the ones making the arguments, as opposed to those who have set the agenda. That would be the NCAA and the NBA, who make them for self-serving, disingenuous reasons, no matter what they say in public. They're preserving their businesses by any means necessary, and thus our choices are based on whether we prefer March Madness or the NBA playoffs.
Elmore and Hewitt properly recognize much more is at stake. What they say matters more than what David Stern and Myles Brand say. It makes for a hard choice, but the argument is far more worthwhile.
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