Now that the college basketball season is in full swing, this former jock, who played at Columbia in the late 1950s, is fixated on the game. In fact, March Madness is built into my annual schedule.
But as I watch extraordinary athletes hit three-point shots and fly to the hoop, I realize that hypocrisy is also very much on display. These players are described as "student athletes," a designation that jolts my credibility quotient.
During a recent Kentucky–Louisville game, several players were interviewed. Almost every one described his major as "communications," yet remarkably none could communicate effectively. Most sentences began with the phrase, "me and the guys" or "we gonna win it all."
It has been apparent for some time that the NCAA winks at this condition. The truly gifted players understand that college basketball is the minor league for the NBA. They use college as a showcase. For some athletes, it is "one and done" or "two and through"; in other words, they will play college ball for a year or two and then enter the draft.
One might hope that in that year or two a spark is lit in the classroom. And in some cases, that may happen. But unfortunately, for most Division I "student-athletes," the student is so subordinate to the athlete that he has only a vague and distant connection with the classroom.
In some cases, the highly sought-after basketball player is so coddled that his emotional development is arrested. This may explain why a disproportionate number of college basketball players get in trouble with the law. Coaches, some of whom earn millions each year, concern themselves primarily with victories. They, too, understand that the truly good players are with them for only a short time.
Most television analysts ignore the unsavory elements of the game, concentrating solely on X's and O's and the evident talent of the players. But there is a storyline beneath the surface that should be told. Only a tiny proportion of good college basketball players will make the pros. For those who thought college was a playground and getting to the next level was a virtual slam-dunk, failure can be devastating.
Sonny Dove was a terrific basketball player at St. John's. He led his team through several very successful seasons and was named to All-American teams. But Sonny could not make it in the pros, despite opportunities that were provided. He ended up driving a cab in New York City, despondent over his failure to make it with a pro team and lacking the education to do anything else but drive a cab.
Now, I don't have anything against cab drivers, but most of them either do not have an education or drive a cab in order to obtain an education. Sonny was different; he drove a cab out of despair.
College basketball produces many Sonny Doves, players who luxuriate in the college limelight but fall on their faces afterward. Clearly, the choice is theirs. But coaches and college administrators have an obligation, it seems to me, to give these young men a chance to succeed in a venue other than a basketball court. If the term "student-athlete" is to have any meaning, introducing study into the equation would be a reasonable way to proceed.
Instead of winking at the current state of affairs, the NCAA ought to think about how to assist college players who aren't destined to be successful in the pros. I love to watch the games and the gifted athletes, but there is a part of me that laments the manner in which so many of these young men are being used. Perhaps it's time to translate some of the March Madness income into a fund to promote genuine education for college basketball players. •
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