I suspect most of us have made our peace with the reality of the relationship between college basketball and the young men who play the game at the highest, most visible level. It's vocational. Yes, there are students, such as the University of Utah's Andre Miller, who fulfill their college eligibility and their educational opportunities. But overwhelmingly, the best players, with very few exceptions, see college as someplace to stop for a year or two, if at all, even kids such as Kobe Bryant and Corey Maggette with high board scores and the academic ability to tear through college.
But even if we leave aside for today the issue of the lifelong value of formal education, the NBA has a pressing problem that needs addressing now. A high percentage of the most physically gifted kids entering the league early haven't earned enough credits in their unstated major: basketball. The basketball majors aren't matriculating in basketball. They're not coming close to completing their apprenticeships.
So every year, more and more incomplete players enter the league, which is one of several reasons the quality of play in the NBA has suffered. For every Tim Duncan, Grant Hill and Keith Van Horn -- players who graduated from basketball school -- there seem to be 10 Kenny Andersons, Penny Hardaways, Jerry Stackhouses -- guys who sabotage their own careers by not putting in enough time on the front end. The more we see, the more it appears that front-end time can never be made up. In turn, the talent pool that should stock the NBA is in part a mirage. And the youngsters who are snatched up by those NBA teams are reducing their chances for long-term success.
It comes as good news that NBA Commissioner David Stern is interested in talking to the players association about negotiating an age limit that would withstand legal challenges. If teams can't stop themselves from drafting 18- and 19-year-olds who ought to go to college first -- that's the biggest problem -- and if kids won't go to school for whatever reasons, then it's time for self-legislation.
There have been -- and will continue to be -- young men who feel the need to turn pro to pull their families out of poverty as soon as possible. Stern has suggested an NBA loan program that would help those players immediately, although the NCAA would have to sign off on such a plan. It's certainly worth exploring.
But while many of the kids aren't rich, many of the ones leaving school early are hardly impoverished. Bryant's father, Joe, was wealthy by any standard after a long career in pro basketball. Those who enter the NBA draft early simply because they don't want to go to school would find themselves in the same predicament as most of us: having to stay in school anyway, at least for a while. An age limit of 20, for example, would help protect them from themselves, from an adult world of professional sports most aren't yet ready for and from all manner of leeches looking to attach themselves to a meal ticket.
From a business standpoint, the NBA would be better served because the product would improve. What we're discovering, even about players as talented as Stephon Marbury, who spent one year at Georgia Tech, is that it's difficult to learn how to play the game at the professional level. There just isn't time for teaching and drilling. The college game would be better because it would be holding on to the Marburys and Maggettes and Bryants for at least a couple of years.
Having said all that, it's still a potentially tough position for Stern and union chief Billy Hunter to take because of issues that will undoubtedly include race and culture.
Stern, in a conversation in his office Friday, ticked off the names of several athletes who turned professional a lot younger than Bryant: "Tara Lipinski, Mary Lou Retton, Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis," he said. "Don't forget that John McEnroe left Stanford after only one year." Stern is bothered, understandably so, by any notion that suggests there is one set of expectations for black youngsters and another set for whites; or one set for urban kids who are more likely to be drawn to basketball but a less-demanding set for the children of privilege who might be drawn to tennis or golf. Are young black basketball players to pass up millions until they're 20 while younger white tennis players or gymnasts reap financial rewards at 17?
The conversation clearly revealed that Stern has serious concerns about these issues, as most of us do. He talked about the symbolism of graduation from college and what it has long meant to the culture for a young person to walk across a stage in cap and gown to receive a degree. Stern said he was the first member of his family to graduate from college. As commissioner of a sport whose players are predominantly black, Stern has become intimately familiar with a new rite of passage.
At every NBA draft the players who will be drafted, their family members and friends wait in the "green room" for the player's name to be announced. If it's not the most joyous place in the country on that day, it's toward the top of the list. Most players have their first tailored suits made for the occasion. For better or worse, that suit often replaces the cap and gown.
"It's a celebration," Stern said, "of the fact that he has arrived, he has thrived. There's extended family all around. It's palpable. It's a rite of extended passage. The accomplishment of having arrived professionally, of being able to provide for his family in a way many people never will -- all of that shouldn't be minimized."
Complex as the issues are, the NBA and its union wouldn't exactly be out on a limb with the adoption of something akin to an age limit. The NFL and its union already have one. No player can enter the draft until three years after his senior year of high school. It hasn't been challenged in court, largely because it was agreed to by both management and labor, not imposed by a commissioner.
I would argue that the level of play in the NFL is as good as ever because that league is receiving finished apprentices, players who have come close to earning their degrees in football. The NFL, whose players also are more than 50 percent black, seems to have found a solution that teams and future players are willing to live with.
It's a funny thing, the notion that an 18-year-old has a "right" to play in the NBA. I recall being told by The Washington Post when I was a college sophomore that I couldn't apply for a summer internship until I was a junior. I didn't know enough, wasn't prepared properly for the work required. What lawsuit could I have won? Any business that doesn't set standards with regard to who comes in the door is in for long-term erosion.