San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) and forward Kawhi Leonard (2) defend Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6), during the first half in Game 3 of the NBA basketball finals on  June 10 in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

“Thank you,” Washington Post sports writer Mike Wise wrote in this great love letter to Miami Heat basketball star LeBron James, “for giving youngsters someone to emulate.”

Love him or hate him — and it seems that more people love to hate him than perhaps anybody else in professional sports — James has been a role model to young people. That’s not because he has been perfect; it’s because he hasn’t been perfect and has  apologized for it. After he left Cleveland for the Heat in a public way that was slammed as being crass, James later apologized, Wise noted, showing “humility and perspective.” And, Wise said, James “speaks about social concerns, damn the financial risk.”

Here’s another way that James can be a role model: Get a college degree.  Other big-time athletes have gone to college, or more often have gone back to college, after hitting it big in sports.

James went straight from high school to the pros, unlike a lot of other athletes who started playing in college but left before they earned a degree. Michael Jordan, for example, attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for three years before joining the Chicago Bulls in 1984, earning the league’s Rookie of the Year award. But a few years later, Jordan went back and finished earning his bachelor’s degree in geography.

Shaquille O’Neal went even further in academia than Jordan. O’Neal played for Louisiana State University for a few years  — winning a lot of awards –but he left early to join the NBA. During his summers, O’Neal pursued first a bachelor’s degree in general studies and then a master’s degree. A year after his 2011 retirement from the game, he was awarded a doctorate in education at Barry College in Florida. The Associated Press reported in 2012 that Shaq “earned a cumulative GPA of 3.813 while completing 54 credit hours at Barry, mostly through online courses and video conferencing over the last four years.” His doctoral capstone project “explored how CEOs and business leaders use humor in the workplace.”

Bo Jackson, the only athlete to be named an all star in two professional sports — baseball and football — returned to Auburn University to complete a bachelor’s degree in family and child development.

And so on.

In 2006, the National Basketball Association instituted a rule stopping players from going straight from high school into the pros and insisting they be at least one year out of high school and no younger than 19 years old. As a result, many players who might not otherwise have gone to college are now attending — and many are returning to complete their degrees if they leave early.

According to this 2012 New York Times story:

Major League Baseball established the Professional Baseball Scholarship Plan in the early 1960s to provide benefits and reimbursement to players, many of whom are drafted out of high school or by their junior year in college. From 1962 to 1999, 69.2 percent of baseball players returned to the classroom, said Pat Courtney, a spokesman for Major League Baseball.

Half of the N.F.L.’s players have college degrees — a greater percentage than in the N.B.A. or in baseball, because fewer football players declare professional eligibility as early. Nearly 100 players went back to college in the off-season, and the league conducts a management program with universities, including Harvard and Stanford. Players receive up to $15,000 for educational reimbursement.

The best basketball players generally depart college when their stock is highest, which often comes sooner rather than later in their university careers. About 21 percent of current N.B.A. players have undergraduate degrees….  Some may not want to leave college early, but feel the responsibility of helping their families with financial burdens.

A 1996 Associated Press story explained why athletes bother going back to get a degree:

Regardless of income or star power, nearly every athlete going back to college cites one of three reasons for doing so: to fulfill a promise to a parent, to show his children the importance of education, or to prepare for a second career after sports.

What’s wrong with going to college simply to learn?

For James, getting a degree is a no-brainer. He is known as a voracious reader, reading books about all kinds of subjects before games to relax and focus his mind. Last year, James told students at Ohio State University that if he had gone to college for a year, it would have been on that campus.

“I promise, I say this all the time — if I had one year of college, I would have ended up here.”

He didn’t, but that shouldn’t stop him from finding a way to get a degree now. A wealthy man at the height of his chosen profession choosing to go to college would send a powerful message to young people about the value of education. And he’d learn a lot in the process.

(Correction: Fixing name of NBA)