Starr: The Badness in March Madness

Thanks to the social engineering of NBA chief David Stern, this March will be even Madder than usual.

When the league boosted its minimum age to 19 years old, it forcibly redirected a handful of players—the cream of the high-school crop—to college rather than their preferred route of directly to the big money awaiting them in the pros. As a result, rather than having already disappeared into the NBA netherworld of Toronto or Portland, two of the most sensational freshman players in years will be showcased this week on center stage in the NCAA tournament. Thursday, fans can see Ohio State's 7-footer, Greg Oden, a fierce rebounder and shot-blocker who has the potential to become the most dominant American-born center since Shaquille O'Neal. On Friday, University of Texas' Kevin Durant will display the prodigious offensive skills that have made him a shoo-in for college player of the year honors.

Stern's seemingly minor-rule tweak appears to have provided an embarrassment of riches—an apparent win-win-win-win situation. The win for the fans is obvious. The colleges get elite talent that, in recent years, has eluded them and that—to certain schools—can be worth millions in revenues. The players get to grow their games and their bodies, adding muscle to withstand the pounding of the NBA's 82-game schedule while, hopefully, maturing personally, enabling them to better cope with the pressures of playing for pay. And the NBA hopefully gets more mature players—on and off the court—as well as more marketable ones, thanks to a year of exposure and Vitaleish hype.

So why do I get this queasy feeling when I thinks about this new deal? Why would I ever listen to Texas Tech coach Bobby Knight, who regards it as a blight on the integrity of college sports—“the worst thing that's happened to college basketball since I've been coaching”? Why would I ever side with Knight, whose sanctimony and blindness to his own flaws has too often blighted the game, against Stern, a man with an acutely developed social conscience? Because Knight happens to be right: this rule is a raw deal that all its good intentions can't mask.

Sure, one might quibble over whether it is possible to do any more damage to the integrity of college sports. And, yes, Knight has mixed motives. He delights in taking potshots at NCAA executive director Myles Brand, who as president of Indiana University a few years ago canned Knight from what had appeared to be a lifetime gig. And maybe after a couple big losses to Texas—Durant went for 37 points and 23 rebounds in one of them—Knight is a bit jealous, knowing he'll never convince any of these frosh studs to saddle up for him in Lubbock.

But all that stuff is peripheral. Knight, for all his behavioral baggage and temperament issues, has been an exemplar when it comes to making academics a priority in his basketball program. On this question he speaks with genuine authority that transcends even his status as the winningest Division I coach in history. He knows Stern's rule is essentially a fraud, enforced matriculation creating faux-students who are marking time while benefiting two rich and powerful basketball enterprises. These young adults, almost all black and from difficult financial circumstances, are denied the chance to hawk their talents in the NBA marketplace to owners who have been more than willing to pay. If these kids are too young for NBA basketball, how can we let men and women that same age enlist in the military, a choice with far greater risks, and far fewer financial rewards?

The NBA, of course, has every reason to encourage a high-profile, low-cost feeder system. And the NCAA seldom looks past the bottom line. But the calculation for the kids is far more complicated. And it will be irrevocably altered the first time one of those top-of-the-draft high-schoolers suffers a serious, possibly career-ending injury while marking time at Alma Mater U, waiting to be old enough to earn his big pay day. The NBA can point, quite rightly and righteously, to all the prospects that foundered after arriving too early in the pros. And they can point to even more whose NBA careers might have been more successful, or at least more successful sooner, with a year or two (or another year or two) in a good college program. Still, the recent NBA all-star game was loaded with players—Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Amare Stoudemire, Tracy McGrady, Dwight Howard, Jermaine O'Neal, LeBron James—who skipped college without missing too much of a beat, at least a basketball beat. And then there are all those foreign stars—much ballyhooed by the NBA for reinvigorating the league—who, as teens, went directly into overseas pro leagues before graduating to the NBA.

With graduation rates for players at many of the schools in this year's tournament hovering around 50 percent and even lower for black athletes—there can be little pretense about big-time collegiate sports as an academic mission. During the Big 12 final between Kansas and Texas Sunday, I was amused to hear one announcer suggest that the Texas players were simply too tuckered out to compete down the stretch. His broadcast partner couldn't comprehend that notion. This was, after all, the final: the kids could rest on Monday. Nobody was going to suggest that on Monday they might actually face classes or other potentially taxing academic concerns.

I have great respect for the wisdom of David Stern. And it's not simply the paternalism of the NBA's new mandate that bothers me, but rather the league's complicity in the academic fraud that is already too prominent a part of big-time college athletics. Sure, personally I'll be delighted to watch Oden and Durant play in the NCAA tournament. And both players now claim to be delighted with the choice that was forced upon them. But our pleasure watching and their pleasure playing should never be confused with principle. It's hard to believe that Bobby Knight is the only one in the game who can see that. More likely he's the only one with the guts to say it.