NBA's Faulty Farm System

It's worth noting that college basketball's "March Madness" ended this week just as the new Major League Baseball season is starting. What's the connection?

Well, each year the NCAA tournament – specifically the men's tournament – underscores not only superb athletic talent, but the failings of a sports system that uses institutions of higher learning as a "farm" system for professional basketball.

What failings?

Let's start with the perversion of colleges and universities becoming profit centers for big-time TV sports. The schools get their share of billion-dollar contracts with the networks, and the players get the thrill of playing before millions of viewers, and possibly – for a tiny minority – an NBA offer. What most of the players don't get is a college degree that could help them with life beyond the hoops.

Compare that to baseball's minor-league farm system, where young hopefuls hire on as professionals to step on a career ladder that may lead to the major leagues. Most don't go on to a long career in the majors, but they've gotten a taste of pro sports, and they haven't been shortchanged by a system that mixes a promise of a degree with a promise of sports glory.

If players go to college, even on an athletic scholarship, their main benefit should be education. The record of NCAA Division I schools in providing the benefit to athletes is sad. In the Sweet 16 round of the men's tournament, recent average graduation rates for athletes were 38 percent. This year's champ, the University of Maryland, graduates 19 percent.

It needn't be so. In the women's tournament, graduation rates are 20 to 30 percent higher on average. And a few of the men's teams are up there, too. Stanford graduates 100 percent of its players. It's a matter of commitment to achievement off the court as well as on.

If that commitment doesn't improve, perhaps basketball – and football for that matter – should follow baseball's lead and develop farm systems that don't try to mix sports, big money, and higher learning.

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