There's a new and alarming trend in college basketball: young men forgoing college eligibility to enter the pros. Just five years ago only a handful took this option. Last year there were 28; this year 39.
Of the 28 underclassmen who entered last year's draft, 11 failed to be selected by any NBA team - ending not just their hoop dreams, but the opportunity to earn a college degree they might not otherwise pursue.
This is just one of the serious problems facing NCAA basketball, which has the lowest graduation rates of any collegiate sport and has suffered scandals involving gambling, criminal activity, and under-the-table booster money. But all of these problems stem from one thing - money. Or as hip-hop icon Sean "Puffy" Combs says: "It's all about the Benjamins, baby." (He's referring to the $100-bill image of Ben Franklin.)
The average NBA salary is almost $3 million a year, yet the new collective bargaining agreement that ended this year's lockout calls for a five-year rookie "salary cap." Put yourself in the players' shoes. If you knew it would take five years to be offered a contract worth more than $100 million, wouldn't you want to start as soon as possible?
Money confounds the college game as well. Basketball is the NCAA's goose that lays the golden eggs - several hundred million of them. Yet under the current system, the athletes who generate this tremendous wealth are permitted to earn only $2,000 to cover expenses. And if only 41 percent of these players actually obtain a college degree, the real benefit of an athletic scholarship is questionable.
The NCAA has recently proposed offering loans to athletes who stay in school, barring first-year men's basketball players from competition during their freshman year, and linking the number of athletic scholarships a school can offer in a particular sport to that program's graduation rate. The NBA has discussed barring anyone under 20 from playing in the NBA.
But it's time for candid talk: Many of the athletes playing for this nation's best college basketball programs are not there for the education. And playing Division I basketball is equivalent to a full-time job. It's time to give these athletes more time to earn their degrees, or move some of their course load to the off-season. It's also time to share the tremendous wealth generated by the game of basketball.
This involves more than simply paying these talented young men to play. We should both reward and protect them as they pursue their hoop dreams by giving them a more realistic opportunity to eventually earn a college degree, and by giving them access for a longer period to tuition, room, and board.
The Collegiate Professional Basketball League (CPBL), scheduled to begin its first season in November 2000, is designed to do just that. Players 17 to 22 years of age - in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington - will not be paid multimillion dollar salaries. But they will be guaranteed access to up to eight years of tuition, room, and board at the school of their choice. The school doesn't even have to be a Division I school; it could be a smaller college or university, a community college, or even a prep or trade school.
Although the league has a mandatory minimum education requirement, it will be fulfilled during the summer off-season.
As a result, by the time a player has spent four years in the CPBL, he will have earned the equivalent of an associate's degree, with access to four additional years of tuition, room, and board at the school of his choice. By offering eight years of academic scholarship money, players who "age out" of this league and who decide they will need a college degree, will still have the funds to pursue one.
As a former university president, I think it should be clear to everyone by now that we can't continue trying to force athletes to study against their will, or put them in circumstances that will lead to academic failure. But this doesn't mean we abandon the thought of educating these young men. Instead, why not offer college-age basketball players economic incentives to pursue a college degree?
While the NCAA uses punitive measures to force athletes to study, the CPBL will offer additional monetary compensation - outside tuition, room, and board - to those players who diligently pursue their college degrees.
What's more, CPBL players who earn their college degree in six years or less will receive an additional bonus of up to $10,000.
As the old saying goes: In order to do good, you first must do well.
It's time that those of us who care about today's college basketball players do good, by enabling these gifted young men to do well.
*William P. Hytche, president emeritus of University of Maryland Eastern Shore, is on the board of directors of the Collegiate Professional Basketball League Inc.