[Without too many undue apologies, I take college sports fairly seriously - first, because I'm a kool-aid drinking Stanford football and Kentucky basketball fan, but second, because the fix seems to me so easy and meets such resistance.
Since no one likes to read constant sermons, I wrote this little dramatic dialog, to show how a professional team (acting through its general manager) might interact with a high school recruit, if the world were the way I think it should be. The NCAA doesn't give a damn about how and where an athlete earns money, so long as it is not from the school and its affiliate boosters. Most of it is fairly easy to follow in context. Casual fans should know that the present Stanford basketball coach is Johnny Dawkins, a one-time Duke All-American, who is reference in the article. The coach at Georgetown is John Thompson. All of the other proper names and references are fictional, intended to make the background and conversation seem plausible.
This is what should be happening in the world of college sports and NBA basketball right now.]
GM: Hi, James. We haven't been introduced, but Randy should have told you I'd be calling. I'm George Myers, general manager of the YYY.
J: Hi, Mr. Myers. Yes, he did tell me that I'd be hearing from you. It's nice to talk to you.
GM: Same here. Well, to get to the point, I have some good news for you. We're planning to take you with our first round pick in the draft. Right now, if the standings hold, that would make you number 6.
J: Wow. Wow.
GM: Yeah, I thought you'd think you'd find that good news. So with all that, I thought you and I should get better acquainted.
J: Should I get my folks on the line?
GM: In a second. I'd like to talk to you for just a little while. You won't need your agent or anything – just get-acquainted stuff.
GM: Obviously, I've heard a lot already from Randy and a lot of other guys. But I like to things to get personal at this point. Apparently, you're a pretty good student. . .
J: Yes, sir. I like to think so.
GM: And I hear I don't have to make arrangements for you with the Development League.
J: No, sir. I'm going to go to college.
GM: Which one, if I may ask? You must have offers from all over.
J: Stanford, I think. Coach Dawkins called me today to say I've been admitted.
GM: My goodness. Congratulations. This must be quite a day for you.
J: Yes, sir. It's really something.
GM: I have to ask, though. Where are you going with all this? Not that I'm your guidance counselor, but I don't want to pay you all this development money and then have you go to graduate school, or join the Marines, or something.
J: (laughing) No, sir, no Marines for me. But no way am I giving up basketball. No way. I want to get to the League as soon as I can, play as long as makes sense, then come back and get my degree. Then maybe law school. Politics for sure
GM: I get it. There's a lot in the world you'd like to change.
J: Yes, sir. An awful lot.
GM: So you want to be the Black Bill Bradley?
J: Something like that. Maybe exactly like that.
GM: Pretty ambitious. Well, if you were my son, I couldn't be prouder of you. But I'm a basketball guy and I do have some concerns about that level of ambition.
J: What are they?
GM: Stanford's a pretty intense place academically. Do you think you can balance that off with what you have to do to become a professional basketball player?
J: Yes, sir. I always have. Basketball's pretty demanding at an level. The other Stanford guys find the time and so will I. But I did say get to the league as soon as possible. Maybe a Franchise contract after -
GM: Anything's possible, James, but I have to tell you it's extremely unlikely you'll be one-and-done. We project you as a quality NBA player in two or three years, with about 20 or 30 pounds more good weight, a lot more strength, and tons more defensive intensity. So if you want to make all your dreams work. you're going to have to keep up your studies and develop as a basketball player.
GM: Let me go over how again this works. We're going to make you the number six pick in the draft. That commits us to paying you sixth pick money. We could offer you a Franchise contract, and put you on the roster. But you're going to get a Development contract, like every other high schooler and underclassmen -
J: No one's going straight to the League?
GM: Randall Smithson has the game -
J: That guy is awesome. An absolute beast.
GM: so maybe Smithson. But there are some personal issues there – I won't get into that. Speaking professionally, though, I'd pass on him right now. So no one is likely to go directly, and of course that includes you. . . .you know, James, if you don't like what you're hearing, you can always pull out of the draft. Go next year. You might do better.
J: And take the chance that my stock will drop because you see something you don't like in college or someone else gets hot? No, sir. I'm going to stay in.
GM: I think that's the wise decision.
J: Anyway, I haven't heard anything I didn't like. I like this tell-it-like-it-is stuff. This is all way, way cool. But what's wrong with Stanford? Should I go somewhere else?
GM: Oh, no, nothing, like that. If there were real problems – you know, like a service academy, with the commitment – or some Division III school – I'd let you know. But Coach Dawkins is a fine coach – I assume they plan you to play you on the wing? 2 or 3?
J: 3. Small forward. They've got Pat Denton coming into play shooting guard.
GM: Wow. Johnny's putting together a helluva class. Denton's not ready for the draft yet, but he's definitely on the radar. No, from the point of view of developing your game, if you continue to put in the time, you'll do fine. You know there won't be any problem there with PT. Besides, we're going to be in the picture big time. You'll be hearing from our s and c guys. We can put you in touch with skills coaches if you think you need them. And you know you will be contractually obligated to come to our clinics and play in the Summer League. That's the real show for us. We decide whether or not to extend the option based on what we see there.
J: I do get to keep the money if you don't?
GM: Yes, of course you do. I forgot for a second you're only 18. It's simple. We have an option for your services for four years. We have to pro rate a quarter of the sixth round money to you every year, we keep the option. But we can cancel it, if we think it's not working out, and you can go back into the draft. But you keep what we've already paid. If you get to the point where you earn a spot on the roster, which we all hope you do, and which we think you can in two or three years, we get to offset the money we've paid you to date against the scale salary due you.
J: Four years?
GM: Yes, but as a practical matter almost no one pays the fourth year. Three years out, we all know its either happening or it isn't. We drop the option, save our bucks, and look elsewhere. But we don't guess wrong on these things too often. I'd be out of a job if we did. You'll play in the league. I guarantee it.
J: So what's wrong with Stanford? If the basketball development is ok?
GM: There are some negatives from a basketball exposure point of view. Let me ask you a question. How do we make money as an NBA franchise?
J: By winning games. Making the playoffs.
GM: Everyone says that, but they're wrong. We make money by selling fairly pricey tickets and TV commercial time to people who want to see our team play. Mostly that's because they're winning, but it's also seeing players the public has heard about. The more they hear about you, the more curious they become. Stanford is a great school, but it's not a basketball hot spot. Not all of its games are televised, and most of those that are, are too late for our fans to watch. Plus the Pac 10 is the weakest of all the major conferences.
J: I'm hoping to change that.
GM: Good luck with that, but the plain fact is that Stanford doesn't make the Dance every year. That tournament is core publicity for us. That's when the public sees and identifies young basketball players, and develops a rooting interest in them. If you're not there, there's no way they develop an interest in you.
J: But suppose I put 'em on my back and carry 'em to the Sweet 16? Or the 8?
GM: Well, of course, of course, that would be terrific. That's a publicist's day dream. And I can tell you right now we'll get a lot of mileage out of the brains-and-brawn angle whatever happens.
J: Not the 'Black Bill Bradley'. Don't do that to me.
GM: Understood. Sure, everything might work out perfectly. But you asked about potential negatives, and so that's what I said. Commercial opportunities will also be a little more limited– autograph shows, endorsements, and that stuff. At a school like Kentucky, even walk-ons do pretty well.
J: How does that work again? Didn't it used to be illegal?
GM: In the bad old days, it was. These days, Stanford or whoever will require you to escrow whatever you make outside for 60 days while they audit to make sure no booster has snuck through the back door – you know, some one defined as a booster showed up and paid a ridiculous amount for your jersey. The NCAA does insist that all schools offer the same cookie-cutter scholarship, including their affiliates, so that every one is equal. I'm with them on that. So that escrow makes some sense. But there's enough legitimate income out there, including us, that the boosters aren't all that motivated to cheat any more.
J: My dad and I have talked about that. The way we figure, a Stanford scholarship costs a lot more than a public university. Plus the degree is worth more. So I'm already ahead of the game.
GM: Good thinking. Look, if you're interested in a better basketball-academic mix than Stanford, I could suggest either Duke or Georgetown. They're close to Stanford in academics, but both have a lot more basketball exposure than Stanford. They both play in tougher conferences. And Georgetown's in Washington. If politics is important to you, it's hard to imagine you could do better. I'd guess they both offered.
J: Not Georgetown. I was pretty certain I was going to stay on the West Coast. So I didn't visit there. (thoughtfully). Maybe I should have.
GM: I can make a call. Coach Thompson will be on the phone to you a minute after I hang up. But I'm not going to do that unless there's a chance.
J: Yeah . . . yes. Yes, sir. I'd like to talk to him. But you should tell him I'm pretty set on Stanford.
GM: I understand. I will make the call, and I'll tell him what you said. The other thing you might think about, is the Ivies.
J: The IVIES??? I thought you said the problem with Stanford was underexposure. They're even less exposed.
GM: Yes, but they make up for it with the intensity of the fandom. Ivy league players are so rare in the league that they get a huge following when they do show up, from fairly influential people. That was a major element in Linsanity a few years ago.
J: Do you have any influence with a place like Harvard or Yale? You could get me in?
GM: No, but they are pursuit-of-excellence places. Having an NBA development player on campus might tickle their fancy. And of course the coaches would be drooling. But it would be an even tougher balancing act than Stanford.
J: I understand. You've given me a lot to think about.
GM: Well, I've had a very nice time on this end. You are one impressive young man. Nothing you said has changed any of our thinking – when you're going over this tonight, and thinking of everything you wished you'd said differently.
J: (laughs) Thanks.
GM: So congratulations again – on being admitted to Stanford, and your place in our plans. And now I would like to speak to your dad or mom or both. Could you get them to the phone?