Playing the Card

Thoughts on skipping college, the NBA draft and LeBron James

As a nation, America has many obsessions. Once again, we may have found a fun and exciting way to combine three of them.

Now, I know that this opinion probably won't be popular. The opinions I'm getting ready to express are ones that make a middle-class white male, like myself, fairly uncomfortable. I guess it's something of a confession for me. Forgive me, Coach Thompson, for I have sinned. It has been four quarters since my last confession.

The past few NBA drafts have featured more high school players than ever before. In past years ago, a boatload of high school kids were drafted ahead of the College Player of the Year (Jason Williams) and the young man who led his team to the national championship after staying in school for four years (Shane Battier). Last year there were still enough to make a person sit up and take notice. There are many theories behind it, probably 90 percent of them with some degree of legitimacy. But this is truly a complex problem with no simple solution.

I realized years back that baseball had been raiding our high schools and colleges for 100 years to find talent. Since then I've gradually softened my formerly hard-and-fast opinion that kids needed "the college experience." I no longer insist anyone who skips college – even if it was just for a couple of years – is making a big mistake.

So where does all the recent outrage over kids skipping college come from? I've decided that most, if not all of this angst, is about race and money. The role that race plays is both overt and subtle. Up to this point, most of America couldn't "identify" with the kids coming out. Translation: you didn't see white kids doing it.

Enter made-for-TV LeBron James. Here is a young man who – let's face it – gave up his amateur status when he was 13-years-old. Anyone that believes the Hummer he got on his birthday (insert your own joke here) and those throwback jerseys are the first "gifts" LeBron received is kidding himself.

Side note: Does it baffle anyone else that a Wes Unseld brings more than a Gale Sayers? But I digress.

Many of us are sick of seeing this kid splashed across our television sets, magazine covers, newspapers, and computer screens. For some people, he is symbolic of what used to be screwed up about college athletics and has now trickled down to the school boy scene. But let me throw this out. What if his name was Johnny, and what if he was as white as the driven snow? What if he came from a two-parent family – dad is an architect making $71,000, and mom works part-time at a Hallmark shop at the mall and spends the rest of her time doing volunteer work?

In other words, what if Shavlik Randolph had skipped college? What would the reaction have been? Not much. Before you get up in arms about that, ask yourself how outraged you were the last time a 17-year-old upper-class white kid came up through the junior tennis ranks.

What really sticks in most peoples' craws is that while it's okay for a 21-year-old young man to make NBA hondo, they don't like it that a 17-year-old African American kid can – even if he has been blessed with a 6-9, 230-pound frame and athleticism beyond their wildest dreams. It just isn't fair. This kid – and I do mean "kid" – will make an ungodly amount of money without having to sweat and study and make grades or even get a real job.

Interestingly enough, across racial and economic lines with people I've talked to, one thing is pretty common. Very few go so far as to say that there needs to be a rule against these young men making that kind of money. Those who know these things say that even if there was such a rule, it wouldn't hold up in a court of law.

Keep in mind that the "Stay in School Chorus" is a piece written for two voices: the media (particularly television) and the colleges (particularly coaches at the high-profile programs with the exception of Bob Huggins). The interest – or should I say, investment – is obvious. A few years ago, CBS wrote an $8 billion check to the NCAA. CBS and ESPN are in full-blown competition with the NBA for the best talent. An amount of money we can't even fathom is at stake.

This becomes frighteningly transparent every time college basketball's biggest homer, Dick Vitale, screams about someone being "a special young man" and "doing it the right way." This, by definition, means attending four years of college.

But what bothers me most is the chubby the media gets when, oh so subtly, they bring into question the character and integrity of a LeBron James or anyone else who skips college – and all without any threat of backlash or repercussions. The only other time we come close to entering into this kind of paternalistic debate, where it's up to the public to decide what is best for a youngster, is with prepubescent female gymnasts. Even in that argument, most of the small minority of people who want the girls to matriculate at a college or university rather than at a US Olympic Training Center usually have some evidence of an eating disorder or abuse by a coach.

It's only black kids who have to sit there and be lectured by so many about what they aren't ready for, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They have to hear how much integrity and character they lack because they refuse to do for free what someone else is ready to offer them millions of dollars and lifetime security for. I'm still looking for that article that says that four years of college baseball (which is no worse an approximation of pro baseball than college hoops is of the NBA) is better for player development than four years in the minor leagues. This is despite the fact that high school "bonus babies" have been around since the 1940s.

There is no frickin' consistency. This is what leads me to think that a lot of this outrage and anger about LeBron James and other young men is most likely about three of America's greatest obsessions: sports, money and race. Top Stories