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It’s time to emphasize student in student-athletes

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Here’s a novel idea.

How about limiting college basketball scholarships to those who fully intend to go to college?

That means no more one-and-done. No more treating freshman year like an extended NBA tryout. No more bailing out on a four-year commitment less than one-fourth of the way through. No more turning Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and (gasp!) Indiana into AAU extension campuses.

And — and this is a big “and” — how about creating a clear,

better path for those athletes not focused on college to develop their basketball and life skills in an effective manner?

Crazy? Sure. Crazy enough to make sense and restore integrity to a college game that has lost it to the pervasive intoxication of fleeting fame and fortune.

College basketball has lost its identity, even its soul, as a revolving door of freshman phenoms make pit stops on campus.

It is time to reclaim the game and restore its purity — or at least its pseudo-amateur status. That means defining college basketball as a game for college students, not for athletes masquerading with cameo appearances in the

classroom and no intention of academic fulfillment.

The situation is pervasive. It can be seen at numerous college campuses, including IU.

There are far too few Jonny Marlins in the game — the IU walk-on from Center Grove who earns court time mostly on the basis of grit and heart. And far too many Noah Vonlehs, the 6-foot-10 IU freshman who many people think will leave for the NBA after the season.

That is not undue praise for 5-10 Marlin, who plays beyond his limited size and Division I ability; nor is it a knock on Vonleh, whose mad skills include leading the Big Ten in rebounding and shooting 55 percent from 3-point range.

That is simply the reality created by NCAA and NBA eligibility rules.

Next year at this time, Marlin will be in Bloomington, probably hustling his way into more court time and earning a college degree. Vonleh could be an instant NBA millionaire, likely sitting on a bench while learning to play the game at a different level.

Let’s be clear, Bloomington is barely a blip on the map. At places like Kansas, where two college freshmen may lead the Jayhawks to the title next month and then almost certainly be top five NBA picks, the situation is even more pronounced. Those guys will be gone before they’ve even picked a major.

There is a better way.

“We can get rid of all the hypocrisy and improve the education,” said Dallas Mavericks owner and IU grad Mark Cuban, a proponent of reform. “If the whole plan is just to go to college for one year maybe or just the first semester, that’s not a student-athlete. That’s ridiculous.”

Here is what needs to happen:

Raise the early entry age in the NBA from 19 to 20 (Cuban argues for 21). That effectively keeps most matriculating student-athletes in college through their sophomore season, by which time they have been forced to show up in the classroom and hopefully retain some life skills. In turn, make that scholarship binding on the university for the two-year period. The commitment should run both ways (unlike today).

“A major college has to pretend that they’re treating them like a student-athlete,” Cuban told USA Today in one of a series of recent interviews on the issue. “It’s a big lie, and we all know it’s a big lie.”

Make the NBA Developmental League a comprehensive alternative to college, not just a minor league where players can find themselves on the street without a chance to mature.

Change that by allowing D-League teams to sign athletes just out of high school but require that base contracts be for a two-year time frame, similar to the college scholarship. Include in it mandatory life skills classes for players. Make sure that those who do not cut it still have some benefit. Cuban would guarantee tuition for players not making it to the NBA within a certain period.

The result?

Without doubt, some one-and-done wonders might opt to not play in college. That would not be such a bad thing, especially for the players, who can take a path better suited for their academic abilities. After all, this should be about what is best for all, especially the players.

Let’s face it. This is not the players’ fault. It is the way the system is designed. College just isn’t the best choice for athletes who don’t aspire to be students; it may be the only viable choice, however.

As for the college game, the difference would hardly be noticed. Remember, high school seniors could go straight to the NBA until 2005, after which the effective one-year moratorium went into effect. The game did not suffer, although a number of young players prematurely flamed out.

Old-timers will remember 1972, when college freshmen became eligible for varsity basketball and football competition for the first time in decades. What few may remember, though, is that an NCAA committee unsuccessfully recommended that the decision be reversed a decade later.

The system today is broken. Talented high school grads, kept from the NBA for a year, go to college with little intent of warming a seat in the classroom. There is no alternative. Fans see these one-timers come and go too soon. Coaches get back on the recruiting treadmill, annually vying to sign the latest McDonald’s All-Star to a one-year college contract.

No one wins in this system.

That can change. Check that; it must change.

It is time for college basketball courts to be filled with genuine student-athletes once again.

Bob Johnson is a correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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