From David Lee to Justin Combs

If you’re from St. Louis, you might know who E. Desmond “Des” Lee is. The wire-shelving magnate turned into the city’s most prominent philanthropist, donating more than $70 million dollars to civic organizations and universities in the St. Louis area before he died in 2010 at the age of 92.

But his good works and wire-hangers aren’t his only legacy, his grandson David Lee is a starting power-forward in the NBA for the Golden State Warriors. And before he turned pro, Lee was a highly-touted high school prospect who accepted a scholarship at the University of Florida, where he played from 2001 to 2005. None of this was considered out of the ordinary, even though, presumably, Lee could have affored to pay his own way, especially when Florida was short a scholarship spot his freshmen year.

Fast-forward more than ten years. This time, it’s the son of an incredibly wealthy man getting a full-ride athletic scholarship. But instead of a wire-shelver-cum-philanthropist, the plutocratic patriarch is none other than hip hop mogul Sean Combs, otherwise known (for now) as Diddy.

Combs’s son Justin, a defensive back for New Rochelle Iona Prep, will be playing football at UCLA, one of the flagships of a California public university system suffering from savage budget cuts and tuition hikes. Needless to say, Combs’s coming to play football on the school’s dime has ignited a minor controversy.

Even if UCLA’s recruitment of Combs’s is totally cynical and they’re more interested in his father’s donations than his son’s ability to do a corner blitz, it is still hard to see what the fuss is about.

After all, UCLA gives out 285 athletic scholarships a year. And even if the other 284 student athletes need the assistance more than Combs does, we still have a university going out of its way to subsidize and support something that is best an addition to its core academic and civic mission. And if sports turn a profit for UCLA, than every football and men’s basketball scholarship is just as cynical as Combs’s – the school does better when the big money teams are winning.

And then there seems to be the inescapable cultural dimension to this firestorm. Lee’s grandfather donated $700,000 to the Saint Louis Symphony music education program; Diddy gave his son a $360,000 Maybach for his 16th birthday (it’s a car). Oh yeah, Lee is white and Combs is not.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a young, extravagant black man getting a full ride is what is getting the public to finally question the wisdom of athletic scholarships.

What would be useful is a real discussion of the considerable resources – including scholarships — public universities devote to intercollegiate athletics, especially at a time when the California’s public universities are under terrible strain and students are being asked to pay more and more to attend institutions that are supposed to be defined by their inclusiveness. Instead, we have a useless round of collective indignation of a rich black kid becoming the posterboy for a system that he is not a very good representative of.