Slam dunk for LeBron, air ball for the NCAA: Former high school star LeBron James rejected an unpaid college career for a lucrative gig in the pros. Paying college players could arrest the inevitable decline of college basketball if too many more players follow James’s example. AFP/Getty Images Credit:

The name says it: the NCAA Elite Eight, the eight best teams in college basketball, survivors of a long, highly competitive season and three hard-fought rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament, March Madness. And yet players from seven of the eight colleges, underclassmen with up to three years of eligibility left, won’t be back this fall. What’s more, nine of the top ten picks in this year’s June NBA draft, six of whom played in the NCAA tournament, are leaving college basketball before exhausting their eligibility.

The departure of so many high-performing players has taken its toll on the NCAA’s product, intercollegiate basketball. College basketball “this season has been a long, fitful snooze,” wrote columnist Dave Kindred in the Washington Post. The departure of players who left for the pros after their freshman year, Kindred wrote, “left spaces filled by lesser players.” “Put bluntly, college basketball stinks,” wrote the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Mark Bradley. “After nearly two decades of descent the sport has hit bottom.”

For years, NCAA basketball was the only game in town for players with ambitions to play in the NBA. Now, dozens every year desert the college game for something they can’t get in college—the chance to share in the revenues their performances create—and their departures have fractured the college basketball cartel’s hold on its sport.

It’s more than just a basketball story. Like many a monopoly and oligopoly before it—like Standard Oil a century ago, like Detroit’s Big Three, like IBM, like Polaroid—the central tenet of the NCAA’s dominance, the unpaid student-athlete, has been undermined. Like them, it can learn to compete under the new rules, or it can dig in its heels and risk irrelevance.

In 1990, I suggested in the Washington Monthly that college players ought to be paid and should not be required to be students at the college whose team they play for. They should have done it then. They should do it now: give players what they need and what they deserve to stick with college teams. Think of it as kind of a koan: To hold on, they must let go. But will they? Will they adapt and survive, like IBM has? Or will they hold on, like Polaroid, until they go into bankruptcy and are sold for their parts and brands?

The NCAA is often referred to as a cartel. But its power has historically been dependent on its symbiotic relationship with the NBA. The NBA prohibited its teams from signing college players before their class graduated, guaranteeing the NCAA a steady supply of unpaid labor whose performance could be monetized in the form of tickets, T-shirts, and TV rights. And the NBA used college basketball as a free minor-league system.

So it worked for college basketball and the NBA. For the players? Well, not so much.

Yes, they got four years of college, provided at wholesale, priced at retail. But recurring scandals surrounding college players’ academic eligibility called into question how high a value some colleges and some players attached to whatever education was taking place.

Players also ran the risk that injuries would diminish or destroy their value to pro teams and thus their career prospects. And, of course, they played for free, donating services worth millions of dollars.

In recent years, the manifest unfairness of this arrangement has attracted more attention and criticism from writers like the Atlantic’s Taylor Branch, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, ESPN’s Michael Wilbon, and Fox Sports’ Jason Whitlock, all of whom have called for college players to be paid.

But while writers have debated, the market has moved. Dozens of the players whose exploitation writers decried started getting paid. Not by colleges—NCAA rules on that haven’t changed. Rather, having been refused compensation by the colleges that make millions from their performance, they now sell their services to teams that will pay them to play, whether or not they attend college.

The NBA’s refusal to allow teams to sign players until their college class had graduated began when the league was founded in 1946. It lasted until 1971, when Spencer Haywood, a sophomore All-American and the leading scorer on the American gold medal-winning team at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, won a Supreme Court ruling that blocked the NBA from enforcing its rule against signing high school players and college underclassmen. “This group boycott issue in professional sports is a significant one,” wrote the federal district court that issued the injunction the Supreme Court upheld. “If Haywood is unable to continue to play professional basketball for Seattle … a great injustice will be perpetrated on him.”

The NBA struck its colors with a face-saving settlement, establishing the “hardship rule,” which permitted teams to draft athletes from low-income families—a category that could be (and was) interpreted to include virtually every player who wanted to enter the pros before exhausting his college eligibility.

The hardship rule, and its successor, the “early entry” rule, brought just two high school players to the NBA, then no more for twenty years. But it wasn’t only high school players but also college underclassmen for whom the Haywood case opened the door. One underclassman was drafted in 1972, six in 1973, and eight in 1974. The Haywood case wasn’t the only breach in the NCAA-NBA cartel’s grip on basketball. From 1967 until 1976, the NBA had another league to contend with, the American Basketball Association. The ABA competed mostly in markets uncontested by the NBA, such as Denver, Kentucky, and Miami. And it had no rule against drafting high school players and underclassmen, and signed some of the most charismatic players in basketball, including crowd pleasers like Julius Erving, Moses Malone, and George McGinnis.

Weakened by the Haywood case and facing competition from the ABA, the cartel began to crumble, piece by piece. The lure of NBA-ready high school stars was too strong for teams that needed success, and bankable stars, right away. In 1995, the Minnesota Timberwolves, one of the league’s weakest teams, drafted a Chicago high school graduate, Kevin Garnett, in the first round, the fifth choice overall. The next year the Los Angeles Lakers, badly in need of some magic in the post-Magic, post-Abdul-Jabbar era, drafted seventeen-year-old Kobe Bryant out of high school. Also in 1996, the rebuilding Portland Trailblazers drafted Jermaine O’Neal, also out of high school. The following year, the Toronto Raptors, struggling in just their third season in the league, picked a North Carolina high school star, Tracy McGrady.

Of course, not every player who has turned pro out of high school or early in college has hit the jackpot. Quite a few have gotten NBA tryouts and gone on to play in Europe or, even farther down the food chain, in the Philippine Basketball League. It may not be the NBA, but it’s still basketball, and it’s still a paycheck.

But there have been enough success stories—Bryant, McGrady, Garnett, Dwight Howard, Amar’e Stoudemire, and, of course, LeBron James—to convince a league that revolves increasingly around stars rather than teams that high school players and underclassmen are good investments.

In all, forty-two high school graduates have turned pro and been drafted by NBA teams. The stream of prep-to-pros has been joined by a river of college underclassmen. By the 2005 draft, after the NBA and the player’s union had agreed to require players to have at least one year of college (the “one and done” rule), nine of the top ten draftees, twenty-eight of that year’s sixty draftees, were high school players or college underclassmen. And another stream of non-college seniors was coming from yet another source of competition: foreign countries, with nearly 200 draftees to date.

The NCAA’s prohibition against paying players still stands. But it has become increasingly irrelevant. The players whose compensation the NCAA’s rule is meant to bar—the best nineteen-, twenty-, and twenty-one-year-old players, stars who could be attracting fans to college games—get paid anyway, by professional teams.

It’s too soon to tell if big-time college basketball will join the historic monopolies and oligopolies that were slow to adapt to change and suffered the long-term consequences. The sport still commands enormous fan loyalty: locally in college towns among students and alumni, and nationally in the form of a lucrative long-term national March Madness TV contract. But will it be able to maintain its popularity as more of its best players increasingly see their hopes for a basketball career as lying outside the college sport?

And what about the fundamental unfairness inherent in a system in which college players create wealth for their institutions but are not allowed to share in it? Can the recurring dishonesty that has accompanied college sports be eliminated as long as the current system stays in place? For what shall it profit colleges, to paraphrase the New Testament, if they gain the whole world but lose their own souls?

Surely a system could be devised that would retain the basic structure of big-time intercollegiate sports but provide players a fair share. But a system that could be effectively enforced? That’s another question entirely.

The history of efforts to enforce NCAA rules is not encouraging. The amateur ideal has proved notoriously difficult to enforce, not just recently but almost from the beginning. As early as 1929, Duke professor Charles Clotfelter has written, long before big money came to college basketball, American College Athletics, a report issued by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, “documented abuses in recruiting, the undue influence of alumni boosters, widespread subsidies to players, high salaries of coaches and a ‘distorted scheme of values.’” What is most striking about the Carnegie Foundation report,” writes Clotfelter, “is how contemporary its findings sound today.”

What accounts for the persistence of transgressions across at least eighty years of NCAA enforcement activity? Perhaps a certain number of violations are to be expected; after all, despite red lights and speed traps, drivers still violate traffic laws on a regular basis. Or perhaps the fifty-nine-member NCAA enforcement staff is too small to adequately police the violations generated by 340-plus college sports programs.

Joe Nocera urges far-reaching reform. “Do you need any more proof,” he asked rhetorically after sports scandals at Rutgers and Ohio State, “that college presidents are not qualified to run a major entertainment industry like college football and men’s basketball?” His remedy: “culling the big-time football and basketball schools from the rest of the N.C.A.A. and letting them play by a different set of rules.” In addition, “create some real separation between the teams and the universities, and stop pretending they have any ‘educational’ value. (And while we’re at it, pay the players.)”

It may go too far to say that college sports have no educational value whatever. If basketball scholarships help kids make it through high school, get them into college, and propel them through graduation, that’s a good thing—especially for the vast majority of students who will never play professionally.

But if college revenue sports are, indeed, “a major entertainment industry” that college presidents “are in over their heads” trying to run, if big-time college sports have no educational value anyway, why are colleges, which exist to educate, in the business—and it is a business—of sponsoring college teams made up of students, paid or unpaid, at all?

If colleges believe that having a basketball or football team contributes to education, let them keep them. But let them run their teams like they do other campus-based enterprises, like public radio and TV stations or hospitals. Program producers and station engineers at college-based NPR and PBS stations don’t work for nothing. Neither do doctors and nurses at university hospitals. Neither should athletes playing for college-sponsored teams.

So pay the players. Pay them what the market will bear—maybe in the low-five-figure range of the salaries now paid to players in the NBA’s Development League. Allow them union representation like NBA and NFL players have. Provide a free college education—a real college education—for players who want one, as a fringe benefit. Players could pursue their degree while they’re playing, during off-seasons, or after their playing careers are done.

And exempt them from having to be students in order to play. Patients at university hospitals are attended by licensed physicians and nurses, not by undergraduate premeds. The programs made possible by “viewers like you” on college-affiliated NPR and PBS stations aren’t produced by film majors.

The University of Texas doesn’t have to give up its Longhorns or the University of Wisconsin its Badgers. They don’t have to give up the games or their ticket sales or their TV rights payments. They just have to share the wealth with the players whose work—let’s call it what it is—is the source of that wealth.

All they stand to lose is the clash between the demands of big-time, big-dollar college sports and colleges’ missions and ethics.

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Louis Barbash is a Washington writer who blogs at