He’s not your child

March Madness sweeps in another addled state. Those blaring horns, familiar colors and boyish athletes combine to render you nostalgic, emotional. Suddenly, the TV is pulling at your paternal levers, producing the crazed yearning for an even higher age limit.

(Must little Kyrie Irving leave the nest today? Why so soon?)

If you feel this way, perhaps you welcome the prospect of setting the bar at 20 years old for these aspiring professionals. I understand, dear fans, basketball pundits, and friends of my father. Root for the 19 year old collegiate basketball player, wish him well in the future, but I’d remind: He’s not your child. Actually, is he just a child? He’s also a man who can pay taxes, vote, and legally kill strangers in far flung deserts.

Some clichés are clichés for a reason. This military one endures because it’s apt, cutting. There’s no rebuttal. Unless you’re actively, loudly, speaking out against the low military age limit, how can you make a concerned argument for a higher basketball limit? I’d love to hear a wrinkled pundit sagely intone, “Hey, 19 year old men should be allowed, even encouraged to risk exploded limbs, post traumatic stress disorder, a life of mental anguish, painful death…but you know what? God forbid they risk getting millions of dollars for being great at putting a sphere through a ring. Protect them from themselves!” Of course, there are those who favor a higher NBA hurdle and a higher military age requirement. But I’m hearing sneakers squeak over their silence on the latter matter. Oh, and the email address is ethanstra@gmail.com if you can parse support of the military’s stance while also favoring a 20 year rule in hoops. I’m waiting by the keyboard, ready to learn.

Fans, basketball pundits, friends of my father: I question your paternalism. What’s really motivating this want to keep the collegiate athlete in a child-like state? Is it that you just love college basketball and wish it was better–like back in the day? Is that you enjoy the image of youthful innocence and wish athletes watered that image for longer–like back in the day? Is that you fear and resent the idea of black teenagers, holding the millions that would shame your life of hard work–like…still today?

Or is it that you really do think the college game helps slowly develop skills that would go unpolished in the pros? That’s an innocuous motivation, one worthy of debate. Strange it’s rarely raised in respect to America’s whiter sports, but OK. Let’s examine the notion that players would be better for having four years under the tutelage of a great college coach like Mike Krzyzewski.

Setting aside how Duke never produced a great NBA career…

Where are all the four year superstars? Tim Duncan’s alone in this category, on an island, talking to a volleyball about his protracted Wake Forest stay. NBA superstardom is a nation comprised of those who either left or never participated in the NCAA bracket racket. LeBron, KG, Kobe, Dwight, Chris, Dwyane, D-Rose…yes, they all jumped for more cash, not knowing what was good for em,’ some think. And I wonder: If extra college ball is so self-evidently great for NBA players, wouldn’t we see more “four year” All Stars? If exposure to fewer games, relatively worse competition, and NCAA-enforced penury helps hone greatness, there is a dearth of observable evidence to support that argument.

Reality seems to have an anti-NCAA bias. A few years ago, professor and Sports Illustrated columnist Michael McCann displayed–with hard data–that less college ball correlated with more NBA success–among pros. He also showed that student athletes tended to get arrested far more than their pro cohorts. To put it kindly, the NCAA’s off-court maturation process is suspect.

But you, the age limit lover, like to cite slippery hypotheticals. Example: “Man, if only Marvin Williams had stayed the course at UNC!” Or: “Derrick Favors jumped too early and that’s why he’s rough around edges that don’t even exist yet.”

The notion that this or that player would have been better for staying in school is only that–a notion. It’s powered by the cultural myth of college ball as learning, pros as flaunting. So, confront the possibility that perhaps Player X just wasn’t at the level many believed. A pro disappointment can be about the revealing of modest potential, rather than the revealing of failure to realize enormous potential. More to the point, there’s no proof that college would have done anything for a prospect, save for maybe getting him in trouble with the law, or retarding his development. Same rules apply to counter those who retroactively lament how a flawed superstar could have been better had he only joined the Madness. It’s easy to posit that college would have made LeBron perfect, but it’s a belief unrelated to basis. I could just as easily suggest that all these players would have thrived had they merely sacrificed animals to the Lord Sherwoodtheus. Same amount of evidence supports this theory, plus I hear that deity’s power to conjure triple doubles is only matched by his power to conjure reductio ad absurdum analogies.

But, maybe you want more college for players because of, well, the college aspect college. Education is good, can’t argue that. I would, however, argue that graduation rates suggest a dearth of learning within this NCAA cash churner. Do you think John Calipari tosses and turns at night, fretting over a forward’s intellectual blind spots? His job is to wring the young man for all he’s worth in the cynical sense. And Cal’s paid more than any other campus official.

Some coaches are better about encouraging schooling, and if your love of education is behind this age limit support, I get that. Just know this paternalism is an ultimatum, not a suggestion. It’s telling a group of mostly poor Americans: “Play for me, for free, or cross the damned ocean and ply your trade in a different country.” Truth is, scouts will scoff at anyone outside Europe or the NCAA. Your “pro-education” choice is a “leave or be financially exploited for our entertainment” option to anyone with NBA dreams.

But, why are you even trying to make career decisions for a stranger’s kid? He’s not your child, you know. And he might not return that warm gaze as you favor bilking him “for his own good.”

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