Time to curb college basketball's 'one-and-done' trend

April 7, 2014 

Today, there’s a new national champion in NCAA men’s basketball, but in the afterglow will come again the question: Isn’t it time to be done with one and done?

One and done refers to college basketball players who, barred from going directly to the NBA after high school, lend their talents for a year to a basketball power and then promptly leave school to the enter the NBA draft. The University of Kentucky, one of the teams in Monday night’s championship, was expected to start five freshmen who could leave after one year.

Players have left early for years, but the exodus after freshman year wasn’t chronic until 2005. That’s when the NBA reached an agreement with its players union that put in an arbitrary age restriction. Players must be 19 years old and one year out of high school before they can enter the league.

Prior to the age limit, players who were good enough could go directly to the NBA after high school. Some of the NBA’s best players did just that, including Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. The age limit supposedly protects 18-year-olds from entering the NBA before they’re sufficiently mature for the pro ranks. But the effect has been to turn major college basketball into even more of a waiting room for the NBA and feed cynicism about college athletes not being college students.

Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, recently said the one-and-done situation means, “A major college has to pretend that they are treating them like a student-athlete. It’s a big lie, and we all know it’s a big lie.”

At the college level, there’s almost universal agreement that the one-and-done pattern debases college sports and exploits the athletes who must give a year of free labor before they can profit from their talents. NCAA President Mark Emmert is against it. Even Kentucky’s coach John Calipari thinks it’s wrong.

But so far the NCAA, college presidents and affected players haven’t launched an effective challenge to the rule. Meanwhile, the best college coaches continue to recruit players who are likely to leave school after one year. Calipari has had 13 one-and-done players dating back to when he coached Memphis in 2006, ESPN reported.

Coaches are doing what makes sense to win. In his new book, “Players First: Coaching from the Inside Out,” Calipari says his job is to get the best players available and, with the age limit, the best players are likely to leave for the pros as soon as they can.

“I don’t know how to recruit a different level of player,” he writes. “There’s no way I’m intentionally recruiting a player because I know the NBA won’t want him after a year or two.”

The Kentucky coach has even given the mercenary process a positive name: “Succeed and proceed.” Though Kentucky’s freshman forward Julius Randle may have given it its truest coinage. When asked about one and done, he asked in return: “Like, ‘We won and now we’re done’?”

Yes, like that.

Some propose changing the age-limit to one similar to that covering baseball players. High school baseball stars can choose to play professional baseball or go to college. If they choose college, they can’t go pro until after their junior year.

But that change would only exacerbate the exploitation of basketball players. Some would give three years to a college and perhaps still not get a degree. Meanwhile, the colleges and the coaches would collect millions of dollars from their exploits.

The answer is to drop the age limit entirely. Basketball players hit their prime early, and their careers are not long. They shouldn’t have to give up a year or two of earnings for some vague notion of maturity. Golfers, tennis players and baseball players can all go pro after high school. Why not basketball players?

After Monday’s title game, winning players likely waved an index figure to signal: “We’re number one.” But when that number also means one and done, it’s a sign of a sport’s failure, not its success.

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