Durham News: Opinion

Gaspo: What’s maddening about March Madness


Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, the ACC player of the year, was right on both counts.

About two weeks before March Madness, Duke’s latest freshman fantastic told the N&O: “My personal opinion about that is going to college, thinking about one and done, that kind of messes up your career at college. … When I was coming in, my thought was national championship, national championship. Winning and getting better.”

While Okafor did call college a “career,” he was right to not be thinking out loud about “one and done,” where an 18- or 19-year-old (typically) signs up to help his team fight toward the Final Four, then reveals soon after the dance that he’s jumping to the NBA for the chance to fulfill his hoop dreams and make millions.

Jabari Parker ran on this hardwood path. So did Kyrie Irving and Austin Rivers.

This is not a Duke problem only. Universities so fortunate essentially sign up a high school ultra-phenom for two semesters, then kiss them on the noggin goodbye, reaping great benefit along the way. And these exceptional players, who can blame them for taking off?

In his comment, Okafor also didn’t express any bracing interest – actually, any interest at all – in academic education at Duke. Again, it was the right thing not to say. Not because the strapping star center doesn’t care about academics, but because academics is almost certainly not what drove him to Duke.

Jahlil Okafor came to play for Coach K, learn from the legendary leader, and have a clear shot at winning it all this year. It’s really that simple.

Except it’s not.

It’s not simple because everyone knows that the term “one and done” makes a monumental mockery of the term student-athlete. Let’s begin with that truth.

The truth, instead of these near-wasted words in a recent, powerful report where the NCAA threw portions of the penalty book at Syracuse basketball and its coach, Jim Boeheim, for a range of transgressions.

From the NCAA: “Improper institutional involvement and influence in a student’s academic work in order to gain or maintain eligibility is a violation of NCAA rules and a violation of the most fundamental core values of the NCAA and higher education.”

Are you kidding? The “fundamental, core values” of the NCAA are not the same as those of higher education.

If the NCAA hired 100 more investigators with its just-announced near-billion dollars of annual revenue, the organization would uncover problems on a monthly basis a lot more serious than those at Syracuse, and more than a handful of cases as bad as UNC’s years-long imbroglio.

Some of that dreadful UNC experience was apparently referenced by Tar Heels basketball coach Roy Williams in the same story in which Jahlil Okafor was quoted.

“What troubles me is that for three years we’ve been trying to recruit with a lot of junk going on,” Williams said.

Junk? Come on, Roy.

Here’s one humble idea that would move major college basketball in a more credible direction.

Instead of abdicating responsibility, and waiting for the NBA to make a rule that says a player must reach 20 before he can enter that league, why don’t athletic departments and coaches make their own rules?

Why don’t they require that full scholarship athletes sign a commitment to staying two years? The document would state that if an athlete left sooner, with some exceptions for serious health issues, academic disqualification or a transfer, his team agrees to forfeit half of the wins in which that athlete participated.

If there were championships, they go out the door. And: that team voluntarily gives up one athletic scholarship a year for three years.

The details would have to be ironed out, but you get the picture. Basically, coaches punish their own team if a scholarship athlete leaves early. And the player who departs in violation punishes his teammates in a way they’ll never forget.

We know Coach K has team rules. Make this a new rule. Duke would be applauded, and ahead of the curve.

I’m sure there are untold reasons why this would be difficult, such as the NCAA albatross. Doing the right thing is often hard. But if coaches on Tobacco Road voluntarily took this high road, coaches around the country would follow.

The pinnacle players would have little choice but to accept the new status quo.

Two years of college is better than one: one is almost pointless. These young adults would have twice the time to get schooled at these wonderful places where education is the core mission. Isn’t it?

If a star among stars chooses to play overseas instead of enrolling at a university, that’s his or her choice. College basketball, March Madness, will still be relentlessly popular. The game and the gigantic revenue will go on.

One and done should be over and done.

You can reach Tom Gasparoli at tgaspo@gmail.com or 919-219-0042.