O.J. Mayo and the ripe system

Dick Vitale's right: The NBA's age limit has created a fertile field for collegiate fraud.


King Kaufman
May 13, 2008 1:45AM (UTC)

It's a pretty good indication that whatever program you're operating isn't working the way it's supposed to when, in response to it, Dick Vitale, the world's foremost promoter of the idea that college basketball represents all that is good and pure about young people, goes off on a rant about the concept of the "student-athlete" being a fraud.

USA Today quotes ESPN's star college hoops analyst as he turns all kinds of colors over reports that USC freshman phenom O.J. Mayo -- I hope you're sitting down, because this is shocking -- accepted cash and other gifts for three years as a high schooler and in his one season at Southern Cal.

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Those gifts would be against the rules of both high school athletics and the NCAA, of course. Mayo has announced he'll skip his sophomore season, not to mention the second semester of his freshman year, to enter the NBA draft.

Mayo, as well as such one-and-done stars of the past two years as Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Michael Beasley, were forced into one year of college ball by the NBA's 2-year-old age limit. Before that rule was enacted, they'd have gone into the NBA draft straight out of high school and earned their keep honestly.

NBA commissioner David Stern had grown concerned that his league was filling up with bad characters who had shunned college. Bad-for-the-game types like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady and LeBron James. Their nefarious influence just couldn't be overcome by the college-bred refinement of a Ron Artest or the campus-forged superstardom of a Casey Jacobson.

So he pushed through the age limit, forcing high school phenoms to cool their heels for a year, pretending to be interested in an education even though they and everybody else know they'll be gone from the campus by the time most frosh are just figuring out where the bathrooms are.

Of course the real reason for the age limit, and why the NBA wanted it to be 20, not 19, is that the league would rather young players build their brand and improve their game on somebody else's dime. A famous college player who's two years more advanced than an almost unknown high school player is better for business, even before counting the two years' salary he didn't have to be paid, and the two-year delay in getting the kid to his free-agency years.

The NBA settled for one year.

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And if you wanted to invent a system ripe for abuse, for under-the-table payments and academic fraud, let's say, you couldn't do much better than this one. These kids aren't even on campus long enough to care about the place. A few years from now, when the players then attending USC will be paying for Mayo's alleged crimes with postseason and TV bans and scholarship reductions, Mayo will be hard-pressed to remember what USC was.

USC? That was that place I played for a few months and we finished third, right? No, wait. That was the Vegas Summer League.

"It is sad and this one year and done should be done away with," USA Today quotes Vitale saying. "Kids like Mayo, Beasley, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett should all be allowed to make the transition from high school to the pros if they want to go.

"And those that do come to college should have to stay three years, like in baseball, and give stability to the college game and even the NBA because then these kids [who remain in school] would be ready to play in the league. The lottery guys should be allowed to go instead of this fraudulent situation of them being student athletes. Give me a break."

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That three-year thing sounds sort of reasonable -- give the kids a choice, and then make them commit to it. I'll vote for that as soon as the coaches face the same requirement.

I think the change should go the other way. Let the kids have more freedom. A college player who declares for the draft and doesn't get picked, or who declares and changes his mind before draft day, should be allowed back into college basketball. If the concern is to "give stability to the college game," why make it so easy for the better players to lose their eligibility?

I'd go even further: I'd let 'em back into the college game after they've played pro ball, within limits. Kid leaves college early, tries out for an NBA team, gets cut or appears in half a dozen games? Let him come back.

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Now, I hear your complaint, John and Marsha Collegebooster. That would essentially turn college basketball into a minor league for the NBA.

No it wouldn't. That job's been done. Ask O.J. Mayo what the difference was between playing for USC and playing for a D-League team. If he were honest, he'd probably give an answer that would have very little to do with basketball and a lot to do with a favorite participatory sport among all college students, not just athletes.

Beyond that, the minor leagues are the minor leagues. The people running it can either be honest about it or not. And if they're not honest, they shouldn't be surprised when the players, for whom honesty is so expensive, aren't honest either.

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King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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