A few years ago The Onion ran an item about how all 30,000 current NCAA men's basketball players -- from those who played for every program from Duke to Allegheny County Community College - had announced that they were declaring their eligibility for the 2007 NBA Draft. According to the dispatch, NBA Commissioner David Stern was surprised that so many kids wanted to become professional basketball players, and was considering creating 3,000 expansion teams for the 2007-08 season.
The NCAA, of course, has never been known for its collective sense of humor. As if to preclude such a mass declaration, the organization recently tightened its rules for underclassmen to make it more harrowing -- if not harder -- to turn pro. College prospects will be under so much time pressure to jump through a narrow hoop before the June 24 draft that the Unsurest as well as the Surest Things are likely to attempt the feat.
Before now, players had about a two-month window in which to withdraw from the draft, return to school and retain their NCAA eligibility. This year international players can bow out until June 14, the NBA deadline. But the NCAA has shortened the cut-off date for U.S. underclassmen to May 8. Since the deadline to declare for the draft is April 25, college players have less than two weeks to be evaluated by pro teams.
Make that a week and a half. The list of draft-eligible candidates is released April 29, the date on which underclassmen may start workouts with NBA teams. Effectively, this means that underclassmen have only 10 days to audition with teams and decide whether to stay in school or enter the NBA draft and forfeit their eligibility.
Ten days is a pretty short time to make what may be the most important decision of a student's life. On top of that, the NCAA will not permit a student-athlete to skip class for a pro tryout. (The penalty: loss of eligibility). So, in the end, all these undergrads have is one weekend to map out their future. Does anyone seriously think that two days are sufficient? I've got a pretty good hunch that many players will declare for the draft in the belief that they're first-round caliber, players who -- had they be given more time to weigh their options -- would have stayed in school.
Clearly, the new restrictions are not in the best interests of players, which is what the NCAA was designed to protect and serve. Rather, these rules are in the best interest of the colleges that are actively recruiting high school seniors during the same period, and need to know what roster holes need to be filled. To add further insult, international players have gained a huge and unfair advantage over homegrown underclassmen - a five-week advantage to interact with and draw insights from NBA teams.
The priority of the NCAA should be student-athletes, not the schools they attend. The new rules are symptomatic of the organization's basic problem: that in cozying up with school administrators and pro leagues, it has abandoned the athletes. It's bad enough that the NCAA bans players from using attorneys during contract talks with pro teams -- with their draconian sanctions and shady backroom deals, NCAA officials have lost sight of their raison d'être. They bully and badger and browbeat players, hindering their ability to make momentous and possibly life-altering choices. Few can afford to mount a court challenge and all are indentured as unpaid professionals. If the NCAA won't end its strong-arm tactics, Congress should step in. Yes, this issue demands that level of attention.
All this reminds me of my one time-window at the University of Michigan Law School. During my second year, I spent much of the fall semester on campus interviewing with legal firms for a summer clerkship. I spoke to recruiters from New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and, on a whim, Los Angeles. If I'd only be allowed a single weekend to decide, I probably would have chosen my hometown, Philly. It was only because I had nothing but time that I picked L.A. If not for that luxury, I might still be camped out in my boyhood bedroom, gorging on Jim's cheese steaks and the onion bagels at Hymie's Deli.
Thank God that the NCAA had no jurisdiction over the recruiting process at Michigan Law.