- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
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The NCAA has new academic standards for those student-athletes that will be recipients of scholarships in 2016. The requirements state that high school freshmen this fall will have a certain amount of core studies on their transcripts before they can play at the college level. These courses must be passed with a GPA of 2.3, which is up from 2.0. English, math and science classes are specifically referred to as parts of this basic entry-level regime.
This focus on academics by the NCAA is a good thing; however, I think that this scrutiny is very much too little, too late.
The money that is available to athletes within a year or two of leaving high school is too much of a pull and they are passing up opportunities to earn a degree in order to sign for big bucks in the professional ranks. This is especially true in regard to basketball.
College basketball now is an entirely different landscape compared to 20 years ago. The college season has become a glorified tryout for the NBA draft. The NBA has installed a 19-year-old age limit on who can enter the league (U.S. players also must be one year removed from their high school graduation dates). This has created the "one-and-done" phenomena. Talented high school players enter a college and play for one season, then leave for the NBA.
Only the players of lesser talent remain in college and their stay in the college ranks is one where they keep one ear tuned toward the phone as they wait to hear when they will get their shot in the pros. The new academic standards will have almost no effect on what is happening. A talented high school senior will pick a college with a good program and enroll. His academic path is not going to last more than seven months before he has found an agent and submitted his name for the draft. Seven months. September to March will be the amount of time he spends as a "student-athlete."
Professional teams and the college ranks are affected by this scenario. The colleges are not able to keep their teams together for any length of time because the best players leave as soon as they are able to show the talents that will get them professional contracts. So the quality of the college game has suffered as a result. Pro teams are put in positions where they must take the time to teach the fundamentals of the game to newly signed college phenoms. In many instances the players are stymied by trying to live the life of a professional athlete. The time that was available for them to learn the game and develop some maturity is no longer available. We have seen where the money and "star" status that a pro contract can confer will go to the heads of the newly signed prospect. Some of them fail miserably as pro athletes and wash out. Too many of them are never heard of again.
We can't really blame the athletes in this situation. They are seduced by the glamour and potential to be wealthy that can turn anyone's head. Many of the athletes come from backgrounds that involve poverty, single-parent home life and a lack of academic preparation. For them, pro sports are the only way to a better life. They do not believe the opportunity to get an education contains enough incentives to outweigh being famous and the dollar signs. They are sadly mistaken.
My good friend and former teammate Kenny Heitz, who passed away last month, and I were in the same class and graduated the same year from UCLA. Kenny was chosen in the NBA draft by the same team that chose me: the Milwaukee Bucks. He could have probably made it in the NBA but Kenny had other ideas. Instead of playing, he enrolled in Harvard Law School, where he was an outstanding student. After getting his degree and passing the bar, he practiced law for the rest of his life. His preparation and follow through on his chosen path were first rate, and he was able to have a remarkable career as a lawyer.
Kenny's vision and belief in what he could achieve with his intellect provided a solid foundation for a successful life. He was the example of success that John Wooden was most proud of. The values he used for motivation were key aspects of what we learned from Coach Wooden. It's a shame that they aren't at the top of the list for so many young people who could follow the same path.
The focus on improving academics for incoming freshmen by the NCAA is a good thing; however, this scrutiny is very much too little, too late.