Commentary

Young athletes, a degree matters

Updated: September 6, 2012, 2:42 PM ET
By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar | ESPN.com

The amateur status that was so important for young athletes to uphold when I was in college is not very important in this day and age.

Professional athletes are now allowed to participate in the Olympics. In basketball, the large salaries that are commonplace for NBA stars have had a dramatic effect on the way young hoopsters move from high school to the professional ranks. With so much interest in signing the next great player, the pro teams have made it possible for talented athletes to leave high school and go directly to the pros, although most opt to enroll for the minimum number of semesters needed to make them eligible for the draft, and in all of this, the value of a college degree has lost a lot of its luster.

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Paul Warner/Getty ImagesDave Bing didn't just focus on an NBA career. He also worked to get business experience.

Given the millions being paid to the better players, who needs a bachelor's degree? As a new school year starts, and some of those young men with great potential begin their short stays on campuses, I must point out that a college diploma is more important than ever for those who expect to sign a contract for big dollars.

We have recently seen how having a huge contract does not translate into lifetime security for superstar performers. Evander Holyfield, who reportedly earned more than $200 million in his pro boxing career, has been evicted from his Atlanta mansion and is for all intents and purposes broke. The same can be said with regard to NBA stars Antoine Walker and Allen Iverson. The pro athletes who end up squandering their windfall do so because they generally do not have the ability to manage and protect the huge sums of money they earn.

This has nothing to do with a lack of intelligence on the athletes' part. For so many of them, the lack of experience with money is their Achilles' heel. People who have successfully handled money are usually trained to do that job over a substantial period of time. This is after they have earned a foundation of fundamental knowledge at a financial institution, such as a bank, or they come from backgrounds with an extensive business connection. The knowledge and experience are the keys to their expertise in money management.

For the average athlete, there is no way that their life experience can help them handle their money. One thing that can change this is taking the time to go to college. Learning about the world and the way it works in and out of the classroom is a great way to figure out the way you want to live your life. Athletes who truly invest in these educational opportunities sometimes find out that the dreams that they had about the good life are not based in reality. But too many of them skip that learning, think of themselves as rock stars and try to imitate a lifestyle that has left so many people on the rocks.

Of course, there have been athletes who get the concept with regard to money management. Former NBA star Dave Bing is presently the mayor of Detroit. Since his NBA career ended, he has had a successful business career as a producer of steel products and he went from that success to a political career that has given hope to his beloved Detroit. Dave didn't make the mega bucks that are commonplace for today's NBA stars, but he was able to use the money he did make to start his steel company. Over time, he is probably doing better than many of his contemporaries in the NBA.

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Christopher Furlong/Getty ImagesStudent-athletes should focus on graduating, too.

Junior Bridgeman also comes to mind when I think of NBA players who have gone on to success as businessmen. Junior controls 280 fast-food franchises and has been able to make his business grow and thrive since retiring from the NBA. For Junior at Louisville and Dave at Syracuse, the basic education they received in college was a foundation for their success after their athletic careers ended. The fact that they had to attend study hall and hand in papers or learn about things that are totally outside of their comfort zone made it possible for them to adapt to the business world and succeed.

Finally, young men need to realize that there are also a limited number of jobs in the professional sports franchises. The NBA, for example, has only 450 roster spots. For basketball, baseball and football, there are fewer than 3,000 on-field jobs for athletes. Any high school student with the talent to get a scholarship to attend a university for four years should focus on the business aspects of their favorite sport. In addition to playing, there are thousands of jobs supported by the pro leagues that offer gainful employment.

There are many different paths to success in America. I hope our young athletes can do a better job discovering what they are. Fully taking advantage of college would be a great start.

Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA's all-time leading scorer and the author of several New York Times best-selling books.