The Wall Street Journal, over the course of the past few years, greatly expanded its coverage of subjects outside the normal ambit of a business daily. It covers the seemingly monthly New York fashion weeks (ugh!). It has at least one human-interest type story on its front pages, usually below the fold, nearly every day. Today’s happened to be some nonsense about Phil Campbell, Alabama inviting all the Phil Campbell’s of the world for a picnic. How quaint. It even pretends to know what it is doing reporting on sports. Today proved otherwise.
In an article on whether or not experience matters in the NCAA basketball tournament (Who Says Experience Matters?), it appeared enthralled and credulous at having dug up statistics that seem to show experience doesn’t matter to the success of the teams in the tournament. I kept reading through the article, thinking that surely they understand why teams with more experience may not fare as well as those without it. Nada. It even quoted the George Mason University coach as saying that experience may be detrimental to good judgment, because the player knows whatever he does in the tournament, it may be his last, and so he’s apt to feel too much pressure to perform. Huh?
There is an obvious reason less-experienced teams might fare better than those with experience. How many college games did you enjoy watching in which Lebron James played? How about Kobe Bryant? How many of last year’s fab freshman class at Kentucky returned? Experience may be detrimental to success, but it’s not because of pressure. It’s because players in the NCAA that have lots of experience, i.e., have stayed in school for the whole four years of eligibility, are generally not the best players. If they were, they’d be in the NBA. The teams with young players about to bolt for the NBA have the better players, and in basketball, talent beats experience nearly every time.
The NBA doesn’t coddle college basketball like the NFL does college football. It takes players that can play, refusing to require them to work for free until after their junior year of college like the NFL. The NFL’s policy makes it complicit in the sham of amateurism that is NCAA college football. The NBA’s policy of allowing a kid to make money playing whenever someone is willing to pay him means that college basketball, for the most part, really is played by amateurs. What now happens in the NCAA ranks is that a kid goes to college for a year or two to mature (unless he’s really a phenom like James or Bryant), and if he’s good enough, turns pro. It’s why Kentucky will probably be starting freshmen for years to come.
Basketball is a sport where learning the skills of the game doesn’t take years of training and maturity. Shooting, dribbling, jumping, rebounding, blocking, defending…these are the basic skills of a basketball player, and the ability to do them well depends more on nature than nurture. It’s why seven-footers from Asia and Africa can be taught the game rather quickly and easily, even if they hadn’t played it growing up. Having a seven-foot nature is an advantage in basketball that no amount of nurturing of a six-footer will overcome. It’s also why a Lebron James or a Kobe Bryant needn’t do an unpaid apprenticeship in the college ranks before stepping onto an NBA court and contributing.
Some might say that James and Bryant really missed out by not attending college. Missed out on what? Isn’t the ultimate point of college to enable a kid to get a job? If the kid can get a job making several million dollars without going to college, he’d be a fool to go. It’s not just true in sports. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to help found Microsoft. Michael Dell dropped out of Texas to found his own computer company.
A college education is not an end unto itself. It is a means to an end, the end being gaining the ability to make money to support yourself. I think for many people college is just a way to waste time and their parent’s money until settling into the boredom and ennui of some job in the petite bourgeousie bureaucracy of this post-modern age. Some kids like the welfare ride so well that they extend it to graduate school. In the meantime, Kobe and Lebron and Bill and Michael are counting their millions. Imagine how expensive forgoing the professional world to go to college (or to finish college) would have been for those guys.
In order to impose some sense of discipline on what college is for, I’ve told my kids that their limit after high school is $100,000 each. That’s all I’m giving them, for the rest of their lives, and they can do with it what they will. They can use it to go to college, or to start a business, or to buy a house while they work their way up the ladder from the lowest rungs. But spending $100,000, or over twice that for some Ivy League schools, is a stupid waste of money if it’s not done with some idea in mind that the whole point of going is to learn how to independently support yourself.
It’s hard to tell whether the Journal was balefully stupid in not acknowledging that the reason experience doesn’t pay off on the NCAA court is because the best players are getting theirs in the NBA, or whether it is just trying to gain access to the NCAA decision makers by pretensions of ignorance. Just like the academic community at large would deign to admit that its brightest and most capable students often feel compelled to leave the stifling confines of academia for doing real stuff that matters, the NCAA does not like to admit that the best college basketball players often never make it to college, or only stay for a year or two if they do.
Now, would that the NCAA and NFL would have someone call them on their conspiracy to keep from paying kids to play football. Some hotshot young antitrust lawyer in the Justice Department ought to be able to make the case that their collusive rule against drafting anyone before completion of their junior year violates the Sherman Act. Discarding the rule might prevent cases like that of Cam Newton’s dad shopping his services to play. Newton would surely have skipped his junior year of college had he been allowed to do so. And the NCAA’s claim of amateurism in college football wouldn’t ring quite so hollow.