The Ruder Reality: A sports column on graduation?

A sports column for a graduation issue.

To my consternation, my editor told me that was exactly myassignment.

I wittily replied, “That’d be like Jenna Bush writing her thesison the Geneva Accords.”

She didn’t laugh.

“No, seriously. The two just don’t go together – Yankees and RedSox, Ducks and Beavers, Blazers and rehab…”

Still, no laugh.

“Come on, college isn’t part of the plan for elite athletes.Despite all the uproar this year over the NBA drafting morehigh-school athletes and under-20 foreign athletes than everbefore, and the fuss over the NFL blocking the entry of players whohaven’t been out of high school for three years, the whole’skipping out on college thing’ is nothing new. Basketball andfootball are the last of the professional sports to give a damnwhether their players can spell. To be honest, they don’t even careabout that. If we set up and subsidized a nationwide developmentalleague for promising athletes, both leagues would be all over that.They wouldn’t care if we taught them that the earth was flat and2+2=3.”

She shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “so what?”

“For pro sports leagues, college translates to free practice andan extra few years of physical and emotional maturity. Extra timeand practice means bigger, stronger, more-skilled players and abetter quality product,” I said. “With basketball and football, theNCAA figured out that it could make money by packaging the wholedeal and playing up to school pride. That way everybody wins -well, everybody except for the best athletes who are ready to gopro before they’re legally allowed to and have to risk theguaranteed millions they could have by playing for free with thepotential for career-ending injury.”

“So it’s about money?” she asked.

“Isn’t everything these days? I’m all for ivory-tower ideals,but you can’t tell me an 18-year-old basketball player should turndown a guaranteed $5 million with a brief window of opportunity toget a degree that will be out there after their career isover.”

I could tell my somewhat cynical appraisal was going over wellwith her. She pounced: “Why not? Who says everything has to beabout money? College is about more than just learning skills tohelp you make money – it’s about learning the skills to get youthrough life, instincts, social skills, how to think. A lot ofthese young pros could benefit from the ability to think about morethan their next crossover dribble, new pitch or favorite play. Lookback to the ’70s when outspoken student athletes like Lew Alcindormade an impact on national politics. The devaluation of the studentathlete has left us with a bunch of multi-million dollarwalking-corporate billboards who make Jessica Simpson look a Nobellaureate.”

I slowly nodded.

“I mean, there is no doubt that some of these kids goingstraight to the pros have the talent to succeed, but very few havethe composure or education to handle the overwhelming situationtheir talent has placed them in,” she said. “You can see the directresult in the rise of off-court player legal incidents and thelike.”

“Isn’t that attributed to the growth of the media and the needto feed 24-hour news networks?”

Her angry face reminded me that we media-folk aren’t supposed tocriticize our own (unless they work at The Oregonian).

“So where does that leave the graduation column?” she asked,undeterred.

“What about a piece where I congratulate all the new graduatesby explaining how their new degrees give them a leg-up on the vastmajority of the professional sporting world?”

I could tell she liked the idea, so I continued.

“A piece about how their degrees have taught them something thatmost professional athletes, no matter how hard they try, will neverhave: the ability to speak in complete sentences.”

“Forget it, Ruder! Just write some more inane drivel,” she saidas her face turned red.