Friday, April 24, 2009

Another nail in the coffin for education

I am an entrepreneur, a lifelong learner and an educator, so one would think that I would be in conflict when I read a story like the one in USA Today about high school basketball players skipping college to play professionally overseas until they are eligible for the NBA Draft. I am all for maximizing earning potential, and can certainly understand the appeal from the perspective of a young person, especially in the case where that opportunity could change things in their life that have been fundamental concerns I have never had to face (do we have enough money for groceries this week?).

And when the story has a happy ending (Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James), everyone wins. The fans win. The industry wins. The players are able to change the lives of many people.

But when I read a story like the one I just stumbled upon, I think about people like Ronnie Fields. Maybe you remember him... the high school teammate of Kevin Garnett who was dubbed "all-everything." He was declared academically ineligible at DePaul, where he signed a letter of intent, which stumps me. He declared for the CBA (not NBA) Draft, where he was selected #73 overall. How did he go from Mr. Basketball in high school, All-American, to the 73rd draft pick in a second rate league? He is now 32 years old, having jumped from league to league, with no NBA experience. He went undrafted in 1998 when he submitted his name into the NBA Draft pool.

So, Sonny Vaccaro is back at it again. What I would like to know is where this guy is when players he "consults" don't pan out? It seems like he just moves on, but how many Ronnie Fields players with similar stories have been left in the Vaccaro wake?

Around the time Ronnie Fields was leaving high school and testing the professional basketball waters, I was professionally involved with basketball, and very involved in marketing qualified players with no collegiate eligibility to overseas and minor league teams so I remember his story well. Over a decade later, he is still toiling in the CBA.

So Vaccaro is out there "consulting" and "advising" players to forgo any time in college. He calls it "purgatory" for exceptional players. The stigma he attaches to the concept of ANY educational experience sickens me.

For the minuscule percentage of players where this option is a logical one, there are undeniably droves more who unrealistically think it will work for them. What happens though, is that countless people, leaches, wanna-bes, hangers-on, hitch THEIR aspirations of an easy ride onto the star of a naive, wide-eyed 17-year old. And then the star dims. And the "friends" disappear, looking for the next sure thing to hitch a ride. It happens. I've seen it. Way too much.

So, I wish Jeremy Tyler all the possible happiness that could exist for him, as I would for any young person, with so much in front of them. I hope he finds years of success, but I also have no conflict when it comes to education. I hope he does not devalue it. Some day, he is going to need it. Basketball will end someday. If it ends abruptly, without the anticipated podium shot with David Stern and the riches that follow, what will he have left? A 10-year career bouncing around semi-pro leagues making $2000 a month? And when he is 40, and can't do that any longer, what is there for him? He can't get job coaching in high school or college, because he only has a high school diploma or GED. What then? Where are all of the "good friends" that once existed because there was promise and an easy ride? These are the stories that impact me. That is why I credit players for going to college, staying in school to exhaust their eligibility, and then moving on. I understand that that is not for everyone, but I shudder when I see the vultures and Vaccaros of the world "advising" players to make life-altering decisions that have no impact on their OWN lives. When lawyers and doctors and other professionals improperly advise their clients, they can be sued for malpractice. They have a stake in the things they tell other people to do. Vaccaro has no stake. If a kid works out, great. If not, oh well, not my problem.

It's despicable. Good luck Jeremy Tyler. And Ronnie Fields, wherever you are, hopefully your story will make people aware of the need for a balance with reality, and the urgency to create options and choices. Life is a long time, not just the length of a 10-year basketball career (if you are even that lucky).

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