Spring is supposed to be the season of renewal, but it has been a bleak few weeks for the basketball program at Arizona, where four nonsenior starters from the NCAA finalist Wildcats have declared themselves eligible for the June 27 NBA draft. As of Monday, 15 underclassmen from 13 other schools also had said they wanted to turn pro. Meanwhile, on April 10, the NCAA's management council passed a proposal that would enable certain underclassmen to turn their athletic talent into instant cash by taking out a one-time, $20,000 bank loan, with the promise to pay it back, presumably from the earnings they would make as pros.
The only thing more ludicrous than the message this idea conveys—Stay in school! We'll pay you!—is the notion that such an inducement could compare with the kind of coin awaiting a first-round draft pick. Asked last week whether a $20,000 loan would have enticed him to return for his senior year, Arizona forward Richard Jefferson laughed and said, "Heck no. That would barely cover the down payment on my Mercedes."
Given the glacial pace at which NCAA legislation moves and the fact that only about 250 of its 363,000 student-athletes would be eligible for the loans, it's vexing that the NCAA would spend so much time doing so little to help so few. The loan program, scheduled for a vote by the board of directors this week, would be modeled after the NCAA's disability-insurance plan. In that plan American Specialty Underwriters (ASU), a Massachusetts insurance company determines, with help from pro personnel experts, which prospects in baseball, basketball, football and hockey are probable high draft picks and thereby qualify for coverage. Under the loan rule the NCAA would serve as a conduit between ASU-approved athletes and a yet-to-be-determined lending institution. Each student would pay back his loan after he left school, regardless of whether he became a pro.
Although the NCAA is to be applauded for easing its draconian regulations on compensation, it's troubling that it's not addressing the needs of all its student-athletes. The few commonsense proposals that are floating around, such as one for a special fund to cover such expenses as airfare home for the holidays, are still years from being enacted. "This is exactly what's wrong with our sport," says St. John's coach Mike Jarvis. "All the attention is being paid to a few superstars instead of the majority of kids."
A study by the NCAA's subcommittee on agents and amateurism found that many of its regulations concerning pay-for-play could be traced to Victorian England, where aristocrats concocted arcane rules to prevent commoners from participating in their sporting events. "The idea was to create class distinctions," says subcommittee chair Christine Grant. Given the windfall to come in 2003, when CBS's 11-year, $6 billion television contract kicks in, the NCAA should not be creating greater class distinctions. It should be catering to the masses.