The U.S. Secretary of Education talks basketball development

(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Arne Duncan would like more college students to have the athletic experience he had.

The negotiations for the NBA's next collective bargaining agreement will be mainly about money. (Owners, who have been dipping into their own pockets to keep the fires burning through a frosty economy, want more of it.)

But perhaps the hottest issue will be about a different set of numbers: The age of NBA players. Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Dwight Howard and the like were once drafted straight out of high school. Four-and-a-half years ago, the NBA declared players had to be one year out of high school before going pro. The result has been a rash of "one-and-done" NCAA players. The NBA has expressed an interest in extending the ban for an additional year, which will be an issue in upcoming negotiations with the player's union.

Meanwhile, a growing number of people are eager for the age rule to be eliminated.

On Thursday, the latter group appeared to gain an influential ally in U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Once a star player at Harvard -- one of his coaches there was current Celtic assistant coach Tom Thibodeau -- and a former professional player in the Australian league, Duncan is passionate about basketball. Speaking to university and NCAA officials in Atlanta, the former chancellor of Chicago's public schools said that the higher education of some basketball players was a "farce."

We spoke by phone shortly after his speech:

Tell me your thoughts on the NBA's one and done rule, if you would.

I focused a lot on the NCAA in general. Can I go through that first?


The NBA's rule was really a very minor piece of it.

I think when the student-athlete experience is done well, and the right values are there, it can be an extraordinary experience. It's an opportunity to learn life lessons that are best taught on the playing field or on the court.

I was so fortunate to have those kinds of experiences, that shaped me. You know, the values and the lessons are huge. They shaped my sister who was a student athlete. I just want to make sure that everyone has a chance to do that. I think the vast majority of folks do it right. But I think there are a small handful of places where it's not being done right. With the wrong values. And that is really unacceptable.

So I pushed really hard in a couple areas.

I think graduation rates matter tremendously. If you look just at the NCAA basketball tournament last year, the 64 teams, about 25 percent of the teams, had less than a 30 percent graduation rate. A third of the teams had a zero percent graduation rate for their African-American players.

And then there's another set -- about ten teams in the tournament -- that graduated everybody. 100 percent! White, black ... didn't matter. There were these huge disparities in outcomes.

To me it makes the non-performers even more unacceptable.

So what I propose is that teams with a graduation rate below thirty percent -- I think it's a low bar, frankly -- be prohibited from post-season participation.

Secondly, I talked about what I consider an important trade-off.

Many coaches are barred from working with players in the off-season. To me it's interesting. This is managing to the lowest common denominator, saying you don't trust your coaches. I'd like to trade. I'd like to let them work with their players, their student athletes, in the off-season. Empower them. But hold them to a much higher standard of accountability.

When rules are broken at a university, often the university pays the price. The coach skates, gets off scot-free, and often gets a higher paying job some place else. I think when coaches are doing the wrong thing they need to be personally held accountable for what's going on there. Whether it's being suspended from coaching, saying you can't coach for half a year, two years, or a lifetime ban, depending. I think coaches have to step up. We're going to empower them. But hold them to a higher standard of accountability.

As we develop professional basketball players -- from teenagers into the NBA, in America -- should college be part of that?

What I said was that we need a bigger focus on graduation rates, with a direct look at post-season activity. And secondly, we need to empower coaches while holding them to a higher standard of accountability.

Thirdly, we just need to slow down. I'll give you two examples. This idea of signing eighth graders to a college. I think it's crazy. How can we expect them to choose a college, they haven't even been to high school yet! How can they make an informed choice? It's laughable. We should wait on that until at least the sophomore year of high school.

And on your point, I think what's happening now is so intellectually dishonest. It's a farce. It's not "one and done." They're in class for about three months or four months. Maybe six hours a week. They're really not participating in the life of the university. They're really not student athletes. They're passing through.

This is complicated, in the present construct. I think the model in my mind, that makes more sense, and is more honest, and is much more beneficial to the student athlete, is the baseball model. Where for that tiny time, that 0.001% of players who should be able to go to the pros coming out of high school, Kevin Garnett or Kobe ... let them do that. But for those who aren't, let them stay in college for two years, three years, whatever, so that they're honestly part of the college experience. They're honestly going to class. I think they'd be much more ready to handle the pressures and the temptations and responsibility of being a professional athlete if they've had that experience. I think a lot of these ones and dones ... it's a joke. They're not student athletes. It's intellectually dishonest.

I think they're not mature enough and you see some consequences of that. I want to set these guys up for success, not for failure.

What about if they want to go play in the D-League, or in Europe like Brandon Jennings?

I think that they have the right to do that. Again, I just go back ... when done well, I think that college experience is just an extraordinary chance to learn life lessons. What you see is that often when folks spend that extra year, too, they're all over the college experience and stay three or four years to graduate. Those guys do remarkably well. They come in more mature, handling pressures, as better leaders.

My instinct is that the truly exceptional players ... let them go. Let them fly. But for the vast majority, being part of that college life and environment, I think it's a tremendous benefit long-term. And we should think about that.

About, you mean, getting rid of the one and done?

Yeah. But that was not the focus of my remarks. The NCAA does not control that. I focused my remarks on what I think the NCAA can do. And I think they've done, overall, an extraordinary job of moving things in the right direction. But it's staggering to me that we allow a couple of bad actors to taint their universities, to taint their professions, and to taint the NCAA as a body. There's just no reason to do that.

David Stern has been frank that to him it's just a business decision. Thanks to this rule the NBA gets players who are more marketable, more ready to be good pros. How do you counter that argument?

I don't counter that. He thinks staying in college longer is positive. So we're on the same page. We're not in conflict here.

But you would let players go straight to the NBA from high school if they were LeBronesque.

Yes. That tiny tiny percentage.

Who would determine if they're in that category or not?

I think the market would determine that. If they want to do that, great. If it works out, great. But 99.99% of players don't fall in that category. I'm interested in better serving those guys. I want to give them the kind of quality experience, in the community, in the college, on the court that's going to really help prepare them for whatever comes next, whether that's the pros or getting a good job. Being part of the rich cultural and social life of a university has incalculable benefits.

If folks are doing the wrong thing, you stain the university, you stain the programs, you stain the NCAA.

This has got to be about values. The vast majority of programs, I think, are instilling the right values. I am forever personally indebted for my experience to my coaches and my athletic director. Every day I think about the lessons that I learned playing. I want that to be the norm. I want every kid to have the kinds of opportunities that I was lucky enough to have.

Is there a race element here? People always point out that white sports like golf and tennis don't have these restrictions on what young people can and can't do.

I'm looking at a baseball model. That cuts across races.

Good point. So, let's say we enact your plan, and I go to college hoping to be a pro. And after a year of college, an NBA team would like to employ me, and I would like to play for them. Isn't it almost unconstitutional to keep me from going to play for them?

I'm not so concerned about that second or third year. I'd be open on that. I'm just saying, let's get beyond three months. What I want is for you to really go to class for a year. Really be a part of the academic life of the institution. I want you to really be a student athlete. At that point, I'm open on it. I think one and done is a lie. It's not one and done. It's three months. It's six hours a week of class. It's not honest. It's a farce. And I think many student athletes have been poorly served. You can look at many student athletes who have been denied a better chance to mature. We want to maximize the chance of success.

If we have new rules about needing to graduate a certain number of players to play in the post-season, how will we combat the grade inflation, grade faking, tutors and the like that goes on?

Again, we can't always manage to the lowest common denominator. So, if folks are cheating, let's deal with it. If there's something wrong with the program, put it on the coach. Have some real consequences. Deal with it openly and honestly. I don't want to manage to the lowest common denominator. I want to have a higher bar.

There are so many institutions that are graduating 100 percent of their student athletes. It's possible. People are doing it every day. But to have four teams that graduate not one African-American player? To reward them -- it's insanity. And all these other schools are graduating 100 percent? And we treat all these schools the same, even though they have dramatically different outcomes? I don't think we're teaching the right values there. I don't think we're rewarding the right values there. These guys are having dramatically different impacts on the lives of student athletes. And I want to reward those that are doing the right thing, that are teaching the right values, that are valuing education.

Good. So, are you a Bulls fan?

I am.

So what do you think of the season so far?

Um, can we go off the record?