Who Pipes Up for the NCAA?

Just a few years ago, I think most basketball fans, and experts of various kinds, tended to have kind things to say about future NBA stars playing NCAA basketball. It made them smarter, or more mature.

Boy, has that changed.

This morning I read a thoughtful "debate" between Oklahoma City big man Etan Thomas and columnist Dave Zirin on SLAMonline (via Daily Thunder). I put "debate" in quotes, because they both agree on the essential point that the NCAA is an organization that exploits young stars by treating them as free labor, under the guise of education and personal development.

The point is, I have read that general point of view from just about everyone imaginable. Players like Thomas, who rave about their education. Professors at those same universities. Sonny Vaccaro, who has played as big a role as anyone in shaping the world of college basketball.

It makes me wonder ... I'm sure the status quo has many defenders. But where are they? It has been a while since I read or heard anyone make an impassioned, informed argument that the way things are now is the way they ought to stay.

Even North Carolina Dean Smith, a titan of college basketball, writes in his book "The Carolina Way" about profound ways that's what best for young athletes is often not what's best for the NCAA, which is after money:

If I were empowered to write the rules concerning college basketball eligibility, we wouldn't have to worry about freshmen getting too much attention. I wouldn't allow freshman eligibility for men's basketball or football. The recruited freshmen would play on freshman teams along with nonscholarship players. They would have no overnight trips to take them away from their studies. Their practice time would not be as long or as intensive, nor would they have to spend as much time talking to the media.

It would give them a better to adjust to their academic load and to being away from home for the first time.

Aren't teachers supposed to support what's best for their students? Freshman ineligibility definitely would be in the best interests of the student-athlete.

We don't do it because of money.Spin it any way you choose, but we allow freshmen eligibility in basketball and football because of money. If colleges give a freshman a basketball scholarship they want him "earning his keep" on the court right away. It's wrong and shortsighted. But I've fought that battle for years. I know when I'm licked.

You know what I love about what Dean Smith writes here? It totally calls the bluff of the NCAA and the NBA's age limit.

Players need more maturity, education and development before facing the rigors of professional basketball? Great. Dean Smith is the master teacher. Put them in his hands. Let them really get an education, while contributing nothing to your ticket sales and TV revenues.

Oh, what's that? That doesn't work either?