When I was a grade schooler, I enjoyed watching those romantic comedies about college athletes, usually footballers who were dying to get that coed cutie and move on to the house with the white picket fence.
The college landscape was made up of zany students from small hick towns. These students would be die-hard fans and cheer the state university onto victory. Stock characters always included dim-witted linemen and bright-eyed cheerleaders who pulled for or worked against the hero. Of course the hero would win the "big game" and get the girl with the neon smile. (Take a peek at "Knute Rockne, All American" to get a feel of what I'm talking about.)
For a while I thought I would get to have a similar experience by going to college, but the passage of time changed the potential for college athletes dramatically (the growth of pro sports, for one thing, had given us new post-college dreams). I bring up this issue because the college landscape today is dramatically different from my college years. Even more so than the difference between the 1930s depicted in those movies and the 1960s, when I went to school.
The amateur athlete has gone the way of 50 cents-a-gallon gasoline and been replaced with one-and-done stars who are on their way to making many millions in the professional ranks. College "money" sports, i.e., basketball and football, are no more than unpaid minor leagues for the NFL and NBA. Major League Baseball and National Hockey League teams can draft and sign young players right out of high school, leaving the non-revenue sports like track and field, swimming, and gymnastics as the only college sports that are played by true amateurs.
When I left high school, I could not play professionally in the NBA. It had a rule that prohibited me from playing until after the year that I would have graduated from college. For me to have played pro ball I would have had to play overseas or for the Harlem Globetrotters (which I never seriously considered, because college was my goal). I chose to go to UCLA, which had just won back-to-back NCAA championships. The rules of the NCAA stated that freshmen were ineligible to play varsity. My freshman team was very good, so good that we beat the varsity team in the season-opening freshman-varsity game. So to begin the 1965-66 season, the Bruins varsity was No. 1 in the country but No. 2 on campus. Coach John Wooden had an embarrassment of riches.
When I finally got to play varsity, the Bruins went on to one of the greatest demonstrations of dominance college sports has ever seen. My team won the NCAA tourney for three consecutive years, and after I left they continued to dominate the game, winning four more consecutive titles and finally totaling 10 championships in 12 years. It's impossible to imagine this ever happening again.
UCLA's latest star recruit, Shabazz Muhammad, likely will be on campus for one season only in preparation for a career in the NBA. It is not possible given today's structure to keep the most talented players in school for four years. The starting five (three freshmen and two sophomores) from this year's NCAA champion, the University of Kentucky, declared for the NBA draft this week.
I can't say that I would chose differently today. In that hypothetical vein, if I and my teammates from 1965 had been freshmen this year, the 2012 trophy would be headed home to Westwood. It's also likely, in that dream scenario, that Anthony Davis would not be the presumptive No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft.
Muhammad has stated that he is looking forward to the challenge of resurrecting the UCLA program, which has had a run of disappointing seasons. He will be joined by talented recruits Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams. Unfortunately for Bruins fans, that trio is unlikely to share multiple seasons, or titles, like I did with Michael Warren and Lucius Allen.
Instead of a four-year commitment that keeps young stars at a university, basketball programs now provide star athletes with a stage on which to display their talents to pro scouts for a few months. From there they move on to the pro ranks where the big bucks may be waiting. It is a very different scenario from the days of yore, but for the athletes it makes for a lot less exploitation by the schools.
The idea that many of these athletes are attending college to get a degree is no longer part of the picture. Somehow it is refreshing to see the system for what it is. But it's a long way from "Win one for the Gipper."