Props to Roger Goodell. The NFL commissioner came down hard on two of the league’s most wayward stars this week, suspending Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry for the first eight games of the season and Titans cornerback/return man Adam “Pacman” Jones for the whole year. Henry was arrested four times over the past 14 months, and Jones has been interviewed by the police for 10 separate off-field incidents. Goodell wrote both of the players letters this week that read: “Your conduct has brought embarrassment and ridicule upon yourself, your club, and the NFL, and has damaged the reputation of players throughout the league. … Taken as a whole, this conduct warrants significant sanction.”
In an unrelated story — I hope — Texas’ Kevin Durant declared for the NBA draft yesterday. The 6-foot-10-inch 18-year-old averaged 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per game en route to becoming the Big 12 Player of the Year and the first freshman ever to win National Player of the Year honors. He will hire an agent, meaning that he cannot choose later to return to Austin, and is essentially guaranteed to be a top-two pick.
The point to this juxtaposition is that while laudable, it’s not enough that Roger Goodell and the various higher-ups of professional sports are willing to crack down on poor behavior. Professional athletes should not have to be treated like children, and Roger Goodell, David Stern and Bud Selig should not have to act like their fathers. But there’s no way athletes can ever hope to be treated as mature adults if they don’t finish college.
To be fair, I don’t expect Kevin Durant to go Ron Artest on us any time soon. Football players, for example, have to play three years of college ball before they become draft-eligible. A number of athletes have to leave college early and get paid to support their families. And, above all, remember that the large majority of professional athletes do not get arrested on a regular basis.
However, it is a major concern that a sizable chunk of the athletes who manage to stick around in professional sports are not college graduates. Athletes need three years of college football to enter the NFL draft, but that does not excuse the fact that 10 of the 25 prospects on ESPN football analyst Mel Kiper’s big board are not seniors. And given some recent projections for this year’s NBA draft, as few as five or six college seniors will be taken in the first round, and as many as seven freshmen.
The results of last year’s decision that basketball players could no longer be drafted straight out of high school were clear for us fans. Unprecedented parity led to the best NCAA tournament in years. The influx of amazing freshman talent revitalized programs such as Texas and Ohio State. The Buckeyes managed to ride their young talent all the way to the national championship game, largely thanks to vaunted big man Greg Oden and the speedy Mike Conley Jr., arguably the best point guard in the country this year. Freshmen, in short, made us care more about college basketball this year.
But going to college is meant to be for the athletes too. Sure, Ben Howland can teach the Bruins defense, Bob Knight can teach the Red Raiders how to play tough, and Coach K can teach the Blue Devils how to … um … hit the floor with their hands. More importantly, you spend four years with any of those guys, or Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, or UNC’s Roy Williams, or any number of other proven teachers and mentors at the heads of solid college programs, and you will mature.
This is not, of course, rocket science — athletes aren’t the only ones who mature under established mentor figures in college. That’s what we all do for four years at Yale. Try to imagine going into the real world after your freshman year, when you’re taking your easiest classes and you have friendly freshman counselors to ease your heads over toilets when you drink too much. I wouldn’t have been ready, and, with no disrespect meant to my friends, I don’t think any of them would have been mature enough either. Frankly, I’m barely ready to handle the real world now. If I am, it’s because I had the right people around me helping me to grow (read: become less of the little pissant I was in high school).
This is the problem with athletes not getting all the way through college. It’s not that they’re budding criminals, guys destined to sucker-punch opposing point guards or provoke bar shootings. It’s that they’re just not as mature as they could have been, and that leads to stupid decisions and getting caught up in trouble. And when you’re a multi-millionaire athlete in the national limelight, trouble hurts you and everyone around you.
Charles Barkley didn’t want to be a role model. But I’m not sure he ever had a choice. Athletes will always be looked up to with respect and admiration because of their superior talent. Whether they embrace that and make themselves into figures worthy of adulation and imitation or stumble ass-backward into a world they’re not capable of handling as adults can be as simple as putting off pay day for a couple more years.
Dan Adler is a senior in Pierson College and a former Sports Editor for the News. His column appears on Thursdays.