Basketball Boys Behaving Badly: Would College Make a Difference?Los Angeles Lakers basketball player Kobe Bryant has been blessed with phenomenal basketball skills, and not a lot of common sense. He may not be guilty of raping the Colorado concierge who has accused him, but the $100 million player is clearly guilty of horrible judgment in having what he describes as “consensual” sex with the woman. Before the case is decided, thousands will weigh in with their opinions. Whatever the outcome, the case is a cautionary tale for those young athletes whose privilege has insulated them from the fact that actions have consequences.
Washington Wizards player Kwame Brown is no Kobe Bryant, either in terms of skills or in terms of circumstances. The 21-year-old is better known for his on- and off- court feuds with coaches, teammates and others than for his basketball prowess. Had Brown gone to college after graduating from high school, this would be his junior year. Instead, he is one of the NBA players that would flunk “plays well with others” if it were a class he had to take.
Cleveland Cavaliers player LeBron James is just 18, the latest high-school holster to leap to the big leagues without so much as a pit stop at somebody’s college. James was pulling crowds in, garnering media attention and making headlines before he was the top draft in the last NBA selection process, even though all the headlines weren’t good. He was accused of various funny money dealings with sports jerseys and a new Hummer, and though the charges weren’t proven, James seems to have, early on, taken on the hubris and sense of entitlement that Bryant and Brown have become so expert at.
Just like three swallows don’t make a summer, three data points are flimsy evidence to reach conclusions. Still, Bryant, Brown and James are among the basketball players whose sports acumen propelled them into the NBA without benefit of college. Some say that these young men have about as much interest in higher education as I do in quantum physics, and that it makes sense for them to go for the gold and bypass the books. Others might note that they may have picked up a few ancillary skills in their college years, including maturity and people skills. On the other hand, college attendance does not dictate good sense. After all, the athlete and actor O.J. Simpson presumably matriculated at San Francisco City College and the University of Southern California. Of course, it’s a lot more difficult to leapfrog from high school to the football gridiron. Moreover, lessons can always be taught but not learned.
Unfortunately, the scandals and peccadilloes (yes, there is a difference between a rape accusation and a surly personality) that plague Bryant, Brown and James are all too often replicated at the college level. There have been too many players who have been charged with sexual misbehavior, too many charged with some funny money scandal, too many making headlines because they just can’t get along. If bad behavior transcends the NBA, some might ask, why go to college at all?
That’s the question a colleague, a former college professor, raised when I wondered aloud about Kobe, Kwame and LeBron. In theory, she said, she would encourage a young man to choose college over post high-school professional sports. Still, she confessed, if her son was looking at a five-year, $100 million deal, she might be tempted to tell him to take the money and run. “Anything can happen,” she reasoned aloud. People get hurt in college sports just like they do in pro ball, but they get hurt for a lot lower stakes. Their presence in the NBA is understandable, but their challenges ought to represent a lesson for the scholar athletes who hope to go to the NBA after college. There are probably half a dozen ways to say “keep your nose clean” and “watch the company you keep,” but henceforth the words “Kobe Bryant” will be shorthand for those two lessons. After last year’s drama at the University of Georgia, incidentally, the lesson ought to trickle up to coaches who think that winning means they don’t have any rules to follow.
While some basketball boys are behaving badly, too many others aren’t going to college at all. The racial college attendance gap remains wide, with 28 percent of all Whites over age 25 having completed college, compared to 17 percent of African Americans and 11 percent of Hispanics. Among African Americans, there is a college attendance gender gap of nearly 2:1. While the behavior of college athletes and their NBA counterparts generates headlines, the greater issue is attendance patterns and their impact on the long-term economic status of African Americans.
Still, one cannot help but wonder if Kobe Bryant would be in the trouble he is in if he had attended college for even a year. Further, one cannot help but wonder why many in the African American community still give the hoops more weight than the books.
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