Living the dream: Foregoing college for the pros
When Lenny Cooke came to the Reebok ABCD basketball camp as a high school senior in the summer of 2001, his name was the one on everybody’s lips. He was declared to be the next Kobe Bryant, and expectations were running high for him. But within a week, this all changed. By the end of camp, Lenny Cooke was old news. The new name on everyone’s mind was a high school junior who played for some parochial school in Ohio. But what has LeBron James done since then?
Lenny Cooke was not invited to the NBA draft the following year. He didn’t get that shoe deal. Instead, Cooke stood by his phone hoping that some team would call, since he was no longer eligible to play college basketball. Instead, Lenny Cooke, at the age of eighteen, was unemployed without a clue of what to do with the next 60 years of his life.
There are hundreds of these stories-kids who choose to skip college because of the stars in their eyes. But are the kids to blame? Or should they be held accountable? The issue may not be clear, but it is worth investigating. Every year, a new group of athletic youth is presented with the same decision. For baseball and hockey players, the decision to make is whether to skip college and become professional or to go to school and turn pro after a few years. For basketball and football players, the question is whether to stay in college and complete their degree or leave school early and start playing pro ball. This is not an easy question, and anyone in such a situation must evaluate the pros and cons of each side.
The biggest argument on the pro side is obvious: money. The dream of most college students is finding that one job they love to do and getting paid heftily for doing it. Now, imagine having the opportunity to earn a living playing a game. And if you are good enough, Nike and Adidas will come knocking on your door, pleading to put your name on a shoe. The bigger your name gets, the more people pop out of the woodwork. All of sudden, Chunky soups are asking your mom to appear in commercials and life couldn’t be sweeter.
The issue of money runs deeper than this, however. You will be paid to play a game, but unless you were among the top twenty picks in your draft pool class of upwards of 2,000, most likely you will not be getting Eli Manning money. For many, simply being a pro athlete doesn’t mean you automatically bring home the bacon. In minor league baseball, for example, most players just get by on their salary, which on average can range from $800 to $2150 a month.
A very small percentage of players actually receive the million dollar contracts that newspaper reporters love to write about. The endorsement market is even worse. Companies want recognizable faces to sell their products. If the athlete endorsement industry was measured as a market, with the athletes serving as the companies, then the government would designate it as an oligopoly with the culprits being Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Peyton Manning, just to name a few.
The strongest argument on the con side is the possible college education that is being sacrificed. America is becoming an increasingly information-driven society, with education being worth more than it used to be. Instead of being commended for having a college degree, most white-collar jobs require it. Along with the greater job opportunities that come with a college degree is the ability to better understand the world around you and make more rational decisions. College also allows players the opportunities to showcase their talents and develop their skills as they compete against other talented players.
“The smart money is on the young athlete that pursues a college education, where he or she can really spend time developing their skills at the collegiate level,” said John Schael, Washington University’s Director of Athletics, when asked about the value of a college education compared to the possible benefits of going pro.
Now, this argument is good and dandy, but try and explain this to the kid living in the projects of Coney Island or on the east side of Chicago whose mother works two jobs just to be poor. This issue is most complicated for the have-nots. Even if they did go to college on a scholarship, how could they adjust to the college-level workload after going to a high school that was on the verge of being closed? But this fact is not alien to most people. When asked about cases like Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair, kids who had nothing before turning pro, Schael admitted that “in some cases it does make sense.”
But what about the kids who don’t even get drafted, the Lenny Cookes out there? Once you give up your amateur status, there is nothing you can do to get it back. And if your name is not called on draft day, what is there to do now but to start from scratch? One day you are on top of the world, the next day you are just another teenager without a college education.
Some will keep playing in independent leagues and some will go back to school on their own dollar. Some will get that second chance from a generous executive who owed them one and some won’t. There will always be the Kurt Warners out there, but there will also be those unknown names out there still trying to hold onto their dream. Just ask Lenny Cooke, who, still going strong, was last seen playing in some gymnasium in Brooklyn, wishing that one day his big break would come.
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