Panel Debates Role Of School Athletics

Jerry M. Chow

JAY BILAS (left) and BOB RYAN (right) encouraged high school athletes not to forgo college in a panel discussion on student athletics at Harvard Law School last Friday.

Lawyers and former athletes said high school sports players should not skip college to join a professional sports team at a panel discussion at Harvard Law School (HLS) Friday.

But there seemed to be little consensus among panelists as to how prevent exceptionally talented students from going straight into the major leagues.

Spencer Haywood, the first player ever to skip college for a career in the National Basketball Association (NBA), said that missing college was a mistake.

He is currently working on getting his college degree.

Some panelists said that lack of money deters many players from pursuing a college career.

“I remember going to the University of Maryland with a pair of jeans and a pair of corduroys. My favorite and only heavy jacket was my letterman’s jacket. I worked over the summer and made about $1,000, and that had to last me for the whole season,” said HLS alum Len Elmore. “There have to be lots of students in that situation today.”

But National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) lawyer Elsa Cole said that increasing compensation for college players would defeat the purpose of college sports.

“This is an educational experience. You’re supposed to be providing more of a well-rounded [experience to a] student because you offer these opportunities,” she said.

Elmore, who played in the National Basketball Association (NBA) and now works for ESPN, said that current policies encourage players to skip college and go directly to the NBA.

Lawyer Jay Bilas, who also works for ESPN, said high school students are commonly scouted by professional teams.

Bilas said that he was “personally disturbed” by his station’s coverage of LeBron James’ high school basketball games. James, a high school senior in Akron, Ohio, is widely regarded as a basketball prodigy.

“We are responsible for what we did and said at ESPN, obviously, but the media, we’re going to consume what we’re fed,” said Bilas.  

“In the balance of harms, I tend to put more blame on the school because they put [the game] up for sale.”

Elmore said he worried that disadvantaged players, especially African Americans, see people like James and give up on academics, concentrating on their game and a long-shot at a professional career instead.  

NCAA regulations prevent college players from accepting any gifts—from free sandwiches to money—with the exception of a certain number of scholarships.

“It bothers me when you see a player on a program who gets fined because he gets free class home or free trips home, or somebody buys him a suit to go to somebody’s funeral,” said Russ Granik, a graduate of HLS and the deputy commissioner of the NBA.

He said that the NBA was considering a proposal to lengthen the amount of time players would spend on the “rookie pay scale.”  

When players are drafted now, they get a set amount of money for their first few years, determined by their position in the draft. Later, they are able to negotiate for more money as free agents.

The Harvard Law School Committee on Sports and Entertainment Law organized the event, which also included a panel of HLS alumni with careers in sports law.