There are many levels of reaction to the stomach-churning knee injury that ended the season for Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel on Tuesday night in Gainesville, Fla.
Most of them we’ve already heard: the shallow reaction that this might cost Kentucky its tenuous spot in the NCAA tournament, the humane reaction of how the torn ACL will affect Noel’s chances at being a sure-fire, top-three pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, the angry reaction of his injury being the fault of the NBA’s silly and unfair rule that players must be 19 and out of high school a year before being drafted.
The bigger point in what might be a young man’s tragic injury is this: The fact we pretend college sports are about academics and amateurism is as hypocritical by us as it is hurtful to its best athletes.
Athletic phenoms get injured all the time. If Nerlens Noel were a minor-league pitcher who blew out his elbow at age 18, there would hardly be a peep. The two stories are essentially the same: A huge talent trains his whole life to make the big leagues before his dream is dashed. But if a minor-league pitcher fails because of the injury, we don’t say he got screwed by the system.
It’s the venue of Noel’s injury — the fact it happened at a packed O’Connell Center in Gainesville in front of rabid college hoops fans, not at a half-full NBA arena in Charlotte in front of depressed Bobcat fans — that matters here.
Noel’s injury happened in an industry where he’s an unpaid cog in a multibillion-dollar machine. While Noel risked his NBA millions for scholarship money, we fueled the money-making machine of college sports — spending hundreds of dollars for tickets to see him play, buying his jerseys, consuming the TV commercials during his games, writing and reading stories about him like this one — Noel himself got a miniscule slice of the pie.
The reaction to Noel’s injury needs to be another call to unlink the top levels of college sports from the fantasy world of amateurism. Let’s stop pretending we actually care about the “student” part of the elite “student-athlete.”
But first, to Noel and his future: Forget John Calipari’s diminished chances of repeating as NCAA champion this year without Noel (and, to his credit, that seemed the last thing on Coach Cal’s mind Tuesday night). The most humane and immediate reaction is how Noel’s injury will affect his status as possible No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft.
The play on which he was injured, as Kentucky was mounting a comeback in the second half of what ended up as a 69-52 Florida win, was vintage Noel, the reason NBA teams are ready to toss millions his way. On a fast break by Florida’s Mike Rosario, Noel hustled down the court, swatted the ball away with his left hand, added to his NCAA-leading total of 106 blocks — then collided with the basket support, twisted his knee sideways at a nearly 90-degree angle and lay on the floor screaming. Seeing Noel being helped off the floor by two teammates, we couldn’t help but wonder if the 18-year-old phenom’s NBA future was in jeopardy.
The sympathy for Noel leads to anger at how the NBA treats its future stars. Though obvious, it’s also an incredibly pressing point. Noel’s injury could be the nightmare scenario for the nightmare of a rule the NBA instituted in 2005, stating that a player must be 19 years old and out of high school for one year before he may enter the draft. With Noel, we have the potential No.1 pick come June 27 at the NBA Draft in Madison Square Garden. He’d entered “college” (if that’s what we still call the NBA feeder system that is the one-and-done rule) with the expectation he’d be there just one year. Four months before he stood to make an automatic $10 million-plus in the NBA, he suffers a freak injury.
Noel would have been a hot commodity if he had been allowed to jump to the NBA after high school. Now, as college basketball experts have noted loudly and correctly, the NBA’s silly one-and-done rule — which, by the way, doesn’t improve NBA teams’ chances of knowing whether someone is a bust or a gem — is at fault for possibly costing an 18-year-old young man his shot at millions of dollars. Had he been an 18-year-old NBA rookie and hurt in the same fashion — had the venue of his injury been different — Noel would have had millions in guaranteed money to pad his fall.
But there’s something deeper going on here, something beyond the fact that the NBA ought to follow the lead of Major League Baseball when it comes to young talent. (Unlike in the NBA, a high school baseball player may go straight to the MLB draft. If he goes to a junior college, he’s draft-eligible after any season; if he goes to a four-year school, he isn’t draft-eligible until after his junior year or until he turns 21.)
Nerlens Noel’s injured left knee also gives us another vivid example why college sports are broken.
Most of this is embodied in the hypocrisy of the NCAA pushing the phrase “student-athlete” on the elite athletes of college sports. Is UCLA star freshman (and likely NBA top-three pick) Shabazz Muhammad really a “student-athlete”? The kid has to put in one semester of getting good-enough grades to stay eligible, then he’s off to making more money than you or I will make in our entire lives. Unless he’s injured in the meantime.
The rules the NCAA is tasked to police can be inane and nonsensical. Remember during last year’s NCAA tournament, when Kansas State senior forward Jamar Samuel was declared ineligible for what would be his final game as a college basketball player? The kid’s AAU coach had given him $200 before the tournament. It was considered an impermissible benefit under NCAA rules.
How can we judge so harshly a kid who took $200 when we’re in a system where the newest TV deal for the NCAA tournament is worth $10.8 billion? How can we presume Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA, which calls out the organization for having players sign over their ability to make money off their likenesses as an NCAA athlete, to be anything but the right and moral path? How can we preach the sanctity of amateur sports when we all know the top recruits are surrounded by “handlers” and the shady dealings that comes with that? How can we pretend that Nerlens Noel is a “student-athlete” when he’s really in a televised version of the NBA’s Developmental League?
More important than fixing the extended NBA tryout that is the one-and-done rule is this: Let’s stop perpetuating the lie that elite college sports are sacred testaments to the supposed beauty of amateurism. Let’s treat them exactly as they are: Big business, just like every other sports league.
The NBA’s not risking anything on its “one-and-done” rule. Colleges are making easy money off those players, too. The only ones taking a risk here are future superstars like Nerlens Noel — and they’re the only ones without a seat at either table.
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