I have closely followed basketball for most of my life. Specifically, the Golden State Warriors, my hometown professional basketball team. I have been going to Warriors games regularly for years. The professional players never fail to amaze me with their athletic ability and exciting style of play. When I was younger, I assumed that watching professional basketball would be more exciting than college hoops because pros are the best players in the world and truly superior athletes. They are paid to perform, and I thought that their games would be the most competitive.
Over the years, it seems that players work the hardest when they are in the final year of their contract. It makes sense. They have more incentive to perform at a high level because a team will pay more for their services if they come off of a strong year. Also, many teams give bonuses to players based on their performance and specific achievement. Examples include, winning a certain number of games in the season, scoring a certain amount of points per game, or winning a championship. When there is an opportunity to make more money, players work really hard to get it.
It hasn’t been until this year that I have watched college basketball closely. I attended the basketball games against Wayne State, Hillsdale, and Bucknell. Michigan basketball are my first experience at Division I games. My previous idea about superior competitiveness in professional basketball immediately changed. Students are much more serious than fans at professional games. Even when Michigan was playing against inferior teams, students are always cheering and the players feed off of their energy. College is just as, if not more, exciting than the NBA.
This type of competition supports the idea of amateur ethos. Instead of competing for money, they are playing for the “right” reasons. College players are doing it for fun, passion, personal achievement, and the pride of representing their school. However, while most collegiate basketball players compete for the tradition and rivalries, I cannot help but notice that some college players have more incentive to compete. Some of these players need to perform at a high level in college to make it to play professionally. There are some college players, who are technically amateurs, but have clear financial objectives.
If these “amateur” athletes are not supposed to have any type of financial incentive, are college athletes still considered amateurs? In the debate of amateurism of college athletes, people mostly argue about the money that the student athletes generate for the NCAA and the school, but the players’ own incentives are rarely mentioned. If athletes only go to college so that they can play professionally, are they still considered amateurs? If amateur ethos is legitimate, then college athletes who plan on pursing a career as an athlete are not amateurs. They are not playing for fun, they are playing to eventually turn professional. They are playing for the money, just like professionals. Their college careers are simply gateways to the professional level.
While this may not be as flagrant as the NCAA using college athletes in a very professional system, it is still quite serious. The fact that many college athletes have the mindset and the same incentives as professional athletes takes away from the reason why the majority of student athletes continue to play collegiately. According to the NCAA’s website, the two most valuable benefits of college athletics are education and academic success. Athletes only using college as a stepping stone to the NBA violates the idea of getting a quality education while continuing to have fun and enjoy the sport that they love. Most of the top college basketball players wouldn’t even consider playing in college if they were not required to do so. In the 2014 NBA draft, six of the top ten only played one year of college basketball. One of the top ten players did not even play in college because of rules about international players.
College athletics is fundamentally all about the money. Professional athletes work harder to make more money. Amateur athletes work hard to eventually get paid as professional athletes. Schools work hard to enroll the student athletes to make money. If college athletics is supposed to be about education, why force the top basketball players go to college before pursuing a professional career? If these athletes do not want the education and just want to be professionals, let them be professionals. Why not provide more students the opportunity to participate in college athletics, where they can enjoy the tradition and rivalries that the games provide? The best college programs are those that have players who stay more than one year and develop as a team. If a college athlete has the same incentives to participate as a professional athlete, then they should play in a professional league, and not rob honest amateurs to compete at the college level.