Why should basketball players have to go to college?

What do Moses Malone, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have in common?

The facile answer is that, as of the most recently concluded season, they are all winners of the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award, the most prestigious given out by the league. The four men share another fact: none of them spent a day in a college classroom, coming straight to professional basketball from high school.

That this quartet and virtually all of the other players who skipped college for the green pastures of the NBA are African-American is more a function of the predominance of Black players in the league than anything else. But one can’t help but notice that while White kids like Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson, and Nevada high school baseball star Bryce Harper are skipping high school with nary a discouraging word, sports columnists coast to coast are apoplectic because a few Black kids want to make a few bucks slightly ahead of schedule.

Sports like gymnastics, tennis and figure skating, which are overwhelmingly populated by Whites, seem to draw little concern when teens or pre-teens are exploited, often to the point of arrested development. But let one Black kid slip through to play professional basketball before the colleges can extract their pound of flesh and the very fate of the republic will hang in the balance.

The notion that an influx of fresh out of grade school players has ruined the lives of the players coming out and the NBA is, to be sure, a bizarre one. Alas, it’s one that the nation’s college basketball coaches as well as David Stern, the NBA’s commissioner, have bought into.

That college coaches want to exploit the best basketball talent in their campus gyms is understandable. Stern’s opposition to having high schoolers in the NBA is not. In 2005, Stern managed to get the NBA Players Association to agree to language in the collective bargaining agreement that barred entry into the league for players until they turned 19, or until a year after their high school graduation.

At last month’s NBA Finals, Stern asserted that the policy was not “an enforcement of some social program.” Said Stern: “This is a business decision by the NBA, which is we like to see our players in competition after high school.’ The problem is Stern’s “business decision” runs counter to life as we know it.

There is also an element of hypocrisy here. As I’ve already pointed out, the rule does not apply to other sports. Is the predominance of African-Americans in basketball part of the reason for the rule? Nor does it apply to foreign players – such as 18-year-old Spaniard Ricky Rubio, who was taken fifth in the draft last week by Minnesota – who don’t have to wait until they’re 19.

The question over the merit of the ‘one-and-done’ restriction has been brought to life again due to last week’s NBA draft pick. Brandon Jennings, who was picked 10th by Milwaukee, bypassed the restriction, choosing instead to go and play basketball in Europe rather than spending a year in college.

While on the surface it seems to make sense to push these star athletes to go to college for at least a year, in reality the rule seems to make little difference: the graduation rates in men’s college basketball are absymal. The young men who have professional sports aspirations and the skills to meet those aspirations, are gone before their classmates can march down the aisle to pick up their diplomas. So what’s the point of the rule?

All the NBA’s policy does is force gifted athletes – players who have no interest in college in the first place – into campus classrooms for a wasted year.

Stern should know that that kind of logic flunks the test every time.