This article is too much.  It’s so divisive that it loses meaning, and Reggie Bush shouldn’t really be the face of this issue.  But, there’s a lot of good in what Jason Whitlock is trying to say.  Right now, some sports have age minimums, or college requirements.  The NCAA has lobbied to get these in place, and it’s totally wrong.  It creates a ban (sometimes a partial ban, and obviously only temporary) on teenagers who could otherwise be pro athletes.

College sports are popular and fun.  They’re a big part of American culture, but we shouldn’t refuse to change them if we conclude that college players should be paid for their participation.  If we decide they should be paid, then that’s more important than getting our entertainment a little cheaper.  It’s a matter of fairness and giving everyone what they’re worth.  Plus, as Whitlock notes, there are ugly racial and socioeconomic symbols to this issue.  It almost seems as if we should have started paying these athletes years ago, but something about the games, the brutality, celebrity and uniformity had a commoditizing and de-humanizing effect on these players.  Maybe there’s a racial issue related to that.  That’s all something to think about.  But the reality of college sports is that we’re ripping off young people.  Young kids, many of them disadvantaged, have been caught in the crossfire of our greed and exploitation.

If there’s a concern that young athletes can’t consent to participate in pro sports, or that most of them couldn’t handle that environment, I understand.  We should require parental consent just like every other teenage performance.  Maybe require doctors or officials to sign off on a kid’s fitness to perform.  Maybe all contracts for performances by kids under 20 should be voidable by the kid.  There are risks in anything that gets you famous, and I think this is enough protection for kids. They deserve the chance to make money and compete if they are able.

The first argument to throw out is the idea that there’s plenty of time for kids to compete.  I don’t accept that.  Youth is a fleeting thing.  Sports has a lot of injuries, even amateur sports.  Some of these positions are so competitive and physically taxing that careers rarely last more than a couple years.  Many sports have salary structures that keep athletes low-paid for the first few years.  There are many great athletes who succeed in sports, but by the time they can get a big contract, their career is over.  Every year matters, and especially years of youth.

What about the idea that college scholarships provide ample compensation for athletes?  The problem is that this whole discussion is about the handful of elite athletes.  A five or even six-figure scholarship package is a small fraction of what these players would be worth in a professional system.  The kids for whom such a deal would be fair would never go pro at age 18 anyway.

What about the idea that 18-year-old kids have a lot to learn about the game, and about life in general?  That argument has a number of implications.  One is, if you’re going to ban kids from pro sports before a certain age, then you’re implying all kids below that age are too immature.  But, we’ve always had child performers and child stars.  The only difference with sports are the physical risks.  But, there are a couple natural safeguards.  Any kid offered a pro sports contract would already be playing a lot of the sport.  Any kid who went pro probably wouldn’t see much playing time until they were developed properly.  If they were developed, there probably wouldn’t be much to worry about.  Again, parents and doctors would have to sign off if the kid is too young.  There is already a system of legal consequences for bad parents, and parents can consent to a lot of risky things for their kids.  The decision to ban kids from sports won’t change much of that.

Another implication is that every 18-year-old athlete could benefit from further learning and development.  I’ll accept that, but it doesn’t mean we should ban kids from working in a drive-thru, or stop them from joining the military and dying in a war.  Protecting kids is for their benefit, not for ours.  Our belief that a kid could benefit from unpaid practice or college shouldn’t eliminate the kid’s right to do otherwise.  Anybody who can legally work in this country should be able to make money as an athlete, just like any other lawful job.  Look at today’s economy.  A person is lucky to have one thing they can do well.  Banning sports could take away somebody’s only livelihood, and that can be extremely damaging, even if the ban only lasts a couple years.

Furthermore, you couldn’t take a junior finance major into a corporate boardroom or a junior criminal justice major into a crime-scene.  They’re not prepared for high level jobs without further learning and lots of experience.  Maybe a freshman English major could write the next best-seller, or a freshman computer science major could create best-selling software.  But, they can also sell their creations on the open market, and all I’m saying is that athletes should have the same chance.

Every year, there are teen athletes who could step into pro systems at a high level.  Some could become professional starters in a year or two.  Some could walk into a game right now.  These are hugely profitable industries that bring together amazing performers and demand elite talent and skills.  The opportunity is a dream for so many people, and nobody should be excluded from even the smallest chance of seizing that dream.  Banning able teenagers from professional participation is wrong, and it destroys opportunity and economic potential just as much as bad poverty policies might prevent a kid from becoming a doctor or president.

What about the virtue of a student-athlete?  I think most student athletes are more one than the other.  That makes sense because very few people are both excellent athletes and excellent students, and most kids who spend five hours a day doing homework don’t also spend five hours a day practicing baseball.  One of the biggest problems is that athletes often go to schools for which they’re academically unfit.  That’s good for nobody.  And in this economy, we can be a student in one thing and a teacher in another.  It’s a product of our freedom, and NCAA positions themselves against that dynamism and progress.  That’s simply not what a learning institution should be doing.  That’s what Whitlock is talking about, and he’s got a good point.

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