There are definitely jobs that require at least a college degree. Like physical therapist, or professor, or lawyer. That’s part of what keeps universities in business. And of course, there are plenty of jobs that don’t. Where hiring is based purely on skills, not college credentials. That includes a lot of trades and technical roles, some that pay really well. It also includes the job of NBA professional basketball player, where college degrees are not only unnecessary, but actually carve into the limited time you can make money playing the game. And, let’s say you aren’t athletic enough to play professional basketball, but want to earn a living advising people who do, you also do not need a college degree. More specifically, if you want to be an agent for a college basketball player who is contemplating leaving school early to enter the NBA draft, you now do not need a diploma to do so.
This is a quick reversal from a recent NCAA policy created to require all these agents to have a bachelor’s degree. That initial decision was criticized specifically by Rich Paul, longtime agent for LeBron James and the head of the sports division for United Talent Agency, one of the two major players in athlete representation. Paul does not have a college degree, which hasn’t kept him from amassing an impressive roster of NBA talent, including Anthony Davis and Draymond Green. And for a percentage of their income, Paul fiercely negotiates better contracts and creates pathways and synergies in other industries, from music to fashion and so on.
There’s a whole lot of complexity on this particular ruling and the regulations about NBA agents in general. Historically, hiring an agent recognized a transition from amateur athlete to professional. Which meant that once you hired an agent, you couldn’t play college sports anymore. But, in one of the NCAA’s rare concessions, they recently allowed college athletes to hire an agent before surrendering their remaining eligibility to see how they may fare in a professional draft. Which means a basketball player could hire an agent, declare for the draft, but then still come back to school if it looked like the NBA wasn’t ready for them. At the very least, it reduced the high risk of this binomial decision.
That said, the NCAA also decided that any agent representing a current college athlete had to have a college degree. Which meant that someone like Rich Paul, who is one of the most powerful agents in the business, wouldn’t be able to work with a whole lot of aspiring pros – namely anyone who’s even remotely on the fence. All because he doesn’t have a college degree.
I’m certain there were logical reasons for the initial decision. Like the fact that someone with a college degree might give more balanced council about the value of a college education. Or maybe the NCAA was concerned with the optics of endorsing professionals who lack the single credential they’ve maintained essential to their existence.
Whatever the reason, it obviously wasn’t that big a deal, since the NCAA just changed their rule to allow people without a college degree like Rich Paul to represent an athlete still in college. Perhaps it has something to do with the heat the NCAA took when Paul asserted this rule would largely target, in his words, people of color and those from less prestigious backgrounds. That assertion could be especially damaging for an organization that is routinely lambasted for generating obscene revenue off the efforts of largely unpaid African-American athletes while predominantly white coaches get rich.
Regardless of the reason, this discussion reminds us of two important points. First, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for professional sports leagues to mandate athletes be a certain number of years out of high school before entering the pros. While this cartel like agreement between places like the NBA and NCAA have a long history, it’s getting harder and harder to rationalize. Second, universities are going to have to do a better job reinforcing the importance of a college education. I’m not just talking about athletes and their prospective agents, but everyone who is considering spending considerable time and money earning a degree. Some of this is about messaging, but a whole lot more is about taking a deep look at how colleges and universities are preparing students for the rest of their lives – whether on the court, on the sidelines, or in any number of careers of the American future. And I say this as someone who oversees a School of Communication and Media who worries about these very things each and every day. It’s not just about whether a degree is required, like for an agent. It’s about making sure what we do on a university campus helps students find what they need, whether they want to be a lawyer, entrepreneur, producer, heck, maybe even an agent. That’s a mission that goes far beyond college sports.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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