Would you turn down a multi-million dollar contract in order to play for free? How about an education? This athlete did.
Meet 17-year-old Enes Kanter. For any basketball fan, the scouting report on this Swiss-born Turkish basketball player is enticing: a physical specimen at 6’9″-6’10″ who possesses superior positioning and is a “clever defender.” A few months ago, at an age when most of his peers are working part-time jobs in the service industry or on a factory floor, Kanter played in the Euroleague (widely touted to be the world’s second-best professional league) against grown men and recorded 5 points, 3 rebounds and a steal in a mere 10 minutes of game time. Expectations are that the precocious Kanter will grow a few inches, improve on his already advanced offensive game, and bulk up nicely over the next few years.
Needless to say, professional scouts on both sides of the Atlantic have been tracking Kanter for some time as sweet-shooting, defensively oriented 7-footers are rare. Indeed, this is a sport where players such as Pavel Podkolzin and Nikoloz Tskitishvili were considered worthy of first-round NBA draft status based on little more than their height and alleged coordination (which, sadly, did not translate into professional production).
Hailing from Europe, Kanter enjoys various professional options to exploit his physical attributes. Since players in the European leagues do not have to enter an entry draft with an age floor and can technically sign with any team, Kanter could opt to play professionally straight away for an impressive salary. Indeed, according to Evan Daniels of Foxsports.com and Scout.com, Kanter has two solid offers right now – Greek superclub Olympiakos is offering $2 million per year for two seasons and an unspecified Turkish club is offering a five-year, $6 million offer.
Enes Kanter has listened to the offers and is doing the almost inconceivable. He is turning them down, and is opting to play for free. Instead of honing his craft as a highly paid professional in the European leagues, Kanter has chosen to enroll at Findlay Prep and play against American high school players with an eye to entering college in 2010. Why? According to Kanter, he wants a quality education.
Predictably, Kanter’s decision has been hailed by some as a triumph against materialism and as an example of maturity. In Daniels’ story, he quotes Findlay assistant coach Todd Simon who had this to say:
“He’s a pioneer in his decision-making to turn down a lot of money to make a mature decision for a just-turned-17-year old. He put his education ahead of the instant gratification of wealth and even more, fame in his own country.”
In stark contrast lies the case of Brandon Jennings. In 2008, Jennings opted to be the first highly ranked prep school player to spurn an elite-level college scholarship in order to play as a professional abroad. As noted by Adrian Wojnarowski many questioned Jennings and rooted for him to fail. Most were concerned that Jennings’ decision would shatter the altogether too-cozy relationship between the NCAA and NBA (which Situationist contributor Michael McCann argues is evidenced by the establishment of the NBA age floor) by creating an exodus of talent to Europe. Others, however, adopted a more paternalistic approach by chiding Jennings for setting a bad example by forsaking “a good education.” According to critics such as former NBA star Jalen Rose, it would have been preferable for Jennings to get an education while working on his game.
Though it is true that education is an admirable goal, those who laud Kanter and choose to question Jennings for their educational choices may be making a fundamental error – they neglect to consider the external circumstances driving the decisions of these two young men. That is, they neglect the situation in which these two very different athletes found themselves.
Consider Kanter’s situation. As noted by reporters such as Daniels and Ismael Senol, Kanter comes from what can only be described as a privileged upbringing. Kanter’s father is a well-known professor and doctor and through interaction with his father Kanter appears to have “inherited an analytical mind.” Kanter is apparently a model student, has a stable home life, and can count on his parents for both financial and emotional support when making his move abroad. Given those advantages, Kanter’s decision to go to college seems the right choice for his future.
Kanter’s case is not unique – there are other recent cases which seemingly suggest that affluence plays a large role in pursuing or continuing educational opportunities. Let us first look at the situation of Joakim Noah. As noted by Michael McCann in 2006, Noah gave up the virtual certainty of being a top-two pick in a weak 2006 NBA Draft in favour of returning to the University of Florida as a junior. Noah claimed that he loved university life and wanted a chance to repeat as NCAA champion.
Noah’s decision was a risky one for three key reasons. First, there was the risk of injury. As shown multiple times throughout sports history, a sudden injury can either weaken or eliminate a prospect’s draft chances. For instance, in the most recent NBA Draft, the University of Pittsburgh’s DeJuan Blair dropped from a possible lottery pick to a second-round selection due to health concerns which resurfaced when he re-aggravated a pre-existing knee injury during his draft year. The drop cost Blair a guaranteed roster spot and millions of dollars. Second, the 2007 NBA Draft contained a much deeper pool of prospects – several of which were more highly-touted than the workmanlike Noah. Any drop in draft status entails severe economic implications for draftees in the NBA. As highlighted by McCann, a drop of several spots at the top of the draft translates into a loss of millions of dollars over the course of a guaranteed three-year contract. Finally, a compelling reason for Noah to leave for the NBA rested in the fact that older college stars tend to be less desirable in the NBA Draft. A phenomenon noted by several draft experts and sports columnists, many NBA teams draft on potential rather than actual production which skews the top of the draft in favour of underclassmen.
Noah, then, had a multitude of excellent reasons to declare for the NBA Draft in 2006 but didn’t. Why? Well, simply put Noah was in a situation where he could afford the risks — his father is former French tennis star and multi-millionaire Yannick Noah. Clearly, the safety net provided by having a rich, celebrity father gave Noah an obvious advantage over his peers — the luxury of being able to snub guaranteed millions and not have it affect the lifestyle to which he was accustomed.
The socioeconomic advantages enjoyed by Noah over the average prep or college player are, to be fair, extreme. However, another case shows that affluence need not be measured in absolute terms. Relative familial financial security allows young players to pursue education as well.
Consider Myron Rolle. A starting safety at the famed Florida State University football program, Rolle was considered a strong first-round possibility in the 2009 NFL Draft by several scouting agencies. However, Rolle took the 2009-2010 year off in order to something unexpected (and laudable) – become a Rhodes Scholar.
Rolle’s choice for education over an immediate payday is remarkable by any measure but more so when considering that his family is not rich but instead are Bahamian immigrants to the U.S. who hold solidly middle-income employment. The immediate financial security, then, afforded by almost certainly becoming a multi-million dollar first-round pick in the NFL Draft surely means comparatively more to Rolle than to Noah. In addition, Rolle certainly faces similar considerations to Noah while delaying his entry into his professional draft – one accident during his stay in England could conceivably end his time as a highly-touted pro football propect. However, similarly to the case of the upper middle-class Kanter, Rolle’s relatively secure family and financial situation affords him the choice of possibly jeopardizing one dream, that of an NFL payday, in order to fulfill his educational ambition.
Now, one may (rightfully) argue that the prestige conferred by a Rhodes scholarship may also lead to financial stability for Rolle should he choose continue along his desired academic path. This observation is true enough – a Rhodes scholarship has traditionally been a gateway to further socioeconomic and academic success. However, this consideration should not overshadow one central and incontrovertible fact – Myron Rolle had the liberty of taking time and risking guaranteed money to pursue an academic endeavour.
Given the above examples, it would seem that the absolute stability afforded by Noah’s privileged upbringing as well as the relative stability afforded by Kanter and Rolle’s socioeconomic situation allowed these young men to make the decision to continue their status as students and student-athletes. But what if one’s situation isn’t so fortunate?
Take the case of Brandon Jennings – a young man from a different reality. Born and raised in Compton, California (a locale so notorious that it was the titular place name in the song “Straight Outta Compton” – one of anthems of the anti-police gangsta rap era), Jennings’ father committed suicide when he was 8 years old. From that point on, “It was hard for the Jennings family to stay in one place and they ended up going from home to home throughout Los Angeles, sometimes even all 3 of them staying in a one-bedroom apartment.” Consequently when Jennings reached college age, he was faced with a choice between being a one-and-done freshman student-athlete (provided that he was even academically eligible) or playing for money in Europe – Jennings’ circumstances simply made any risk of injury while playing for a prolonged period as a student-athlete too great.
Advised by basketball legend Sonny Vaccaro, Jennings chose the road less traveled and for his troubles he earned a seven-figure salary ($1.2 million), sponsorship money from Under Armour, learned how to conduct himself as a professional athlete and gained an appreciation for those living abroad amongst different cultures (“It’s tough man… It can break you.”). Best of all for Jennings, his gambit seemed to pay off and he was drafted No. 10 overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2009 NBA Draft. In short, Jennings helped his family secure their finances by forsaking his college eligibility. It is hard to argue, given Jennings’ circumstances, that he didn’t make the more difficult and arguably more mature decision for himself and his family.
Given that all these young athletes made seemingly informed, mature personal decisions, why is that Jennings has been ostracized by some quarters while the others have largely escaped such scrutiny? The answer may lie in the fact that our moral reasoning does not rest in an evidentiary basis. As Jonathan Haidt notes, “Most people gave no real evidence for their positions, and most made no effort to look for evidence opposing their initial positions.” As long as their point of view “makes sense” there is little reason to question their knee-jerk reaction.
Jennings’ position – that of rejecting a college athletic scholarship – unquestionably evokes a stronger negative reaction in the American psyche. In America, those with higher education are often better employed, possess higher earning power, and are considered a better fit for the modern economy than those without such an advantage. It is drilled into the minds of most Americans that higher education is the way to go in order to attain professional and personal success. In addition, for student-athletes, playing in the NCAA is viewed as the traditional way in which to interest NBA teams and to raise your draft profile. Jennings bucked conventional wisdom and the resulting immediate reaction on the part of some of the public and NBA analysts like Rose was to question the motivations, financial and otherwise, behind this decision.
This initial reaction is simply not supported by facts. As compellingly argued by Michael McCann, players who entered the league with no college experience between 1995 and 2003 enjoyed, on average, more professional success and greater financial security than those who attended college (prior to the institution of the age floor, these would primarily be prep-to-pro players). In addition, McCann found that modern student-athletes spend a disproportionate amount of time on team-related matters rather than concentrating on their studies and most NBA draftees leave college before they graduate. In short, the current NCAA system is primarily designed not to produce scholar student-athletes but to produce athletes – unpaid athletes at that. In light of these findings, a reasoned look at the particular details surrounding Jennings’ decision presents a more sympathetic picture. As McCann discusses in a new essay, these facts may give rise to a legal challenge against the NBA’s age limit. He and famed sports attorney Alan Milstein, who was lead counsel for Maurice Clarett in Clarett v. NFL, hinted at a prospective litigation while speaking at a law symposium earlier this year.
The reaction against Jennings’ decision may also be the result of implicit bias. As Situationist contributor John Jost et al. argue in their recent paper, “The Existence of Implicit Bias is Beyond Reasonable Doubt: A Refutation of Ideological and Methodological Objections and Executive Summary of Ten Studies that No Manager Should Ignore,” unstated and subconscious biases held by people along racial lines can influence the immediate reactions, stereotypes and attitudes that one has towards out-groups.
Sports Business Management Professor Richard Lapchick of the University of Central Florida seemingly agrees with this assertion. In 2006, Lapchick noted that there is often an assumption on the part of some fans and coaches that elite black student-athletes will invariably leave school as early as possible in order to go for the money. A sizeable segment of the population believes, then, that black student-athletes value education less than their white counterparts. Hence, when a young black basketball player chooses to ‘go for the money’ a commonly held stereotype is reinforced and perpetuated.
This type of assumption would most likely not stand up to scrutiny if people simply took the time to examine the situations of young black student-athletes like Jennings who choose to forgo college or leave college early. As argued by Lapchick, there are numerous situational reasons why black student-athletes leave school at a higher clip than their white counterparts.
Like Jennings, many of these athletes come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds – certainly more in proportional terms than their white counterparts. Given their socioeconomic handicapped situations, some leave early because they find the support and social structure at predominantly white educational institutions to be alien to them. Others flunk out due to the fact that their educational background made them ill-prepared to study at the university level and many universities show little interest in helping their student-athletes catch up. Yet others, like Jennings, are faced with the real consideration of immediate and extended families to support and feed. These situations, then, serve to limit the educational choices of many black student-athletes.
Extricate black student-athletes from these situations, as in the cases of black athletes like Noah and Rolle, and the educational outcomes may very well be different. Unfortunately, many passively accept an unfair generalization regarding blacks and education because, as noted by Haidt, the stereotype satisfies the “makes sense” postulate and acceptance, simply put, is the path of least resistance.
The considerations raised by the above article is not to suggest that Kanter won’t be a stellar college student. Indeed, given the reports about Kanter’s maturity and dedication to his studies, there is little reason to doubt that his transition from European athlete to American college student-athlete will go anything short of swimmingly. Instead, the purpose of this article is to draw attention to the circumstances and situation which Kanter enjoys when making a seemingly high-minded decision to forsake dollars for school.
As I’ve argued here, those quick to contrast Kanter and Jennings either favorably or unfavorably should be careful to examine the diverse challenges encountered by these dissimilar athletes. To suggest that the decision taken by one of these two young men is intrinsically morally superior would be needlessly broad and unfair.
Maybe the best perspective on the Kanter-Jennings debate has been voiced by Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com, “[European play] was the perfect set-up for Jennings. But not for Kanter. He’s a different dude with different goals.”
And a different situation as well.