Star Athletes Leaving College Early Is Just Fine



The NFL draft has just past, and the NBA Draft deadline is approaching. Around this time of year, we typically see a deluge of think-pieces bemoaning the fact that superstar college football and basketball players decide to declare for the draft and leave school early. Hundreds of thousands of people feel the need and desire to let extremely gifted individuals know exactly what they think they should do with their talent.

The traditional narrative goes something like this: College athletes should complete four years of college even if they have a viable opportunity to make a living at the next level.

There are several problems with this school of thought:

1.       The goal of college is to find a career.

The reason you go to college is to get the skills and knowledge you need in order to obtain a decent paying job and become a productive member of society.

If you are a sophomore college basketball player and you have a chance to be a first round pick and immediately make millions of dollars, then you have already accomplished the end goal of college.. Why should a college athlete pass on millions of dollars playing basketball just to say he completed all his communication credits? Furthermore, plenty of successful people in other jobs have done this. Both Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates dropped out of college to devote themselves fulltime to their careers.

If you are going to school to be a broadcast journalist, and CNN offers you a full time anchor position starting at 7.5 million a year, will you feel the need to finish your final three years of eligibility at the school newspaper?

This is also where we should point out the high percentage of recent college grads who are unemployed, underemployed and/or saddled with student loan debt.

2.       College will always be there…the pros may not.

People often tell players considering leaving school early to graduate first and then declare for the draft because “The NBA can wait.” In fact, the opposite is true. Staying in college when you are projected as a high pick in the draft is usually a bad business decision. You can suffer a catastrophic injury like Greg Oden or Dajuan Wagner or scouts can simply fall out of love with your game causing your stock to drop like Jarred Sullinger and the Harrison twins. You always want to leave when the opinion of your game is at its highest point.

On the other hand, you can always go back to college later . Many players end up finishing their college degrees after leaving early for the draft. Star NFL wide receiver Randall Cobb, returned to Kentucky to graduate after leaving for the pros following his junior year. Shaq also returned to earn his bachelor’s degree and went on to get both a masters and a PhD.

While it is probably easier to finish as a scholarship athlete, going pro certainly does not prelude finishing a college degree. 

3.        People with opinions often have ulterior motives.

You often hear stories about “evil” agents convincing college freshmen to leave school early because they want the commission and fees from their clients. However, we often don’t talk about the motives of boosters and colleges trying to convince them to stay for the very same reason.

Every now and then you will hear a college coach openly talk about how one of his players is not ready for the next level. This is usually perceived as a well-intentioned coach looking out for the best interests of his players which it may be, but it could also be a selfish coach looking out for his own best interests at the expense of his players future.

4.       Some players need the money.

You don’t get paid playing college sports and not every player is in a position to be able to decline millions of dollars year after year. Many college athletes come from upper or middle-class backgrounds which enable them to stay in school without worrying about caring for others financially. Some college athletes come from impoverished backgrounds and feel they have a responsibility to take care of their families as soon as possible.

If your single working-class mother had sacrificed everything for your pipe dream of playing in the NBA, wouldn’t you get her out of poverty as soon as possible? Would you unnecessarily risk career ending injury playing for free?  For most people, the answer is no.

There is not really a right or wrong answer about leaving school early for the pros, but it might the right decision for some people and it should not be universally condemned as a poor decision simply because you think it is in the best interest of the players to finish their degree.



Andrew Pillow

Andrew is a technology teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep. He is graduate of the University of Kentucky and a Teach for America Alum. Andrew just recently finished his commitment as a Teach Plus Policy fellow, and he is looking forward to putting the skills he's learned to good use. Andrew has written for several publications in the past on a wide variety of topics but will be sticking to education for his role on Indy/Ed.