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Let ’em play

Posted by Chance on April 25, 2006

I usually don’t find libertarian-minded, or even political, articles on a sports website, but here goes. I think Dan Wetzel makes a lot of sense.

With the moving truck’s brake lights still freshly glowing, questions abound whether Reggie Bush’s family received use of a house – a house! – from a would-be middle man/marketing guy.

If true, it does beg another question: If Michael Michaels – who owned the $757,000 home, as Yahoo! Sports Charles Robinson first reported – didn’t sign Bush, then what did agent Joel Segal and marketer Michael Ornstein do to get him?

Nothing? Anything? Everything?

At this point in the long history of dealings between sports agents and potentially high draft picks, nothing should come as a surprise. Perhaps everything is on the up and up. Or perhaps this is just another case of the vibrant underground economy of college athletics.

We do know Ornstein, according to the Sports Business Journal, employed Bush last summer as a “paid intern.” Ornstein is a Reebok “consultant” frequently spotted on the USC sideline during games who, in November, admitted he was “assisting” Bush in the selection of his agent and in the end also advised Bush that his best choice for a marketing guy would be – surprise, surprise – Michael Ornstein.

All of this nonsense is possible because of the peculiar way America treats its young football and basketball players. The NFL and NBA employ unfair age restrictions for their entry draft with arbitrary numbers that have nothing to do with preparedness. Meanwhile, the NCAA’s outdated amateur rules continue to put kids in near impossible positions.

The fact is, Reggie Bush should have been able to buy his parents that suburban San Diego home a year ago, had he so chosen. He should have been allowed to turn pro after his spectacular sophomore season, where scouts say he would have been a likely first-round pick.

Instead, he returned to the Trojans and won the Heisman Trophy. That’s fine, if that had been his choice all along. But he should have had the choice.

Instead, Bush was also placed in a bizarro world where he was worth millions but forced to stay a pauper – not because he wasn’t physically or mentally ready for the NFL, but because, we believe, someone else may not have been.

Meanwhile, everyone around him cashed in. Big time.

The USC athletic department earned revenues of $60.7 million last year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Almost all of that came from football or from football-related revenue (i.e., merchandise and donations).

Bush’s coach, Pete Carroll, is reportedly paid nearly $3 million per year. His athletic director, Mike Garrett, makes hundreds of thousands.

The Trojans, with Bush carrying the ball, became a team for the ages, scoring huge television ratings, selling newspapers and magazines, not to mention tickets, T-shirts and assorted trinkets. USC was Los Angeles’ pro team, except the players weren’t getting paid. At least officially.

To be Reggie Bush last year would be a most confusing existence. You live in one of the richest, most materialistic cities on earth – a place where everyone is on the take and gain as much fame as Hollywood actors – but you can’t afford the designer clothes they wear, the tricked-out cars or the jewelry.

You are more talented at your craft than most of Young Hollywood is at theirs. Bush is certainly a better football player than Nick Lachey is a, well, whatever Nick Lachey purports to be, but Bush can’t get paid and Lachey can because, well, just because.

Perhaps Reggie Bush never took a single dime or a single freebie. If so, he is one incredibly ethical person. We’re talking Mother Theresa level. They ought to give him a trophy just for that.

USC was a powder keg waiting to happen for this kind of stuff. It is essentially impossible to control agents and boosters in one of those college towns surrounded by vast farmland. In L.A.? Forget it. With Snoop Dogg (let alone Michael Ornstein) on the sidelines, what message does a player get?

This is why young athletes should be able to turn pro when they want. After any year in college. After any year in high school. Yeah, it’s radical, but not as radically ridiculous as our current system.

LeBron James could have been a multi-millionaire and a top-five NBA draft pick after his sophomore year of high school, but he had to wait solely because he hits free throws and not forehands and because he slam-dunked rather than sang and danced.

By the time Britney Spears would have graduated from Kentwood (La.) High School, she sold 19 million albums for Jive Records. No one suggested she should have been singing in the school choir, let alone forced to attend Louisiana State for three years before she was “ready” to embark on a career. (Well, maybe some of the frat boys at LSU would have argued that was a good idea, but otherwise, no one.)

Society’s argument is that this is designed to “protect” kids from making bad decisions, which is patronizing, un-American and depends completely on your perspective (mostly college fans being selfish). For most athletes, cashing in while they can is the best decision. If someone wanted to legally make Bush a millionaire and train him in his career, how was preventing him that option a good thing?

In too many cases, young athletes are exploited most when they are handcuffed by NCAA restrictions, stuck with netherworld guys, store-front unaccredited high schools and college coaches who are flat-out liars.

Phoenix Suns star Amare Stoudemire went to six high schools, was nearly conned by his own convicted felon minister and was used by at least two dozen people as an “amateur.” As a high school senior, he told me, “My life is part nightmare.” Once he was able to turn pro and just play ball, all the bad pub and scandal went away. He’s living a dream life now. His quaint view of amateur athletics might be a bit different than yours.

While the idea of protecting kids who think they are better than they are is, perhaps, an admirable goal, it is an uncomfortable double standard, especially since the vast majority of said athletes are poor and black.

No one seems to care about the gymnasts, the figure skaters, the singers and actors. No one cares about baseball or hockey players.

No one worried about the Olsen Twins missing out on the “experience” of starring in humble school plays.

In America, people have the freedom to chase their dreams and do nearly anything they choose, no matter how foolish. Adults make dumb decisions all the time. They start businesses that are doomed to fail. They buy real estate that is sure to bottom out. They marry Charlie Sheen.

If a kid mistakenly turns pro too early, it’s his loss. If a team mistakenly drafts too young of a prospect, that should be its loss – pro teams make dreadful decisions on college seniors, too.

As long as we force young football and basketball players to make everyone but themselves money so the NCAA and the professional leagues can benefit from the marketing, the extra scouting exposure and all those millions in revenue, these stories of possible corruption will go on and on and on.

This isn’t about Reggie Bush and a house. This is about the system that virtually assures such a thing will keep on happening.

Now, the NBA and NFL have every right to pass age restriction limits, as they are private organizations, tt’s not like government stepping in and setting the age limits for them. However, Wetzel makes a good case why they (NFL, NBA) shouldn’t pass the restrictions.

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