There’s a story that made me think of high school basketball phenom, LeBron James. It’s about latkes. In a small Polish village, in the age of imperial Russia, the matron of the hamlet’s wealthiest family prepares latkes for Hanukkah. She always sets them to cool on the sill of an open window.
And every Hanukkah, the children of the village’s poorest families make it a point to walk by the rich woman’s house, so that they can stand in the street below and take in the wonderful aroma as it wafts from the sill. It’s a pleasure they can’t enjoy at home, since their own families are too poor to afford latkes.
So, day after day during the holiday season, the poor children stand beneath the rich woman’s window. She shoos them away every time, but they invariably reappear.
Finally one Hanukkah, the exasperated woman goes to the village rabbi and demands a judgment against the poor family. “They have stolen the smell of my latkes,” she complains.
The old rabbi strokes his white beard for a minute and considers her charge. Then he says to the rich woman, “You are right. They must pay.” He orders the poor families to gather all of their coins in a bag, and bring it to him. Then he gathers all of the parties together for a ceremony of reparations. In their presence, the rabbi shakes the bag vigorously so everyone around him can hear the jangling kopecks and rubles.
Then he hands the bag back to the poor family and announces that justice has been served.
“What!?” demands the rich woman. “You said they had to pay!”
“And so they did,” said the rabbi. “For the theft of the smell of your latkes, they paid you the sound of their jangling money.”
If we updated this morality tale to fit LeBron James’ circumstances, the rabbi would order the player to fork over both the jangle and the cash.
That’s pretty much what happened last week. The Ohio High School Athletic Association ruled that James, who stars for Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, must forfeit his remaining eligibility after he accepted two pricey retro jerseys from a sports clothing store. Unless a court intervenes, the ruling ends the high school basketball career of James, who plans to enter the NBA draft and is likely to be the first pick in June.
James gave back the jerseys when he learned of the trouble they were to bring upon him. You might think that no harm would result in no foul.
Under the OHSAA’s rules, however, the decision seemed clear-cut. High-school athletes cannot receive anything of monetary value because of their athletic prowess or fame. The two jerseys were worth $845 (never mind how an unautographed jersey gets to be worth over $400) and they were lavished upon him simply because he posed for some pictures that the clothing store planned to display.
You have to feel for James, even if you believe that he knew what he was doing when he accepted the two jerseys. After all, he could clearly see that everyone in the sports world around him already had the gold. He just wanted a sniff of the latkes.
James may be the most ballyhooed basketballer to come out of high school since Lew Alcindor. In Alcindor’s day, however, the media’s hype machine was barely beginning to crank up. James is more exposed than Pamela Anderson Lee.
The cover of Sports Illustrated, for example, is usually reserved for a professional athlete, or at least a college star or team (not that it’s always easy to tell the difference). LeBron has already been there, done that. A couple of his team’s games have been broadcast nationwide on ESPNnot at 1 a.m. after women’s billiards, either, but in prime time. That’s unprecedented.
Of course, fawning adulation was not exactly a new thing for James. He’d experienced it at least since eighth grade, when college scouts and touts began paying attention. One national recruiting newsletter, in fact, actually ranks the country’s top junior high players.
He certainly saw it at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s. When college coaches weren’t stumbling over themselves to get to him, they were watching him play at all-star venues like the Nike camp, which serve as little more than meat markets where scouts can ogle talent. At least until he told them he was turning pro, they were inundating his house with letters and phone calls. They were inviting him to visit their campuses, where his reception might even include parties with “recruiting hostesses.”
Had James chosen to become an enrollee-athlete at some Division I institution of higher learning, he might have seen the machine running at full throttle. He would not simply have been a basketball player. He’d have been part of an industry.
The industry generates a lot of legal tenderbut none legally for the players who provide the raw material. The colleges that secure their services reap millions from their share of TV contracts and NCAA Tournament revenues. Their coaches receive hundreds of thousands in salary, not to mention perks from the college and extra cash from shoe companies.
The TV networks that broadcast their games pay dearly for the privilege, but earn even more in advertising revenues. The shoe companies make money. The autograph sellers make money. The ticket brokers make money. The recruiting newsletter publishers make money. The manufacturers of NCAA licensed apparel (some of which bears the players’ names and jersey numbers) make money.
The NCAA makes money, some of which supports its own enforcement bureaucracy, whose job is to ensure that none of this money reaches players’ pockets. Sometimes, the enforcement reaches such absurd levels that even Casablanca’s Captain Renault would be embarrassed. When he played at Indiana, for example, Steve Alford was suspended by the NCAA because he posed for a sorority’s money-making calendareven though all the proceeds went to charity and Alford was offered nothing.
In return for their money-generating services, the players are supposed to get a valuable college education. Some do. But many players barely half as talented as James matriculate only because colleges tacitly allow themselves to serve as the NBA’s developmental league. Others are hustled through a hodgepodge of useless courses designed primarily to keep them eligible to play. It’s a rigged game, and the players know the score.
NCAA Division I men’s basketball is, first and foremost, a vast entertainment enterprise in which the actors receive no pay. The system is awash in money everywhere. Even before they enter it, big-time athletes get informal signals that everything revolves around them.
The wonder is not that athletes take cash, merchandise and SUVs. Given what we teach them, the wonder is that more of them don’t. Practically everything in our society reinforces the impression that, as the song affirms, “It’s all about the Benjamins.” It’s about getting yours while you can. The universities, coaches and the NCAA sure do.
So I’m glad LeBron is turning pro and turning down college. I wish more high school hoops stars realistically enjoyed that option.
Meanwhile, I’m for all players who want to get theirs, rules be damned.
Perhaps, by flouting the regs, they’ll expose the fraudulence of a system that cynically revolves around money, has been corrupted to its core by money, but piously tells the players they must remain above it all. By smelling the money we set on the windowsill, they confront us with our own hypocrisy. And by cheating, they may force us at last to taste a healthy dose of honesty.