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  • Writer's pictureDr. Tré Watkins

The Straw That Broke the NCAA's Back

In 2008, Robert Downey Jr. placed a large bet on himself.  In his contract for the first Iron Man film, Downey Jr. was paid a modest $500k for his portrayal of the iconic character. The kicker, though, was the 2.5% of the profits he secured during negotiations, which, for the first film, netted him close to 2 million dollars.  As Avengers Endgame revenues continue to soar over 20 billion dollars worldwide, RDJ’s total take home from the MCU rises past the $200 million he’s already netted from Marvel. Needless to say, that bet has paid off.

When the #5 overall recruit RJ Hampton took his place on the set of ESPN’s Get UP, it figured to be a typical signing day announcement from an elite prospect. However, instead of choosing between his finalists: Texas Tech, Memphis, and Kansas, Hampton, the 18-year-old combo guard out of Little Elm, Texas, made a stunning decision. Hampton announced he would play for the New Zealand Breakers of the Australian National Basketball League and, essentially, bet on his future as a full-fledged professional athlete.

Although Hampton isn’t the first player to opt to play professional basketball internationally instead of the traditional one-and-done route to the NBA through college, his is significant primarily because, in previous instances, the prospects had few options for college ball due to academic or behavior issues. 

With an increased understanding of their value, elite athletes are increasingly taking more control over their careers. “My dream has never been to play college basketball,” Hampton explained. “My dream has always been to get to the next level and to play in the NBA.” This sentiment contradicts the NCAA’s position as the gatekeeper to college basketball and football professionalism. This begs the question: What happens when elite prospects realize that the power of the NCAA resides in their athletic, mostly Black bodies? 

And there lies the gem of the story: higher education in general and college sports in particular is a means to an end, not an end. The athletes’ recognition that the college game may not be the best avenue toward professionalism severely dents the notion that an institution of higher learning is best suited to develop or even legislate over elite athletes. The NCAA’s power lies in its monopoly over the talent pool, and any leakage in the pipeline could spell disaster for the entire institution.

Supporters of “big time” college ball and critics of Hampton’s decision point to the pageantry of college sports, exposure to a broad American market, and value of a baccalaureate degree as reasons for elite athletes to remain amateurs and play intercollegiate athletics until they are eligible for their respective sports draft. 

Playing college sports holds a particular place of value in America. The idea of sports being an excellent training ground for future leaders can be traced back to President Teddy Roosevelt, who, through his advocacy efforts in the early 20th century, implemented changes to improve safety in college football, essentially saving the sport. “I believe in rough games and rough, manly sports,” the President said, crediting football with developing many men serving under his command in the First Volunteer Cavalry, known as the Rough Riders.

But as the conveyor belt of revenue-generating athletics ensnares potential superstars at increasingly younger ages, they are also enlightened that this is a business above all else. And in business, you do what's best for your bottom line. 

There are other examples of college athletes recognizing their monetary value and understanding the limited nature of the finite years of peak athletic ability. Take, for instance, former USC signee turned Texas Longhorn athlete, and now again USC commits, 5-star wide receiver Bru McCoy.  After initially signing with the Trojans during the early signing period and enrolling at USC for the Spring semester, McCoy decided to transfer to the University of Texas after spending only two weeks on campus.  McCoy made this decision even though it jeopardized his first year of eligibility, as the NCAA mandates that student-athletes must sit out the first year following their transfer unless granted a waiver. In an era that sees coaches make grand declarations of loyalty to programs only to leave for the next big gig, the idea of a student-athlete doing what’s best for his athletic career regardless of consequences or perceptions is enormous. This challenges the NCAA’s supreme control over its athletes, generating over 1 Billion dollars in revenue annually. 

In her book Thinking in Bets, former World Series of Poker Champion Annie Duke explains how real-world decision-making can be improved and simplified if analyzed as a bet. “We bet based on what we believe about the world,” Duke writes, “part of the life skill comes from learning to be a better belief calibrator, using experience and information to update our beliefs to more accurately represent the world more objectively.”  As this decision indicates, we may be on the verge of a paradigm shift in the belief that the NCAA can best prepare athletes for a future in professional sports. 

Co-hosts of Get UP Jalen Rose and Jay Williams, both former standout college athletes in their own right, commended Hampton on his business decision. His father, Rod Hampton, firmly in his son’s corner, said, "I think he's ready. That’s why we weren't returning to high school," Hampton told 247Sports. "It's never been his dream to play college basketball. It’s been his dream to use college basketball as a vehicle to get to the NBA.” 

Thinking like a bettor involves considering the probabilities of various outcomes and, ultimately, the willingness to sacrifice something of personal value on a particular decision. It’s one thing to say, “I believe that the Toronto Raptors will upset the Golden State Warriors,” it's another to actually put money down to back up that statement.  

RJ Hampton, like Robert Downey Jr., believes so much in his skill set that he is willing to take the non-traditional route to the NBA and, in the meantime, make a modest amount of money in hopes that it translates into future professional and financial success. Despite whether it pays out in the end, Hampton has made a calculated decision that will set a precedent for future top-tier athletes and ultimately may lead to the dissolution of the NCAA as currently instituted. 

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