The Sporting Iconoclast
Challenging the conventional wisdom, sowing new ideas, sending some old ones to the compost heap

Why not let players who leave early for the pros return to college and play when their careers are over?

By Ed Cohen

Imagine if instead of playing two forgettable seasons for the Washington Wizards, Michael Jordan had come out of retirement and gone back to…North Carolina. As in the University of.

And that he played basketball for his alma mater again at age 39.

Why not?

Well, assuming he would have even wanted to, there was one insurmountable roadblock: Jordan left college a year early, so, theoretically, he had one year of playing eligibility remaining. But he forfeited that as soon as he turned pro.

Which brings me to my idea.

Pro athletes who start college but leave early—which is now the norm for all top U.S. male basketball players—should be allowed to return to college and play when their professional careers are over. They could play for any college, not just their alma mater.

This would be great fun for fans and the players. You could call them “encore players.” They would inspire people old and young and could even make a boatload of money for their universities.

Imagine 10 years from now, Carmelo Anthony returns to Syracuse (he played there only one year) or Dwyane Wade goes back to Marquette (three seasons).

Or imagine LeBron or Kobe—players who went straight from high school to the pros—getting the chance to live out their college basketball dreams somewhere in the twilight of their athletic careers. (Since 2005 players have had to be at least 19 to enter the NBA, which is why almost all of them enroll in college for at least one year. You know whom I’m talking about, John Wall.)

Here’s how the system would work and why it would be great:

·    The retired pros would come in strictly as walk-ons. As such they wouldn’t cost the program any scholarships. They’d have to enroll and pay full price for tuition and fees. That shouldn’t be much of a hardship for major league athletes with years of mulitmillion-dollar service.

·    They would have to abide by all eligibility rules, including attending and passing their classes. This would have many benefits, including demonstrating they were serious when they appeared in all those “stay-in-school” and “education matters” commercials. It would also send a powerful message about the rewards of lifelong learning.

·    Then there’s the inspiration to remain active and fit. Seeing a retired legend playing meaningful, if limited, minutes alongside athletes half their age would be like Tom Watson nearly pulling off victory in the 2009 British Open when he was nearly 60.

·    The presence of these retired greats would be a sideshow, and I mean that in the most positive way. It would create more interest in the programs, which would boost attendance and TV ratings. That money could help underwrite not only non-revenue sports like women’s volleyball and fencing but contribute to general scholarship funds.

·    Encore players could actually help their schools win basketball games. They wouldn’t have to play 40 or even 30 minutes. They could come off the bench as three-point specialists or defensive stoppers. Most college teams could find minutes for a 39-year-old Michael Jordan, especially the Tar Heels in 2001, his first year with the Wizards. North Carolina went 8-20 that season.

·    When they weren’t playing, these greats could serve as valuable assistant player-coaches, teaching young players what it takes to be a pro. Their presence could also serve as a prime recruiting tool. (“Well, son, Duke is fine a school, but how would you like to play alongside Michael Jordan?”).

·    Each season would bring a fresh round of excitement over the coming year’s crop of encore players. They could have their own national signing day.

There would be complications, of course.

It’s fun to imagine a retired Jordan or Wade returning to college after their glory years. But most pro players do not enjoy long and lucrative careers. They bounce around minor leagues in the United States and overseas eking out a living until they realize they’re never going to make it to the big show. Should these folks be allowed back?

Why not? As long as they’re good enough and can afford to play for nothing and also pay tuition. Such considerations would likely weed out most of the journeymen. As would another stipulation: No bouncing back to the pros.

Encore playing would not be to showcase players who are past their prime and out of work but hoping score one last pro contract. That’s what Europe is for. Participants would have to agree to forego any further professional competition. This would be impossible to enforce, of course, but one could at least get the athlete to sign a pledge.

Another potential concern would be professionals tainting the amateur college game. But the traditionally amateur Olympics have long since abandoned that prohibition. You’ll see many pro hockey players representing their countries in the winter games, not to mention the NBA dream teams. Besides, the encore players wouldn’t be professionals, they’d be former professionals.

Who knows how many greats would want to spend a year or two or four in college after their pro careers were over? Not many, perhaps. And probably not any in the more physically demanding sports like football.

But it’s fun to imagine. And it’s worth a try.


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