Viewpoint: Don’t judge athletes pursuing NBA

Shehan BWBy Shehan Jeyarajah
Sports Editor

The nation’s eyes were on college basketball on Monday night as the Duke Blue Devils won their fifth national championship under legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Duke was a one-seed, but received significant contributions from several star freshmen down the stretch. Several, including freshman starters Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow, are expected to take a good hard look at entering the NBA Draft.

And why wouldn’t they, after leading Duke to the mountaintop in their first season?

Okafor is virtually guaranteed to be a top-two pick. Winslow is unlikely to fall outside of the top 14 as a versatile wing option. Jones could still decide to return to school, as a borderline first round draft pick, but could feel like he has nothing left to prove at that level.

While there are several young players ready to take the next step for themselves and their families, several are quick to criticize.

Missouri senator Claire McCaskill tweeted: “Congrats to Duke, but I was rooting for team who had stars that are actually going to college & not just doing semester tryout for NBA.”

After she received plenty of backlash on Twitter, she followed up with, “To be clear folks, this isn’t about the kids, this is about the system. This is about the NCAA/NBA. I don’t blame the very talented athletes.”

With all due respect, Senator McCaskill, you just did.

There is no question, the NCAA system is broken. It’s true, many players only go to college to gain visibility for the NBA. It’s also true, many Wisconsin players will never even glimpse the NBA.

But McCaskill falls into the same logical trap as thousands of fans around the country: blaming talented student-athletes for the shortcomings of the system.

If you’re one of the most talented basketball players in the country, there is little incentive for you to return to school. Teams are lining up to guarantee these kids millions of dollars. There’s literally an NBA Draft lottery for the right to sign a player of Okafor’s caliber.

If a player from Wisconsin had these opportunities, he would take it. Even Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker is considered likely to leave school early himself.

It’s important to remember that there is nothing about these two institutions that defines the students. If any of the aforementioned players wanted to play at Wisconsin, head coach Bo Ryan would have welcomed them with open arms.

Not only that, but we talked about three Duke freshmen likely to leave school: Okafor, Jones and Winslow. There are eight other players on the roster who aren’t top draft picks. Are these players somehow not worth rooting for because their teammates are talented?

We can have a conversation all day long about whether Duke is a likable team or not. I enjoyed watching the Blue Devils play, but certainly understand why fans may enjoy rooting against them as a team. Sometimes, it’s fun to root against Goliath.

But to try and argue that Duke doesn’t deserve to be supported because its players are already talented enough to play at the next level is not only wrong, but ultimately disrespectful to college athletes who have worked their whole life to get to this point.

Don’t fault an athlete for doing the right thing for him and his family.

Shehan Jeyarajah is a junior journalism major from Coppell. He is sports editor at the Lariat.