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Friday, February 27, 2009
The Implications of Kevin Durant's Jersey Retiring
Congratulations to Kevin Durant, whose No. 35 was just retired by his alma mater, the University of Texas. Durant's time at UT was admittedly brief; he played just one season before turning pro. But it was quite the season: he averaged 26 points and 11 rebounds per game, leading his team to the second round of the NCAA tournament and earning the honor of 2006-07 National Player of the Year.
Still, it was just one season.
Should a player receive such distinction by a university when his commitment to the school would seem to have been mainly about satisfying the NBA's age limit, which requires that a player be 19 years of age plus one year removed from high school? I wonder, how often did Durant attend classes in the spring semester? What was his involvement in the university, other than his exceptional basketball play -- did he participate in any student clubs or perform any community work ? Did he at least follow the rules for living in his freshmen dorm, if in fact he lived in one? What does all of this say, if anything, about the student-athlete mission of the NCAA?
Maybe those questions don't matter. Their relevance would seem to depend on the criteria for jersey retiring. If it's all about basketball production, and if one season of play is enough, then Durant certainly deserves to have his number retired. Also, as my Vermont Law School colleague and friend Jason Czarnezki (of Empirical Legal Studies blog fame) wonders, Durant's earning of the National Player of Year might, like at UNC, automatically mean jersey retirement. Should these be the tests for an institute of higher education?
Let's think about Durant's contributions. In addition to his excellent play, Durant generated a lot of money for UT, with his jerseys selling well and with improved attendance to UT basketball games. I imagine his presence also helped with recruiting, and perhaps also in attracting alumni donations and maybe even in generating more applications from high school students (aka, "The Flutie Effect").
But for an institute of higher education like UT, which has a preeminent academic reputation in various fields, there's an argument to be had that jersey retiring should at least acknowledge the student-athlete's contributions as a student. It's not clear that happened here. In fact, for what it's worth, the official story on the University's website is entirely about Durant's basketball achievements.
As several of us have argued, these would be avoidable situations if there was no restriction on supremely talented high school basketball players being eligible for the NBA Draft. There is plenty of empirical support for letting high schoolers turn pro, be it on-court perfromance, off-court performance, or related points (see e.g., Alan Milstein's "Kobe" and "Reggie Bush Sweepstakes"). Plus, if no restriction existed, then a player like Durant who chose to attend college, and to presumably also attend college classes, would have done so without people questioning why he is there.