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One-and-Done To Death

The year is 2210. A museum guide leads a group of visitors to a glass-encased exhibit with a placard that reads STUDENT-ATHLETE.

GUIDE: Here we have a skeleton of a young man whom forensic scientists estimate to be 18 years old. Notice the remnants of Air Jordans stuck to the bones of his feet, the iPod headphones still attached to the skull and the thick wad of what appears to be currency in his fist—all the markings of a 21st-century big-time college athlete. Archaeologists tell us that he lived in 2010, back when superior athletes in the major sports were steered toward college classrooms whether they wanted to learn or not, a period in sports history that has come to be known as the Age of Hypocrisy. Any questions? Feel free to shout them out.

How could basketball or football players be expected to worry about classes and degrees when they needed to concentrate on getting ready for the NBA or NFL?

GUIDE: It does seem strange to us now, when we recognize that some college sports are purely a training ground for pro careers, but remember, 2010 was a different time. There was a radical fringe which believed that even for the athletically gifted, college should be more than just a brief stopover for kids dreaming of a pro contract. They felt there was value in learning for its own sake, not to mention the chance to mature and become a well-rounded young adult. Crazy, I know.

How old school. Did anyone buy that line of thinking?

GUIDE: Not enough to keep it alive. Many elite athletes made only a pretense of academic interest and bolted for the pros as soon as the rules allowed—in 2009 nearly half of the NFL's first-round draft picks were underclassmen, and only six seniors were among the first 30 players picked by the NBA. According to historians, student-athletes finally disappeared for good from Division I basketball and football in the first quarter of the 21st century. College presidents found the term increasingly difficult to even mention in public without eliciting stifled laughter from anyone within earshot. There is little record of the phrase being used in anything but a sarcastic manner after April 2010, when four Kentucky freshmen—John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins and Daniel Orton—declared themselves eligible for the NBA draft, and coach John Calipari quickly snapped up highly rated recruits like guards Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb, and Turkish center Enes Kanter, who were all considered likely to leave after their freshman year as well.

Calipari was the king of the one-and-dones, wasn't he?

GUIDE: You know your history. Before he arrived in Kentucky, Calipari built two teams at Memphis around NBA-bound freshmen, Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans, who clearly had no intention of becoming sophomores. One joke of the era was that Calipari's players were great shooters—the only thing they consistently missed was second semester.

So it sounds like we owe him and others like him a great debt, right?

GUIDE: Hey, it's because of rule-bending coaches and mercenary advisers that we have the system we have today. Players no longer have to pretend to be academically motivated and administrators are free to chase dollars unashamedly. By 2010 everyone was well on the way to losing his dewy-eyed idealism about college sports. When the news broke that 12 of the programs in the NCAA tournament had a graduation rate below 40%, it was met with a yawn. When Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called for schools with poor graduation rates to be banned from the field it barely made a ripple. No wonder academic requirements gradually disappeared. Imagine if your favorite college team still had to worry about silly things like players' GPA. Isn't it much more enjoyable now that to stay eligible, athletes only need to live on campus and hold autograph-signing sessions for the student body?

Definitely. How did players back in the old days even have time to go to class?

GUIDE: Remember, the tournament was just a mom-and-pop operation back then. In 2010 the NCAA was considering expanding the field from 64 to 96 teams and the whole Big Dance would have been over in just three weeks. Today, of course, all 347 Division I teams participate, and it's a three-month, double-elimination format. More games means more money, a lesson we learned from our ingenious predecessors back in the 21st century. We've even gone them one better, eliminating the so-called East, West, South and Midwest regionals and selling the naming rights. By the way, Duke sure got a cakewalk through the Domino's Pizza region this year, huh? Some things never change.

Do you think those people back in 2010 would be happy to know that we're not trying to force players into the student-athlete role anymore?

GUIDE: Honestly, there would probably be some diehards who'd say this is exactly what they feared would grow out of 21st-century attitudes toward college sports—a soulless system that abandons education, focuses on profits and exploits the unrealistic dreams of young men. Some people are never satisfied.

What are those other dusty objects near the student-athlete?

GUIDE: One is a basketball. It's hard to tell because it's decayed and useless. The other is a book—they were still used extensively back then. Funny, isn't it, that the book has held up so much better than the ball.

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Back in 2010 radicals believed college should be more than a brief stopover for athletes dreaming of going pro. Crazy, I know.