Athletics plays a large role in our society. Many of us can remember what time of year it is based on what sport is currently at the forefront of popularity. March Madness. Mr. October for this year's MLB’s postseason hero. It is no surprise that the prevalence of sports in our culture is cause for players to constantly look for a competitive advantage, legal or illegal. But what I’m about to tell you about, elicits some serious head scratching.
Middle-school students are imploring their parents to let them repeat a grade in order to allow themselves an extra year to work on their basketball skills (and grow) before entering high school. And parents are allowing it to happen. If you watched this year’s NBA draft, you witnessed a several players who already have used this competitive advantage, including the highly touted Nerlens Noel. I regularly listen to podcasts from Grantland and as a Michigan alum, I always try to catch the Jalen Rose Report. His latest podcast detailed this occurrence so I cannot take credit for the find, but I had to do some research of my own before I could believe what I heard.
Four of New Jersey’s top-rated players in the 2014 and 2015 recruiting class repeated a grade in middle school. The reasons are murky but we know that Karl Towns (St. Joseph’s of Metuchen), Quadri Moore (Linden), Isaiah Briscoe (St. Benedict’s Prep), and Malachi Richardson (Roselle Catholic) all are not currently enrolled in their appropriate grade levels according to their age. Three of the top 12 players in the 2013 class nationally, Noah Vonleh, Wayne Seldon, and Andrew Wiggins, repeated a grade. And without failure, there is an amendment to the student’s academic profile to try and hide the fact.
Once the student has repeated a grade in middle school and enters high school a year later than he should, the student will reclassify himself a year up at some point during high school. Most of the time, the student will classify back to their original grade. Some classes and credits are shuffled but at the end of the day, the student has had four years of high-school education. Some high-school coaches say that the practice of purposefully staying back a grade before entering high school has been going on for more than a decade and has recently gained serious traction.
Forget educational standards. Forget learning the next level of curriculum. Forget preparing for academic life after high school. These middle-school students are staying behind in middle school as opposed to entering high school with the rest of their designated age group to enhance their chances of athletic success. Traditionally in school, students were held back because they needed extra academic assistance and were not properly prepared to encounter the curriculum of the next grade level. You held a student back because you wanted him or her to be able to handle the next level, not ensure that his or her athletic competitions would be against those younger and less experienced.
We have all had a moment of clarity when playing sports as youngsters against an individual whose athletic prowess is far beyond our own. And a voice inside our heads wonders, “How old is that kid?!”
But if your goal is the NBA, you need every competitive advantage you can find. You cannot enter the NBA draft until you are 19 years of age. The NBA currently has 30 teams and 15 roster spots for each team. The total number of NBA jobs is a staggering 450. Yes, only 450 professional basketball player positions and you have to be good enough to play with these 450 others throughout an 82-game season, not just be good enough to become a highly rated draft choice.
If young ballers want to ensure their athletic success, they should follow the model of Brandon Jennings and take it a step further. Jennings finished high school as a top-rated player in 2008 but did not wish to spend a year playing college ball. Instead, he went abroad and played in Italy with other professionals for a year, earned some honest cash (destroying all chances of entanglements with ridiculous NCAA violations), and then returned in time for the draft. No lying about his age, no hanging back in middle school when he should have been in high school, and no bullying players younger than he to work on his game.
This practice of hanging back a grade for the sole purpose of improving basketball skills is bad for everyone involved. Do we really want parents to have to carry around their children’s birth certificates and then have to prove they are real or not? If it took us more than four years to agree on whether President Barack Obama’s birth certificate is authentic, we certainly do not want the NCAA to have more violations to consider.