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The Dad Is Not the Problem

Michael Kinsley came to prominence as a writer at The New Republic and went on to co-found Slate Magazine, and the two publications have a lot of things going for them. They are also hopelessly, ridiculously infected with a virulent strain of contrarianism, and want everything they publish to purport to prove the conventional wisdom wrong. Hence you get subheadings like the one on the piece Jason Zengerle wrote this week, "Why hangers-on and low-lifes are better for a young basketball star's career than a caring dad."

The piece is about Lance Stephenson finally signing with the University of Cincinnati after a protracted recruitment in which his eligibility was called into question and he constantly flirted with Kansas. Zengrele lays the blame for the drama at the feet of his father, Lance Stephenson, Sr., and thinks that someone who would brazenly exploit the high school senior would be better because, hey, he'd only have a monetary stake in the kid's future:

And that's the shame of this situation--that the world of big-time college basketball is so screwed up that being a good father isn't necessarily a sufficient qualification for doing right by your son. Because it's not just Lance Stephenson. Renardo Sidney, another supremely talented soon-to-be college freshman who's had an almost equally disastrous college recruiting experience, has a similarly involved father. And even Xavier Henry--the guy who took Lance's spot at Kansas--has had a bumpy recruiting road paved by his dad. You'd think that having a son with the potential to make millions playing basketball--or, at the very least, get a free college education--would make things easier for a family. But that often isn't the case. In fact, it almost seems as if the world of big-time basketball is set up to penalize kids who have involved fathers--since the system seems to run most efficiently when the player is being exploited. Since no good father wants to see his son exploited, it's only natural that he'd gum up the system. Barack Obama may be urging "fathers to step up," but when they do in basketball, bad things tend to happen.

This, of course, is silly. College basketball is littered with players guided by complete and utter schmucks who still mismanaged kids' careers. It's a broken system that requires a completely businesslike, professional approach that can involve no outright, over-the-table business to take place because, hey, it's "amateur" athletics. Nobody knows how to navigate this system except perhaps the coaches who get paid to do it year after year, and even they trip up often and end up fleeing positions one year ahead of the NCAA infraction police. (John Calipari, look upon Tim Floyd's works and despair.) It's a situation that's been made exponentially worse by the one-and-done rule - for future reference NBA, if even the name the rule goes by sounds shady, it's a bad rule - that puts a lot of athletes who have no desire to go to college there for a probationary period solely because NBA GM's couldn't keep paying them money for poor performance. And no, a second year isn't going to help; in no other career but professionial sports would you force an employee to attend college without intending for them to earn anything, solely so you can have a free minor-league system. It's why I'm rooting for Jeremy Tyler and Brandon Jennings. If a kid wants to make his living playing basketball and the NBA's too scared to write him a check, let him earn his bones in Europe. The competition's good and so is the money, at it leaves the college game to th folks who want to be there.

So no, Lance Stephenson (Jr. or Sr.) isn't the problem. The weird collusion between the NBA and the NCAA is doing more career damage. If the two organization's won't fix the rules, it won't be too long before the more successful coaches stop recruiting them, and we'll be reading more stories like this one, no matter who's guiding the process.