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Just Wait a Minute Man, Camby Not in the Wrong

In an unjust world that thinks nothing of 14-year-old tennis players and figure skaters making fortunes, Marcus Camby, a grown man, a university junior, was unable to take money and gifts as a reward for being basketball’s player of the year. He took them anyway.

At least, this is what Camby admitted publicly this week--that, in strict violation of NCAA policy, he accepted “a couple of thousand” in cash from one agent and jewelry purchased by another. These agents couldn’t wait for the young man to turn pro, which he elected to do after the University of Massachusetts was eliminated from the national tournament.

Perhaps now people see why young collegians, such as Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury, or high school seniors, such as Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, chose the NBA and will get off these poor kids’ backs. They are 18 years old or older and entitled to make a living, same way they are eligible to marry, have children or fight for their country.

No public outcry is heard when children enrolled in tennis academies spend their teenage years traveling around the globe, making money hand over foot--for themselves, not for a university--and endorsing commercial products, as when 14-year-old Jennifer Capriati announced her association with Oil of Olay skin lotion.

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No debate raged over child labor laws or the possible emotional retardation of a kid who should be dabbing Clearasil on her face and studying English lit and phys ed. Nobody frets about little Michelle Kwan out there on her ice skates, because, like a pianist or a ballerina or a Macaulay Culkin, she is a prodigy and should not be inhibited from flexing her talent.

Well, the same should go for Bryant, the high schooler from Pennsylvania and son of a former NBA player who decided that he didn’t want or need to attend college, that he was applying for work as a professional basketball player, which is his constitutional right. Kobe doesn’t feel like doing any more homework, but mainly he doesn’t feel like having a few bucks in his pocket when he could have a few hundred thousand in the bank.

He made this decision because college athletes are still not reimbursed for anything but their education, an education that for some of them does not advance a career but keeps them from it.

Advising anyone to “stay in school” is a noble notion, but once again, in Camby’s case, we are seeing an example of someone who was exceptional at what he did, but continued to delay his legitimate means of making money when, at any time, that means could disappear, as it nearly did for Camby when he collapsed twice from mysterious ailments. He was sick and he was broke. Massachusetts is lucky he stayed as long as he did.

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What he did will be perceived as selfish, with Camby himself saying, “The opportunity was just there and I took it.”

He will be portrayed as someone whose selfishness will cost UMass many hard-earned victories, presumably because he wanted some walking-around money and something to wear around his neck. But not here, he won’t be. Marcus Camby made money for his school, made the TV networks take an interest in a previously uninteresting program, made first-rate opponents put the Minutemen on their schedules as they never had before.

It isn’t the fault of young basketball players that they--as well as football players--are induced to attend college before they turn professional in a way that other athletes--boxers, golfers, baseball players, hockey players--are not. Why must they continually be labeled as selfish for failing to appreciate “a free education” when they are among the few athletes in the world whose education is stuffed down their throats, as a prerequisite to employment?

A lawyer might need a diploma to join a firm, but an agent doesn’t, an entertainer doesn’t, a journalist doesn’t and neither should an athlete who, like Emmitt Smith, can still go back and get his education if he really wants one. Why should Marcus Camby have to play tennis instead of basketball to be able to make a buck?

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