The reaction to the news of California high schooler Jeremy Tyler's plan was as predictable as it was tired. The New York Times reported Thursday that Tyler, a 6-foot-11 junior at San Diego High, plans to skip his senior year in high school to play professionally in Europe. In two years, when his high school class is one year past graduation, he'll return to the U.S. and enter the NBA draft.
The tongue-clucking was deafening. You'd think the Book of Revelation had been revised to include skipping a year of high school to play pro basketball right between the sun turning black and the moon turning red. This will kill college basketball, some said. This kid is throwing away his future, others said.
Since no European newspaper sports editor offered me a six-figure salary to skip my senior year of high school, I don't feel qualified to rip Tyler's choice. I've never walked in his high-tops. But I do have a few questions for the folks who consider Tyler's move an abomination.
If he played golf, would you feel differently?
If he played tennis, would you feel differently?
If he had gotten his own show on the Disney Channel, would you feel differently?
Set aside the obvious racial overtones for a moment and consider only the sport-specific double standards. We celebrate individual athletes when they turn pro at a young age. Maria Sharapova was the darling of the tennis world at 17. Joey Logano is tearing up tracks and getting paid at 18. We celebrate entertainers when they turn pro at a young age. Nick Jonas, 16, is an actor, a musician and a paparazzi magnet. Miley Cyrus, 16, just might control the universe.
So why, when a basketball player chooses to play for money before the NBA says he should, does everyone freak out? Because we derive so much entertainment from big-time college football and basketball, we criticize those who would prefer not to enter a system that will cash in on their success while slipping them a woefully disproportionate share of the profit.
"Only in America," said Sonny Vaccaro, the former sneaker company executive who is helping arrange Tyler's European adventure, "do we chastise kids who want to make a living doing something they excel at."
To put Tyler's situation in perspective, consider the tale of another genetically gifted teen who turned pro two years ago. This Phoenix-area phenom, the offspring of a former professional athlete, had worn out all competitors on the local amateur circuit. So, at 16, the phenom opted to compete for big money.
I refer, of course, to Jordin Sparks.
Don't know Sparks? Then you weren't one of the 29.5 million people who tuned in to watch Sparks best beatboxer Blake Lewis on American Idol's Season 6 finale. Sparks, the daughter of former New York Giants cornerback Phillippi Sparks, auditioned for the show at 16 and won it at 17. To pursue her career -- she also was a plus-size model before she won Idol -- Sparks was homeschooled beginning in the 10th grade.
How is any of that different than the path Tyler has chosen? Like Sparks, Tyler will take the online course/homeschool route to finish his high school education. Like Sparks, Tyler will enter a business in which fame is fleeting and performers rarely last more than a few years at the highest level. Yet E! News Daily -- the SportsCenter of the entertainment world -- didn't bring on Simon Cowell to grill him about the potential exploitation of young Sparks. Nor did PerezHilton.com -- the Deadspin of the entertainment world -- publish a snarky post wondering how Sparks' turning pro might affect the world of college chorus. Of course, CBS doesn't pay $545 million a year to televise the Division I chorus tournament.
"In lieu of doing what's right for kids playing the game," Vaccaro said, "we're protecting college basketball."
It steams Vaccaro to no end that one of the arguments he heard Thursday was that that placing Tyler in the European system -- whatever club he signs with will shuttle him between its age-appropriate developmental squad and its featured team -- will somehow harm his game. If that were true, why does every team in the NBA want a crack at Ricky Rubio, the 18-year-old Spanish point guard who earned the nickname La Pistola while playing in the European club system? Instead, the critics would rather see Tyler go through the sham of a year at Louisville, where he would have to pass a few joke classes to stay eligible. Meanwhile, some NBA team would save the money it would have spent to market Tyler. After a Louisville run to the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight, he would have been household name among hoop fans.
This would be a much bigger deal if football players had a similar option. After the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Maurice Clarett's case against the NFL age limit, players in that sport had no choice but to adhere to the NFL's rule that they must wait three years after their class graduates high school to enter the draft. Why? Two reasons.
First, there is a legitimate safety concern. An 18-year-old fresh out of high school might get his neck broken in an NFL game. Second, no one else in the world besides Canada plays the sport at a truly professional level. If Terrelle Pryor or Bryce Brown had the option to play for the Milan Fabric Swatches for $250,000 Euros a year, one of them might have jumped.
But since this is only basketball, the powers that be won't be powerful enough to find a way to block Tyler's path. Who knows, maybe he will develop his skills more than he would with a year in his mediocre high school program and a year under Rick Pitino. Maybe he will learn some discipline playing against more mature opponents. Maybe, he'll flame out and NBA general managers will decide he isn't worth a first-round pick. The same things might have happened in college, but at least Tyler has the choice to get paid while he learns.
If it didn't bother you when Jordin Sparks did it, it shouldn't bother you when Jeremy Tyler does it.