Going pro a tough decision for many student-athletes

Some student-athletes get offers for multimillion dollar contracts before they have completed their degrees.

Than Tibbetts

When Dave Metzen laced up his hockey skates for the Gophers, only six professional hockey teams could tempt student-athletes with playing days after college.

Back then, top hockey draft picks’ biggest signing bonuses were only $50,000, he said.

Metzen graduated from the University in 1964. Today, he serves as chairman of the University’s Board of Regents.

Much has changed in the world of college-to-professional athletics since then.

Many of today’s student-athletes eye multimillion dollar contracts and ogle over high-profile lifestyles, while weighing the risks of leaving school early. Few make it big – most do not.

Many student-athletes face tough decisions choosing between collegiate and professional athletics, and the choice is becoming less clear, said Donald Moss, an author and former University of Southern California student-athlete.

Moss said the draw of professional sports causes many student-athletes to leave college without a degree. The decision can cause a trickle-down effect on the athlete’s family, friends and communities, he said.

“College sports are big business,” Moss said. “It’s gotten way past amateur sports.”

University of Minnesota athletics

Moss spoke last week at the Coffman Union bookstore about how many of today’s college athletes focus on the short-term prospects of turning professional and how many of them do

not consider the long-term benefits of earning a college degree.

University of Minnesota athletics officials said they believe each athlete has an individual choice.

“If you’re in the business for the right reason, and I think that our coaches and staff are, you want what’s best for the young person,” Athletics Director Joel Maturi said.

Men’s hockey coach Don Lucia said his program encourages players to do everything they can to get their degrees.

But the times have changed, several officials and coaches said.

Lucia said he has seen changes in the way players look at professional athletics.

“Most players have advisers before they get here, at 16, 17 years of age,” he said. “It used to be that players didn’t have advisers until their junior or senior year of college.”

Baseball coach John Anderson said there is a lot more money in sports today than there used to be.

He said baseball Hall of Fame member Paul Molitor received a $150,000 signing bonus after being drafted third in the 1977 Major League Baseball draft. Former Gophers pitcher Glen Perkins was drafted 22nd in the draft in June. He received a $1.4 million signing bonus.

“The famous question is, ‘What’s it going to take for you to sign?’ ” Anderson said. “The money encourages more kids to sign.”

Maturi said athletics programs never like to see players leave early.

“You obviously want the kids to play for the Gophers, be successful and complete the degree,” he said.

Lucia said his program encourages players to do everything possible to get their degrees.

“We do as good of a job as we can to let the players know that it’s a very small group that is going to the (National Hockey League),” Lucia said. “With a degree, at least they will have something to fall back on.”

Anderson called the situation a “catch-22” because as the team recruits better players, they leave the team for the professional ranks early.

Maturi said he appreciates the coaches’ conundrums.

“It makes it more of a challenge for coaches because of a lack of continuity,” Maturi said. “We could always recruit less-talented athletes, but that’s probably not the blueprint for success either.”

Going pro

Degrees in hand or not, many Gophers make the transition to professional athletics.

Former hockey player Thomas Vanek and former basketball player Kris Humphries probably did the right thing by turning professional, despite leaving the University of Minnesota without a degree, Maturi said.

One Gopher who left early was former hockey player Keith Ballard, who gave up his senior season this year to sign with the Phoenix Coyotes of the NHL.

“It was a tough decision,” Ballard said. “I think coach Lucia and everyone at Minnesota was very supportive in the process.”

Ballard was drafted in 2002 during his first year at the University of Minnesota, a common situation with college hockey players.

The NHL Draft system differs from the MLB, NFL and NBA drafts. NHL draftees can retain their eligibility so they can keep playing and going to school.

“It wasn’t a distraction,” Ballard said. “It’s nice to get that part out of the way, and it gives you something to shoot for.”

Lucia said that the men’s hockey team this year already has 10 players drafted by the NHL who can still play for the University of Minnesota.

Adam Haayer, an offensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings, played for the Gophers and graduated in 2001. He said his focus was on school and getting his business and industry education degree.

“I wasn’t going to be a first-round draft pick,” he said. “Football was a means for me to get a degree.”

Still, Haayer said, athletics and academics do not always mix.

“I played with a lot of guys who played one year and not the next because they were ineligible,” Haayer said.

“I went to class, and I wanted to graduate and get my degree,” Haayer said. “It’s up on the wall of my house right now. I cherish it.”

Ballard said he wants to come back to the University of Minnesota to finish his degree in sports management.

“But it’s not the time right now,” Ballard said.

Sports, school, society

“When kids leave school, it’s an all-or-nothing proposition at that point,” Moss said. “If you come out with a degree, even if you make it, you will still have something to fall back on.”

Lucia said some of his players have the mindset they will make it to the NHL.

“It’s just a very small minority that it’s going to work out for,” Lucia said. “But if you’re 19, 20 years old, everyone thinks they’re going to make it.”

A larger problem, Moss said, is that student-athletes are becoming athlete-students, and the consequences reach much further than a handful of athletes leaving college early without a degree.

Professional basketball players, such as Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, have been able to play successfully in the NBA without playing in college.

This has resulted in a disturbing trend, Moss said. Last year, 30 high school students declared themselves eligible for the NBA draft; five were drafted, he said. The remaining 25 are then ineligible to play college basketball.

Moss said the problem of college athletics trickles down and can affect larger portions of society. He said some athletes, after failing in their professional careers, have nothing to fall back on except drugs, crime and depression, especially if they are from an economically repressed area.

Parents need to make sure their children understand the value of an education, he said.

Ballard said he consulted with his parents and Lucia before making his decision.

“As a hockey player, I knew it was something I needed to do for my career,” he said.

As for the problem of overzealous athletes, Lucia said there are multiple reasons.

“You can point fingers at a lot of places, but it comes down to the parents have to be in control,” Lucia said. “And in certain cases, the parents are more zealous than anybody.”