Sophomore Isiah Thomas's decision to turn pro after leading Indiana University to a national basketball championship has reopened the usual can of worms.
Are athletes who drop out of school making a mistake? And what loyalty does a player owe his school? These and other hard-to-answer questions were bound to surface after Thomas and DePaul junior Mark Aguirre declared themselves eligible for the National Basketball Association's draft. Electing not to follow suit was 7 ft. 4 in. sophomore Ralph Sampson, who will stay at Virginia.
Of the three, Thomas may be the only one with real academic aspirations; he hopes to become a lawyer after his playing days are over. He's already said he firmly intends to continue his education in off-season periods. One person sure to goad Isiah in this direction is Hoosier Coach Bobby Knight, who takes pride in seeking his players earn a degree.
Of course, pursuing a diploma intermittently requires persistence, and many athletes who turn pro without earning a degree never get one. If for some reason their athletic career ends abruptly, these non-graduates may find themselves ill-prepared or underqualified to begin new careers. Historically, however, pro athletes often use contacts to find jobs after retirement.
Young players can hardly be faulted for taking the huge sums of money used to entice them out of school. The prime earning years in most pro sports are very limited, so the sooner one can launch a career the better. Physically, there's no doubt that Thomas and Aguirre are ready for the NBA, which has seen Moses Malone and Darryl Dawkins step right into the pros from high school and Magic Johnson take Los Angeles to a league championship in what would have been his junior year at Michigan State.
Asked why Aguirre was turning pro, DePaul coach Ray Meyer said, "Well, it was because of two things I couldn't give him: enough of a challenge to continue playing in college -- going one on one with him in practice became a joke -- and , of course, a half-million dollars."
But aren't players like Aguirre guilty of turning their backs on schools that deserve better? That generally is the feeling of college rooters, concerned with winning records, conference championships, and the like. But college sports must be divorced from the winning-is-everything mentality of the pros. The individual student must not be viewed as a pawn of the university, even if the student is on an athletic scholarship. Let's fact it, no one would scream about a little-used reserved dropping out of school to g o to work, so why do so when the team superstar does?