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  • Blue-White Scrimmage - October 27, 2014 - Rupp Arena - 7:00 PM EST - SEC Network

Let’s do everything we can to take care of our kids

As I said yesterday, initially learning about Nerlens’ injury was devastating because it was the first time in my 22 years of being a college head coach that I’ve had a player go down with a season-ending injury during the year. It’s natural to think, “Why did this happen?” because you feel for the kid and you don’t want to see anything like that happen to anyone, but sometimes fate intervenes.

I’m just glad we were prepared for the ramifications of something like this and that Nerlens is going to be just fine. When I sat down to talk to him yesterday, I talked to him about three things:

  1. I told him that this is an injury that Adrian Peterson and others have come back from quickly and were better after than they were before.
  2. If the injury would have been more than we thought – which it wasn’t – you have insurance, which will make you an instant millionaire.
  3. If the rehab is longer than you think or you don’t feel like you are prepared to take the next step, you’re academically in a good place to where you can come back and be the best big man in the country next year as you work through it.

Nerlens understands all three of those things and has a great attitude that he is going to come back from this thing stronger than ever. The way he is already dealing with this lets me know he is going to be just fine.

Having said that, what happened to Nerlens raises a couple of issues that I think we should all be talking about more. The first one is the insurance.

Every year, five or six of my players are insured as part of the NCAA Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Insurance Program in case they suffer a career-ending injury. They don’t have to get the insurance, but we talk to some of the guys about why they should consider it and then let them make up their mind from there. Understand it is only for career-ending injuries. Injuries happen in our sport – sometimes career-ending ones – and I would hate for these kids to pay a lifelong price after putting so much on the line for us.

My problem with the insurance is the players have to agree to pay the premiums for it to receive it. Why wouldn’t the school or the NCAA, which is making billions of dollars, make sure that those kids that come to school and have that opportunity to be drafted are insured? Why would we make the players pay for that? The only option then is for them to take a risk and potentially jeopardize their entire career. If the kid doesn’t make it to the NBA, he is still obligated to pay it back himself even if he went to school for four years, did everything right academically, graduated, and helped the school win games and championships. It all adds up.

I’ve also heard a lot of people now saying that we should let these kids go to the NBA out of high school. What if the kid was injured as a senior in high school and it’s a season-ending injury? Should he have been able to put his name in the draft and forego his senior season? What happens if it was his junior year? Should he have gone after his sophomore year? Do we really want a couple thousand sophomores in high school believing they don’t need to do their academic work because they believe they can go to the NBA? Because that’s what you’re going to get if you go to that rule.

You may say they can go to the D-League if we let them make the jump out of high school. Wait a minute, we don’t have minor-league basketball like they do in baseball where there is a single-A, double-A and triple-A team for each franchise and you can work your way through. That’s not what the D-League is. That’s a man’s league and is not suited for high school kids. Ask anybody that goes into the league if that would be a better training ground than college basketball. They can go to Europe then, you say? It’s been done by two different players. One didn’t make it, and the other one said he would never do it again.

So what are we preparing these kids for, failure? Why wouldn’t we try to encourage kids to be in school longer than one year? Why wouldn’t we pay for their disability insurance? Why wouldn’t we give these kids a stipend? Why wouldn’t we make loans available for their families while they’re in school so they’re not encouraged to do something that’s not in their best interest for financial reasons? Are you telling me that a year of college did not help John Wall or Anthony Davis or Nerlens Noel? One year worked, so let’s try two.

If the NBA Players Association won’t work with the NCAA to make it mandatory, let’s encourage the kids and educate them on why this is a better route. If we can keep kids in school two years, they are so close to graduating that it makes it easier to see themselves coming back to school to finish. Understand that if a kid goes to college for two years and three summers, he will be a little more than a year away from a college degree. And what about the ripple effect of that education? Their children can now say, “My dad did it so I can do it too.”

Why wouldn’t we encourage this?

Could a reason for coaches wanting kids go straight to the NBA out of high school is because they can’t get them and don’t want to compete against them? My hope is that we are bigger than that, but I don’t know. Are educators really thinking that these kids don’t deserve to be in school? Or that if they are good enough to leave early, they don’t want to be there so they shouldn’t be? Please tell me that’s really not true. Do we not have any feelings about stopping cycles within families that lack higher education and changing generational cycles?

If there was a system similar to baseball’s minor-league system that would give these kids the time to make it, I would be all for it, but I don’t see one. They make a mistake and they are doomed. If they make a mistake and throw their name in the draft out of high school and they don’t make it, what do they have to fall back on? Can they still go to college on scholarship and play? Do we not care about those kids anymore? Or is it just based on the fact that I can’t recruit those kids so I don’t want to play against them?

If you are someone who feels strongly about these kids having the right to turn pro out of high school, why don’t we let football players come right out of high school and adopt the baseball rule? Some people are saying that the kid at South Carolina should have come right out of high school. Maybe he should have been able to, I don’t know, but if they go to college, they’ve got to stay three years like baseball, which they have to right now anyway.

Let me say it again: I don’t like the one-and-done rule, but I will not coerce or convince a player to come back when he has an opportunity to do something for him and his family that is an obvious choice. Let’s make it to where we do everything we can to take care of our kids. Stipends, loans, food – all the things that are available to use, we’re going to do. We are going to do everything we can to encourage you to stay in school – not by words that are self-serving to coaches and programs but by words that truly are about these young people.

I felt that way at Massachusetts, I felt that way at Memphis and I still feel that way now.