It’s Time: Pay the Next Generation of Athletes What They’re Worth
If we want to give players a better chance, we’ve got to stop the cycle of exploitation before it starts
If you work hard, you should get paid.
It’s an idea as simple as two-plus-two, as old as capitalism, as American as apple pie. But now that a new super league called Overtime Elite is announcing it will pay six-figure salaries to the world’s best high school basketball players, I can already tell you what’s going to happen — the old guard is gonna lose it.
Whenever anyone suggests paying young athletes, people start throwing all kinds of questions at the wall: What about amateurism? Can these players be trusted with money of their own? How much change is too much change? Which is funny, because when I found out about this league, I only had one: What the hell took so long?
Let me provide some context.
In a generation of players who grew up wanting to Be Like Mike, I was the guy set up to do it. I was selected second overall in the 2002 NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls. I was announced in the starting lineup with the same theme music playing in the arena. I even had the audacity to take MJ’s locker.
This isn’t an accident. It’s how the game was built. Until you sign a pro contract, you’re barred not just from earning money but from learning about it in any real way.
Back then I was one of the most promising prospects in the country. I’d been a McDonald’s All American. I’d won National Player of the Year in college — not once, but twice. And I’d brought Duke a national championship under coach Mike Krzyzewski.
I also thrived off the court. I’d earned a four-year degree in three years — at one of the top universities in the world. I had two middle-class parents who lifted me up every step of the way. On draft night, as I shook David Stern’s hand, I remember looking out at them from that stage and feeling not just like I had made it, but like we had made it.
And I was confident that if anyone had the support they needed to succeed at the next level, it was me.
But here’s the truth: Nobody is really ready.
If you know my story, you might think I’m talking about a poor decision I made — when I hopped on a motorcycle that ended my career way too early. But I’m not. I’m talking about all of it, about everything that comes with being thrust into the life of an NBA player. The business deals. The distractions. The moneymen who try to get close to you through your family and friends. The envelopes stuffed with cash. I’m talking about the game that surrounds the game.
The reality of the matter is that on the court, these rookies can succeed from day one. But no matter what you can do with a ball in your hands, when you have to start thinking about the business of basketball — when you get in one of those rooms, rooms with briefcases and legal pads, signing contracts you don’t understand for dollars you never imagined — it’s disorienting. So you defer to those with whom you’re most familiar instead of those who will do the best job setting you up for success. Which is a problem, because in this game, you’re only as good as the company you keep.
This isn’t an accident. It’s how the game was built. Until you sign a pro contract, you’re barred not just from earning money but from learning about it in any real way. From talking to an agent. From exploring endorsements. From capitalizing on your name, image, and likeness. If you do any of those things, you’re kicked off your college teams.
And that’s only the beginning. Your school can sell merch with your name, but you can’t. Your team can sign with a shoe company, but you can’t. Coaches and executives line their pockets off your sweat, but you can’t. You’re on the court for the game, but when it comes to the benefits, you’re benched.
Don’t get me wrong: I benefited enormously from my time at Duke. I became a household name and learned from a legendary coach. I took courses in subjects like economics that would prepare me for my trade. And unlike many of the top prospects today, who stop going to class after a few months, I was able to stay long enough to graduate.
But we’ve got to be able to hold two competing thoughts in our heads at the same time — that you can benefit from your time as a college basketball player while also recognizing that you are being exploited.
I still remember looking up at the crowd during games. I would see hundreds of fans wearing my #22 jersey that they bought at the campus bookstore. When I would dive for a loose ball, I would see an ad for a telephone company on the scorer’s table. When I checked out the ratings, I would read that millions tuned into our games. But it wasn’t just me, and it wasn’t just Duke. All across the country, guys like me were billed as the main event for Big Monday. We were the star attraction in March Madness, which generates billions of dollars in revenue. And at the same time, many of the guys I shared the court with could barely afford meals off campus. Think about that.
If we had been golfers or tennis players, we could’ve started making money before we were old enough to drive. But because we played basketball, we were told to shut up and dribble. For free. Wonder why? Go ahead and line up the top 10 golf prospects in the country next to the top 10 basketball prospects, and tell me if you notice anything different about these two groups.
When you look past the buzzwords and brochures, there’s no denying this simple fact: College basketball is a modern-day incarnation of indentured servitude, built on the free labor of athletes, most of whom are Black and Brown. And while what the scholarship players get in return can be valuable for some, the classes they take do very little in practice to actually prepare them for the next stage of their lives. And that’s especially true now that the most talented athletes leave campus after just a few months.
Right now, if you’re a top prospect, the best education you get on how to build your career is a three-day seminar from the NBA called the Rookie Transition Program. But by then, it’s too little too late. You’ve already been reached out to by all sorts of characters looking to make a dollar off you. You’ve already hired an agent and signed a wealth manager, who very well might have snagged the job because they paid your uncle under the table.
All this happens far too quickly for players — in the couple of months between the end of the season and the draft. And if we want to give players a better chance, we’ve got to stop this cycle before it starts. We’ve got to teach players how to build the right team around them — a team made up of advisors who are selected because they’re the best at what they do, not because they did the best job cuddling up to their family. We’ve got to teach players how to identify what’s actually in their interest versus what’s in the interest of everyone around them. We’ve got to teach them about building a business and a brand. Most importantly, we’ve got to make sure these players are prepared to enter any room, win any deal, seize any opportunity. These are skills players need not to prepare for a long career, but to succeed in the event that, like me, their career ends up being a lot shorter than they’d hoped.
All of these are reasons why players, wisely, are starting to look for better options. They want to be more prepared than my generation was. So they’re playing overseas. They’re joining the G League. And Overtime Elite is a welcome new player in this ecosystem, which is why so many guys who’ve been through it got on board — guys like Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, and me. Because it’s not just a league that will pay players salaries that match their skill and dedication to the game. It’s also an educational program that’s actually going to prepare them for the pressures of the pros and a career long after they’re done playing.
In a couple years, many of the best high school players in the country will be headed to drafts of their own. And they deserve a better option to fulfill their potential — not just on the basketball court, but off it. To become a new kind of athlete, an athlete equally at home on the court and in the boardroom, an athlete defined not by what they accomplish over the course of their careers but by the legacy they build over the course of their lives.
That doesn’t mean these prospects will have all the answers right away. No one does. But, at the very least, I know they’re gonna silence the folks asking all the wrong questions.