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Elton Brand and the Letter of Doom

As posted in the links today, came up with a 1999 email exchange between Elton Brand and an aggrieved Duke University alumnus, who felt he had dishonored the university by leaving early. It struck a chord with me, and I wanted to talk about it a little more.

The author of the article, Brad Cohen, wisely cites Jalen Rose's offensive comments about how Duke was perceived by other black athletes in the early 90s, and race is a quagmire I'm not going to descend into. But it's worth noting for one major reason: in some ways, college sports are one of the weirdest phenomenons in America.

Here's the deal:. Students who a school won't look at get in because they'll help a sports team. This is good and bad, obviously. One of the major bars to entry in American universities is that generally to get on the radar of one of the country's elite universities, of which Duke is one, you don't just need smarts, you need a lot of advantages that only comes through economic privilege. As someone who's deeply involved with the production side of academia, I've been told that elite colleges are looking less and less at students' personal essays because so many of the applicants can afford an essay counselor that it's not exactly revelatory. Sports is a way in just like it's a way out of some of the dangerous neighborhoods that many basketball players grew up in.

But, so, getting a student to a university where a lot of people are from certain backgrounds doesn't make you from that background. It doesn't make you fit in. As someone who's worked on the athletic commission at the university I work at, I can tell you that many athletes feel as if they're not taken seriously because of the circumstances of their acceptance. And there's more to it than that.

Because of the nature of big school athletics, Duke basketball being right up there at the top, athletes get very little time to have a normal college experience. They can have an experience excellent in its own way, but not a normal one. It's not possible.

Big sports programs make schools a lot of money. They don't make the athletes any money. That makes the athletes products, and they exist, on a certain level, to be cheered.

The weird thing about this email exchange isn't weird at all. Alumni of big sports universities can feel an enormous attachment to their teams, to the point where they forget that the person whose exploits make or break their weeks is an unpaid 19 year old. This person clearly feels--or felt, 13 years ago--like Elton Brand owed her something. That he'd broken some contract, by not caring enough about what she cared about to forgo millions of dollars. It wasn't her millions of dollars, but she knew Elton had made the wrong choice.

And Elton's anger, I think, comes from here. I don't know anything about his childhood, but from the email it sounds like it was rough. I really don't know. I do know it was for so, so many NBA players. Money changes lives. It saves lives. Imagine a one-parent home, as many of these guys had, and a mother or father sacrificing everything to help their kid achieve their dreams. Imagine having the choice to give back. That's what an NBA contract means, for so many ballers. Someone's going to criticize them for doing that?

I remember, a few years after Elton left, there was a similar, though not as great, controversy about Luol Deng leaving Duke. Elton had been one of the first ever, Luol was still an anomaly. You don't leave Duke early, apparently. A lot of pundits thought Deng was foolish for leaving, that he'd never be the player he could be if he left. They were probably right about that. A lot of people felt like this angry woman felt when Elton left--that Duke is somehow owed four years, because of what Duke means to its fans, whether or not it means that to the athlete. It SHOULD, is the feeling.

But Luol Deng went and got paid for the very simple reason that Luol Deng comes from Sudan, one of the most wartorn countries in the world, a country, in those days, in the grips of a violent and widespread genocide. That paycheck meant that he could help Sudan. It really does not seem to me that Duke fans have a right to object to that, or that Luol Deng's basketball game developing for another year in college is worth more people dying in the Sudan. This is an extreme situation, of course, but a real one.

Colleges make a pact with athletes. Do right by us, and we'll do right by you. But neither they nor the fans own the athletes. In exchange for a scholarship, for the opportunity to showcase your game for the professional level, the athlete owes the team his hard work. But he owes it to himself and usually to many others to keep making the right decisions for his life.

This is not something any of us should feel comfortable judging, in my opinion.