- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2001

Should student athletes skip college and jump into professional sports? The debate is interesting, but the answer is fairly obvious. After all, fulfilling a contract with a sports organization is a job, and we encourage other teens to enter the work force upon graduating from high school through the military and so-called "school-to-career" programs. In this sense, playing a professional sport is merely working at a job.

You likely have heard stories about Tiger Woods and other athletes who attended a year or two of college and then decided to turn pro. How about a student who doesn´t even finish high school?

Consider Bobby Convey. A midfielder for Major League Soccer´s D.C. United, Bobby was, at 16 years and 8 months, old enough for a driver´s license, yet too young to sign a contract with the pro soccer team in 2000. His father did the honors. Since then, Bobby, who was a standout in Philadelphia, has lived with his coach.

Bobby´s parents, Bob and Nancy Convey, had initial reservations just like any concerned parents.

"At first I was upset about it," Mrs. Convey told USA Today. "You are torn between, 'Yes, he should go´ and 'No, he shouldn´t.´ If he´d , maybe his soccer opportunities would not have happened. We chose this way and hope it works out."

Indeed, the rosters of professional sports teams are loaded with student-athletes who hurdled from high school to the pros or into the drafts before earning their degrees but did earn them in the off-season. Most of these same athletes were two, three, even four years older than Bobby. Yet, whatever their age, they shared several things in common bankable athletic skills.

The National Basketball Association, whose annual June draft list lengthens considerably each year with NCAA standouts who leave school, is a perfect example. Some outstanding examples include Kobe Bryant (Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania/Los Angeles Lakers), Kevin Garnett (Farragut Career Academy in Illinois/Minnesota Timberwolves), Allen Iverson (Georgetown University/Philadelphia 76ers) and Vince Carter (University of North Carolina/Toronto Raptors).

Mr. Iverson, for one, was a product of the rough-and-tumble streets of Hampton Roads, where he was a phenom on street courts as well as on schoolhouse parquet floors before he became a project of John Thompson´s at Georgetown University. More than a few Iverson fans (including yours truly), though, wondered whether this renegade would wind up spending his adult years in prison rather than the pros. That´s because even after he won a gubernatorial pardon as a teen-ager, wowed Big East play as a Hoya and was drafted by the Sixers, Mr. Iverson tangled with the law (including drug and gun charges) many times, trying the patience of his coaches, his teammates and his mom.

Today, thanks perhaps to his own willfulness (but certainly to his coaches, teammates and mom), this 25-year-old earring-and-braid-wearing, many-tattooed, elbow-hurting, frank-speaking 6-foot guard is the NBA´s No. 1 player in points per game, steals per game and minutes per game. That´s not at all bad for a troublesome young man who joined the work force after two years of college.

Some players do return to school. Mr. Iverson finished in 1998, joining the PGA´s (and Stanford University´s) Tiger Woods and dunkmeister Vince Carter, who finished up at the University of North Carolina.

Interestingly, the rules for women are a lot tougher. While NBA guidelines merely dictate that a high school player must have graduated, the Women´s National Basketball Association attaches many more requirements. A woman must either have played at least two seasons in a pro league, graduated from a four-year college, or and this really gets me be at least 22 years old or have exhausted her college eligibility. No wonder men, not women, have a reputation for being dumb jocks.

At any rate, the PGA and its women´s counterpart, the LPGA, are biased as well; the PGA places no restrictions on teens, while the LPGA requires that a woman be 18 for the regular tour. (There are two sponsors´ exemptions, however.)

As for Bobby Convey, he has been hitting the books since he left home, with special tutors in math, English, public speaking and finance. (Big-time athletes need to know far more than how many dollars they have.) Bobby will test for his GED this summer; he´ll probably pass. (I certainly wish him and his parents luck.)

Now, we all know that regardless of the rules and regulations, some teens can´t handle the pressure of full-time jobs even though their bodies and prowess might make them look as though they are ready for prime-time sports. It´s a call you have to make as parents if they are underage or at least warn them to discuss it with you before signing on any dotted line.

Deborah Simmons is an editorial writer and columnist for The Washington Times. She can be reached by e-mail ([email protected]).

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