NEW YORK, NY – MARCH 08: Fab Melo #51 of the Syracuse Orange reacts against the Connecticut Huskies during the quarterfinals of the Big East Men’s Basketball Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

When Syracuse University signed five-star recruit Fab Melo in 2010, it knew it was getting a star basketball player who couldn’t do college work.

That is no knock on Melo’s intelligence; rather, it’s a simple fact for someone who had barely had time to learn English. Melo grew up in Brazil, and after being discovered as a potential 7-foot tall basketball prodigy, he was shipped to America to learn the sport and get a head start on his academics, spending two years at a high school in Florida. That’s two years to become proficient in English and get college-ready.

Syracuse, of course, knew that Melo couldn’t possibly be ready for college-level work with that quick of a turnaround. Coach Jim Boeheim knew that he was getting a basketball player, not a student. But the National Collegiate Athletic Association, under the guise of amateurism, requires that schools pretend that its athletes are students first, so as to have an excuse to profit off their labor without paying the players.

So, in order to pretend Melo was a typical student while also profiting off his basketball skill, Syracuse cheated for him.

The Orange did whatever they could to keep Melo eligible, whether that was pressuring academic officials to give him second chances, or straight-up doing his work for him. In the end, he missed a number of games for academic problems and declared for the NBA Draft after his second year, because he basically had no other choice.

For its part, Syracuse was handed a penalty by the NCAA, but the Orange still got the publicity Melo helped usher in, with a No. 1 ranking and an Elite Eight berth. They sold his jersey, that so many (including this author) bought. His star power helped them set an NCAA attendance record. Melo, on the other hand, struggled in the NBA and returned to Brazil, where he died suddenly on Saturday at the age of 26.

Melo is a tragedy of the American basketball system, but he is also a poster child of how the NCAA system fails athletes.

Theoretically, schools are only supposed to recruit players who can do the academic work in college, but in an industry that is so lucrative—worth over $100 million annually to many power conference schools—the potential to make money causes schools to find a way to work around that ideal than actually limit recruiting to athletes capable of doing college-level work.

“It’s just part of the culture,” said Mary Willingham, a former learning specialist at North Carolina, who blew the whistle on the Tar Heels’ academic fraud scandal. “We’re all cheating, all of us across the country, because the pool of athletes we’re all recruiting, they’re all coming from an underprepared background. It would be like offering me a scholarship tomorrow to go to medical school. But I’m just not prepared, so it would be a worthless scholarship to me.”

Melo was the ultimate example of an athlete who very clearly could not do the work, and yet was used for his talent. However, this is an epidemic even for athletes who graduate, because their degree is nothing but a piece of paper. Willingham called herself a “schedule engineer,” because her job was to essentially find mismatched classes with no academic purpose that would help keep athletes eligible. Even those who can take advantage of the academics in college see their teammates earn millions for their school and get little in return.

“A lot of (players) would go through this academic machinery in their colleges and be spit out at the end of that machinery, left torn, worn and asking questions, with really no guidance on where they should go,” said Myron Rolle, a Rhodes Scholar and former Florida State football player. “No purpose, no idea of their trajectory, and sometimes left with a degree in hand that didn’t behoove any of their future interests.”

While some academics would like to create a system in which colleges only recruit athletes who are college-ready, the money dictates that’s never going to happen. So rather than pretend that athletes like Melo can do the work, schools should create class schedules that help them succeed.

In a world fair to Melo, Syracuse would have created a personalized academic system that could have actually helped him succeed. It could have given him specialized English-as-a-second-language classes and given him a foundation to be successful in his academics. It could have given him a six-year college plan that would have been there for him after his NBA career. It could have been honest about his abilities so he wouldn’t have been forced out of college basketball before he was ready for the NBA.

However, the NCAA and its colleges are only allowed to get free labor from Melo and players like him because they have convinced the courts that athletes are students first. Acknowledging that they need to revise their academic services to help athletes would risk the courts realizing college basketball is a business, not an education-centric system. That would mean the NCAA and colleges having to share their hundreds of millions of dollars with the people who produce it. And that isn’t a risk the NCAA or the colleges are willing to take.

So the NCAA won’t change the rules, and schools with an opportunity to recruit star athletes—just like Syracuse’s opportunity with Melo—will continue to do so, because the monetary reward is worth the risk of a penalty.

Under the current system, Melo couldn’t receive a proper education. He couldn’t stay in college basketball until he was ready for the NBA. There is a way to change that, but it would require the NCAA and our universities to put aside just an ounce of their self-interest. If history is any indication, the money guarantees they won’t.

About Kevin Trahan

Kevin mostly covers college football and college basketball, with an emphasis on NCAA issues and other legal issues in sports. He is also an incoming law student. He's written for SB Nation, USA Today, VICE Sports, The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal, among others. He is a graduate of Northwestern University.

6 thoughts on “How the NCAA and universities fail players like Fab Melo

  1. couldn’t Melo have gone to the D-League? and for that matter, did the d league fail him because he didn’t develop to a NBA caliber player while he kicked around there? or is it only colleges that get held responsible for personal failings by the self-righteous?

    1. The D-League is attempting to become something more akin to a minor league system, thanks to investments from the NBA/NBA Players’ Union in both the collective bargaining agreement and teams seeking to own their own D-League team. The previous system wasn’t designed toward training up a player while paying them a livable income; many were making sub-$20k per year and a player like Fab, who was likely uncomfortable with the English language to the extent required to do full-time work and left less than fully educated thanks to Syracuse and the NCAA, could not benefit from such a system. Furthermore, the NBA is a business with professionals – it is normally incumbent of the individual to sustain oneself during job training or through the tumultuous career and life that a struggling athlete can encounter.

      This is not a “self-righteous” article. Rather, it is an open acknowledgement that “institutions of higher learning and education” are failing that prime directive when it comes to the money-making sports and the participants therein. There is not an answer provided in the article, which may be a primary issue many have, but addressing said problem with yet another “chewed up and spit out” example is necessary to grab the attention of those who can – but are unlikely – to change the current system.

      1. There is not an answer provided because the right answer is that Melo should have never gone to college to play ball. But that’s an inconvenient truth when trying to score points against the NCAA (which is what this article is and why is it absolutely self-righteous).

        1. That may be the “right answer,” but it is an unrealistic answer; the “make money and forgo ‘student well-being'” philosophy of profitable NCAA athletics is alive, well, and illustrated in Fab Melo’s career at Syracuse. You seem content in stating this article is “trying to score points against the NCAA,” but you present no criticism toward the system that allowed Fab Melo to “go to college to play ball.”

          If you do not believe Fab should have been at Syracuse, why are you upset at the article’s author for presenting a likewise negative viewpoint concerning Melo’s career and untimely demise, albeit from a different and more direct approach? There is not “inconvenient truth” in the article, rather it addresses the situation and the problems therein. Your “attack” does nothing but confirm there is a problem with the current NCAA system, but provides no substance or answer other than “the author is self-righteous.”

          1. The reality is that the best non-NBA players and coaches are in major college basketball, unless Melo had gone to Europe. By playing in college, Melo not only got to learn from Jim Boeheim and play against other top NBA prospects, he also got exposure to a wide American audience he never would have gotten in Europe and certainly not the D-League:

            Without the illusory connection to a school, minor league professional teams have no more reason to have fans than minor-league baseball teams, except minor league baseball has a lot more history and tradition than the D-League. The only alternative would be a promotion and relegation system allowing the prospect of competing in the NBA, but then existing NBA teams couldn’t hold on to their 30 monopoly-secured spots and guarantee of parity, and couldn’t blackmail cities for expensive yet worthless new arenas.

  2. The NCAA and its schools continue to want to have it both ways: they want to maintain the current reality of being minor leagues for the NFL and NBA that have sold their naming rights for a fanbase, but in order to justify that status quo they need to continue to pander to the fiction of the student-athlete. If there were a way to completely separate the teams from the schools it would allow the teams to actually do what’s best for their players, but then the schools couldn’t make money off the teams and the teams would find no one caring about them without the pretense of a connection to the school.

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