• Villanova Sports Law Blog

J.R. Smith's College Adventure: Could Lebron Be Next?

By: Jordan Inver, Guest Contributor

[1] People often speculate about what could have been if Lebron James had played college football or basketball. Two weeks ago, it was announced that former NBA player J.R. Smith, who enrolled at North Carolina A&T, was cleared by the NCAA to play golf for their men’s golf team.[2] Smith’s clock to compete in college never started because he went straight to the NBA after high school.[3] Most athletes get five years to complete four years of eligibility.[4] Since enrolling at North Carolina A&T, Smith has been very vocal about his college experience on Twitter.


According to NCAA rules, “an individual shall not be eligible for intercollegiate athletics in a sport if the individual ever competed on a professional team in that sport.”[5] (Sorry Ohio State fans who were hoping to see a retired Lebron James suiting up in an Ohio State men’s basketball uniform.) However, NCAA rules do not ban a former pro athlete from taking part in a different sport. There is a history of athletes in other sports playing professionally before returning to college to play a different sport.


Most often, it has been minor league baseball players returning to college football. For example, Florida State Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Chris Weinke spent six years in the Toronto Blue Jays minor league system before enrolling at Florida State University and leading them to the 1999 national championship in football.[6] Similarly, Brandon Weeden played five years of minor league baseball before having an illustrious career at Oklahoma State and becoming a first round selection in the NFL draft.[7] Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson also played minor league baseball in between his stints as a college football player at NC State and Wisconsin.[8]


The difference with JR Smith, though, is that he reached the highest rungs of professional performance, winning the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award in 2013 and two NBA Championships, in 2016 and 2020.[9][10] His move back to college opens avenues for retired NBA players who skipped college to return to collegiate sports. Plenty of NBA stars went straight from high school to the pros. For example, Lakers stars Lebron James and Dwight Howard, and last year’s Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball all skipped college to go play professional basketball.


Could you imagine Lebron James deciding that he wants to pursue a football, swimming, or golf career at a university after he retires? The internet would explode! In the past, a move to college athletics made no sense for a retired pro because there was no financial incentive. However, with the NCAA now allowing athletes to profit from their name, imagine, and likeness in the wake of the Supreme Court’s NCAA v. Alston decision, retired pros can now capitalize on their brand while competing in a new sport and getting their college degree.[11] J.R. Smith’s move to college golf has opened Pandora’s box. Will Lebron James be next?


References:


[1] PGA Tour, https://www.pgatour.com/news/2021/08/11/nba-champion-j-r-smith-is-headed-back-to-school-college-golf.html


[2] Id.


[3] Ben Pickman, NCAA Rules J.R. Smith Eligible to Play Golf for North Carolina A&T, Sports Illustrated (August 24, 2021), https://www.si.com/nba/2021/08/24/jr-smith-golf-eligible-nc-a


[4] Ben Morse, Two-time NBA champion JR Smith heads to college with eyes set on playing golf, CNN (August 12, 2021), https://www.cnn.com/2021/08/12/golf/jr-smith-golf-college-nba-spt-intl/index.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+rss%2Fcnn_latest+%28RSS%3A+CNN+-+Most+Recent%29


[5] Myron Medcalf, JR Smith petitions to play golf after enrolling at North Carolina A&T, ESPN (August 11, 2021), https://abcnews.go.com/Sports/jr-smith-petitions-play-golf-enrolling-north-carolina/story?id=79412093


[6] NCAA, https://web3.ncaa.org/lsdbi/search/proposalView?id=2503


[7] Mitch Sherman, Oklahoma State QB learning, too, ESPN (July 20, 2011), https://www.espn.com.au/college-sports/recruiting/football/story/_/id/6787879/college-qbs-learning-elite-11-well


[8] Billy Heyen, Did Russell Wilson play baseball? Yes, and the Yankees still own his MLB draft rights, Sporting News (November 19, 2020), https://www.sportingnews.com/us/nfl/news/russell-wilson-baseball-yankees/1hikem8pq2901szk59gy9xmnb


[9] NBA, Knicks’ J.R. Smith wins Kia Sixth Man Award, NBA (April 22, 2013), https://web.archive.org/web/20150417041045/http://www.nba.com/2013/news/04/22/smith-wins-sixth-man-award-release/


[10] Fox Sports, Former NBA Champ J.R. Smith joins golf team at North Carolina A&T, Fox Sports (August 24, 2021), https://www.foxsports.com/stories/nba/jr-smith-going-to-college-joins-golf-team-north-carolina-a-and-t


[11] National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Alston, 594 U.S. 1 (2021).