The rule that forced O.J. Mayo to go to college didn’t come into effect until 2006, but it was the 2003 draft, the LeBron draft, that caused guys like him to think about their off the court value almost as much as their ability to play basketball. Together, the rule and that draft have helped to put Mayo in this situation he is currently in – accused of accepting more than $30,000 in gifts since high school from the marketing group that now represents him.
Think back to March of the year LeBron James was drafted. No one, from college or high school, had ever received as much hype as the kid already referred to as royalty. But that month was all about a 6’7 freshman at Syracuse University who was leading the Orange to the National Title. All of a sudden, a debate ensued: King James, the high school phenom, or Carmelo Anthony, the kid who proved his value against college competition all year?
In reality, the argument was created and fueled by the media. It was already inevitable that James would be the first pick of the June Draft long before his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers won the Lottery. The reason? No team could pass up all the revenue that this combination of Oscar Robertson, Magic and Michael was about to bring in.
James was the first player to begin building his brand in high school. His ability led to an incredible amount of hype which led to ESPN airing his games which led to LeBron becoming a household name. A year later, Sebastian Telfair would do the same thing, locking up a major book deal, an ESPN television special and a monster Adidas contract before his graduation.
Then, following a very weak high school class, the NBA changed everything. The league instituted a rule stating that at least one year had to pass since a player’s high school class graduated before he could be drafted.
The first player hurt by the rule may have been Greg Oden, who would have been the No. 1 pick out of high school, but Mayo was the first player that was going to see his marketing value damaged. Like LeBron and Telfair before him, Mayo was a smaller skill player that had already begun building his brand during his high school years and seemed destined to become a merchandising dream.
But a year in college had the chance to hurt that. Mayo’s name was already going to be bigger than any school he would attend, and it seemed like only bad things could happen during the year before entering the league. So he did what any famous person does – he moved to Los Angeles and went to USC. If nothing else, he’d always be in the news.
But by the time he made it to campus last fall, Mayo, it appears, had already accepted all kinds of lavish gifts for him and his family. He wasn’t the first (see James and Telfair) and he clearly won’t be the last.
An athlete might be built through years of hard work. But his brand is built in high school
As players continue to dually attend high school and the LeBron James School of Marketing, we are going to see more and more situations like Mayo’s.