Young stars can learn something from Harrison Barnes

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One of the funniest aspects of the month of March is the insistence of those in charge that the term “student-athletes” be used.

And rightfully so, as many are using their skill on the court to advance themselves in other areas as well as looking to possibly play professionally.

But make no mistake about it: this is big business for the student-athletes as well, and with recruiting being the way it is today that process begins in high school. These aren’t merely “players” or “student-athletes”, these are “brands”.

Enter April’s piece on North Carolina wing Harrison Barnes in the April issue of The Atlantic. Jason Zengerle tells the story of how Barnes’ “brand management” led the Ames, Iowa native to return to Chapel Hill.

And it also rehashes the story of who schools had Barnes meet when looking to land him as a recruit.

An honor student with a 3.6 GPA who, when he wasn’t honing his jump shot, would practice Bach and Chopin on his saxophone, Barnes was something of a renaissance man. So the college-basketball powerhouses trying to recruit him tailored their pitches accordingly. On Barnes’s visit to Duke, he met with the dean of the law school; at UCLA, he had lunch with the chancellor; at Stanford, he was entertained by none other than Condoleezza Rice.

Yet it was Barnes’s trip to the University of North Carolina that left the biggest impression. There, he was granted an audience with the school’s most famous basketball alum, Michael Jordan. Several weeks later, Barnes announced he was taking his talents to Chapel Hill.

Hard to tell a school ‘no’ when their most famous basketball alumnus is none other than the man who helped revolutionize both the game of basketball and the business behind it? I’d imagine so.

“People see Michael Jordan as a great basketball player,” he told me earlier this year, “but he’s a great businessman, too.”

That’s where the branding comes into play, and it’s something that more young players have taken into consideration (and they should). Barnes also made a very interesting point on the avoidance of issues such as politics and religion, two issues that tend to fire up the masses these days.

“Anytime you want to get into religious or political views,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “that can instantly polarize people.” (In this he seems also to be following in the footsteps of Jordan, who, when asked why he wouldn’t endorse Harvey Gantt in a Senate race against Jesse Helms two decades ago, reportedly answered, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”)

And as we see in this piece on President Obama’s bracket it doesn’t take much for people to make their feelings known when it comes to politics.

So keep that in mind when watching the games, with sponsors being pushed as “corporate champions” and apparel providers outfitting players with the newest and flashiest shoes and jerseys in hopes of a sales boost.

The student-athletes won’t (according to the rules, of course) see an immediate return on their investment, but as Barnes shows there’s no reason why they can’t improve their future earning potential.

Raphielle Johnson is the assistant editor at He can be followed at @raphiellej.