My dad’s office space in my childhood home had shelves full of books on basketball, VHS of various taped games, and boxes upon boxes of trading cards. In its own, separate Plexiglass case lived a mythical artifact of basketball memorabilia: the NBAHoops David Robinson rookie card.
David Robinson was my favorite NBA player during my formative years, and the first professional athlete I remember really following. Much of that was influenced by a dad, born and raised in San Antonio and a fan of the Spurs dating back to their ABA inception. But with that nudge, I came to enjoy the explosive style with which Robinson played. He excelled on defense and on the glass as much as he did with the ball, and he played with an infectious enthusiasm.
My fandom led to me collecting all the gear and endorsed goods bearing Robinson’s likeness that I could get my hands on. A roster of David Robinson Starting Lineup figures sit on my desk today.
His life post-basketball has only solidified my appreciation for the Admiral. Most recently, Robinson expressed his support for NCAA reforms that allow athletes to profit from their likeness, and decried the academic scandal at North Carolina — a scandal that, as Robinson addresses, entirely negates the NCAA’s mission statement.
If there’s any former athlete whose words the NCAA should heed, it’s David Robinson. He embodied the sometimes embellished (if not downright fictionalized) ideal of student-athlete invoked to dismiss concerns about player compensation in this era of billion-dollar TV contracts. At Navy, Robinson cemented a legacy as one of the single greatest college basketball players ever while also fulfilling his duty to service and succeeding in the classroom.
Robinson’s time in the United States Navy between the end of his college eligibility in 1987, and his debut with the Spurs in 1989, only served to fuel hype. And the physical manifestation of that hype was the NBAHoops rookie card.
The only more coveted basketball trading card of the era — maybe ever — was the Fleer Michael Jordan card. An original Fleer MJ can net almost $30,000 today, despite the market changes the internet begat, which devalued the vast majority of trading cards.
Traders projected a remarkable future for the David Robinson rookie card, to the point trade publication Beckett included a bold-font disclaimer warning to beware of counterfeits. Despite forgeries in the early 1990s and the online shakeup that followed, that original NBAHoops card can still net a low four figures; not bad for a small piece of cardboard.
The immediate hysteria that followed the release of Robinson’s trading card tie into the support the Admiral expressed for college athletes profiting from their likeness. Robinson would have had no trouble landing significant endorsements after leading Navy deep into the 1986 NCAA Tournament. Authentic jerseys, t-shirts, action figures — I don’t have to assume they would have flown off shelves, having spent my fair share of allowance money on David Robinson gear during his Spurs days.
Every solution for bridging the gap between what conferences, coaches, administrators, and universities themselves are making today vs. the return athletes see isn’t easily reached. Allowing athletes to profit from their likeness is a simple one.