GRAPEVINE, Texas — After being introduced to the NCAA convention as Dr. Shaquille O’Neal, the four-time NBA champion jokingly asked that his scholarly résumé be repeated before he opened with a public confession to the group’s president.
“From 1989-92, I committed numerous NCAA infractions,” O’Neal said, referencing his time as an LSU player. “I used to get a free bowl of jambalaya right before every game.”
NCAA President Mark Emmert laughed, saying that the statute of limitations had run out on that.
That was the start of a more-than-30-minute question-and-answer session Emmert conducted with O’Neal during the keynote luncheon Wednesday on the opening day of the NCAA convention.
O’Neal said earning his doctoral degree in education, which he received last May from Barry College in Florida, was harder than anything he ever did athletically. He also talked about the importance of education, saying in the age of one-and-done basketball players that they should have to stay in school at least three years before going pro, such as the rule for NCAA football players.
“A lot of guys do it because of their financial situation and they need to do it. That’s the only way to provide a better means for their family. So when you look at it from that aspect, I understand it,” said O’Neal, who then told Emmert that if up to him the rule would “probably say three-and-done.”
For players who do leave early, O’Neal’s advice is to make sure they go back and finish their education. He said it’s not a matter of how much money they will make, but how much they’re going to keep.
O’Neal, who called his three years as an LSU player the best time of his life, recalled spending “$1 million in about 30 minutes” after he got his first check as the NBA’s first overall pick in 1992. He quickly realized he wasn’t as smart as he thought about money, despite a few business and accounting classes.
Emmert is the former LSU chancellor who in 2000 presented O’Neal with his diploma for general studies after the NBA player had gone back to complete his undergraduate work. O’Neal added an online MBA from the University of Phoenix in 2005, and soon after that began work on his doctoral degree.
O’Neal said he always promised his family he would get his degree from LSU. He then challenged himself more and kept educating himself to help with his business pursuits, which today include owning 42 health and fitness clubs and 155 hamburger restaurants.
“I’m sure the aura of doing business with Shaquille O’Neal was there,” he said. “I needed them to know that they were doing business with a businessman, not doing business with an athlete.”
He also thought it was good for his six children to “see me educate and challenge myself.”
Having O’Neal as the keynote speaker was somewhat of a departure for the NCAA, coning a year after U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was the speaker. The former basketball player was entertaining, insightful and humorous during his appearance.
Emmert will deliver his state of the NCAA remarks Thursday.
The NCAA Board of Directors meets Saturday, the convention’s final day.
The board is expected to approve a sweeping set of changes that will include eliminating rules about how coaches communicate with recruits, how often they communicate with recruits, and allow college and high school players to accept money for travel expenses and prize money at non-scholastic events.
Along with questions posed to O’Neal by Emmert, there were some submitted by student-athletes in attendance.
When asked about star athletes being role models, O’Neal said he preferred the term “real” model.
“A lot of people, they play roles. When you play a role, and it catches up with them, we all figure out they’re not who we thought they were. So with me, what you see is what you get,” O’Neal said. “As we’re seeing now, there’s a lot of people out there selling a lot of fake products. You’re hearing people confess. ... To me, image is reality.”
There were no direct references to anybody in particular, but O’Neal’s comments came the same week disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong told Oprah Winfrey in an interview to air later this week that he used performance-enhancing drugs to win the Tour de France. His confession comes after a decade of denial.
O’Neal went on to say that athletes have the responsibility to be good role models.
“I don’t think you get a choice,” O’Neal said. “I think we do have a social responsibility to do the right things, say the right things and behave correctly.”
Asked about who he looked up to, O’Neal talked about Magic Johnson for “what he did on and off the court” and remembered being told by Johnson as an 18-year-old kid that sports wouldn’t last forever and it was important to get the education to move into life after basketball. He mentioned Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Donald Trump as smart businessmen he watched.
Since earning his doctorate last year, O’Neal has mentioned going to law school and owning his own firm.
“That’s my smart guy talking,” he said, smiling. “I thought about it, but probably not.”