HOUSTON (CBS Houston) – You would think Justin Combs, the son of Hip Hop mogul P. Diddy, is the first kid from money to earn an athletic scholarship with the debate being waged this week about whether or not UCLA cover the recruit’s tuition when he steps on campus this fall.
But Justin, a quality athlete and a high-achieving academic student in his own right, is far from unique in that regard. What’s different is we’ve never seen such an impassioned debate as this one surrounding the Combs family about if UCLA should be paying the way for the privileged in these difficult financial times.
Ray Leonard, Jr., whose father is boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard, has been monitoring this debate with more than a passing interest. A little over 20 years ago Leonard was Justin, a young kid with outstanding athletic ability whose father just happens to be a celebrity sitting on millions of dollars.
So he empathizes with Justin, who is being criticized, just because of the success of his father.
“Growing up in those kind of households you are fighting so much to create your own identity and to have your own success and that’s a big part of it,” Leonard said to SportsRadio 610. “The first time someone wants to give you something financially for your success that makes a huge difference in your finding your own way.”
After originally committing to play football for Georgia Tech on scholarship, Leonard switched his verbal pledge in the spring of his senior year of high school to attend Ohio University back in the early 1990s. Leonard, a wide receiver prospect, was offered a scholarship to play for the Bobcats but declined it so that friend and fellow OU recruit could have a football scholarship.
Leonard, however, thinks the demands to decline the scholarship, which will be worth $54,000 for the 2012-13 academic year, are ridiculous. Leonard is among those who believe it doesn’t matter that his father is worth $550 million and the kid is already driving a $360,000 Maybach.
What’s important is Justin has apparently put in the work on the football field and at the prestigious Iona Prep in upstate New York where he is graduating with a reported 3.75 GPA.
In Leonard’s mind there is a double-standard being made between other celebrity kids who have gone to college on athletic scholarships. A lot of that Leonard feels could stem from Justin’s association with the rap music industry.
“You’ve got Joe Montana’s kid going to the University of Washington on a scholarship, Doc Rivers son went to Duke on a (basketball) scholarship and nobody said anything about that,” Leonard said. “Just because he’s in Hip Hop, is that the reason they are talking about him?”
Prejudice on some level does seem to be the underlying issue. The idea UCLA is using taxpayers’ money to give Justin a full ride at the detriment of a more deserving yet poorer student is about as uninformed as you can get.
Schools at the level of a UCLA don’t use University dollars to fund athletic scholarships. That money comes from revenue generated within the athletic department from things like ticket sales, booster contributions, corporate sponsorships and mega television contracts.
But even if the money was coming from the University coffers there is a better than great chance the money will come back to UCLA 10-fold. Already a program that has been irrelevant for years is being talked about this week in national circles and publications just because of P. Diddy’s stature in the Hip Hop culture. Chances are sales for the Bruins jersey Justin will wear next season will go through the roof as soon as his father sports one during one of his performances. It’s also likely the Combs family will make a nice contribution to the music wing of the UCLA library rename it the “Diddy Hall of Sampling.”
So having this debate even before Justin arrives on campus does seem ludicrous and definitely unfair.
“It’s crazy. The whole thing is just let the kid enjoy his life,” said Leonard, who as an adorable kid once starred in a 7Up commercial with his famous father. “The kid has achieved something that’s great and if the school wants to take care of his education, there is no reason he should have to turn that down. He earned it. It’s not like it was just given to him.
“He was a top football player and a top academic student, he earned it. They are going to get a lot more usage out of him than he will out of them as far as recruiting wise and the media they are getting because of it.”
The funny thing is this is a kid whose father had the hit smash some time back “Mo Money, Mo Problems.” If he thinks the scrutiny is rough now, he hasn’t experienced anything close to the fishbowl he will have to exist in once he is officially on the UCLA campus. Not only will all eyes be on Justin to see if he is indeed worthy of the football scholarship, but the proliferation of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook will keep him under a constant microscope in Los Angeles.
Leonard didn’t face such attention in the small town of Athens, which 70 miles away from the nearest large city. Although his parents were going through a difficult divorce at the time, Leonard was pretty much out of site out of mind in the Southeastern Ohio town.
“That was one of the big reasons I didn’t go to Georgia Tech,” said Leonard, who now lives in California and is vice president and a partner in a travel and tour company. “As soon as I made a verbal that I was going to go to Georgia Tech it was all over the newspapers, people were calling my phone.
“His is going to be so much more because of the way the media is now. He is going to be under a microscope the entire time. I hope he doesn’t have anything that goes wrong. I hope he goes and thrives and creates his own way.”
But the way this current flap has been handled, the challenges of being a celebrity’s son and the scrutiny that comes with it will be inescapable.
“He always has that pressure on him and he has that pressure because of who his father is. That’s the first thing he is going to have to deal with,” Leonard said. “Then as far as him trying to be anonymous with the media creating a kind of circus around him already… Let the kid enjoy his time in his college. It doesn’t make any sense.”