The University of Kentucky Wildcats are the No. 1 men’s basketball team in the nation and the top overall seed in the 2012 NCAA tournament. Their team features the likely National Player of the Year in Anthony Davis as well as five other potential NBA draft picks. And the Wildcats are coached by John Calipari, already one of the most successful coaches in college-basketball history at age 53. Kentucky is the clear favorite to win the tournament, and that is a shame — because an early Kentucky exit would cause repercussions that could change college basketball for the better.
Calipari has become the undisputed master of the “one and done” system. He dispenses with the fiction that he is providing an avenue to an education and unabashedly recruits high-school athletes by telling them that his goal is to prepare them for the NBA; they stay a year, and they leave. With that enticement, he consistently signs phenomenal recruiting classes. His 2010 team featuring John Wall sent four freshmen straight to the NBA. This year, Kentucky features four freshmen who were top-25 college prospects (three were in the top ten). They won’t stay long. As USA Today noted last week, Kentucky senior Darius Miller “has had 40 different teammates” in his four years with the Wildcats.
Calipari is widely despised for having built a career on recruiting NBA-caliber players with the promise to prep them for the pros. Although I am no Calipari fan, I contend that this is less than fair. Calipari is accused of exploiting his athletes by not encouraging them to stay in school. But it is the NCAA that encourages their early departure by shamelessly exploiting them. Calipari simply exploits the system the NCAA created. And therein lies the importance of this tournament for both Calipari and college basketball in general.
Calipari successfully deployed his strategy at the University of Massachusetts and at Memphis, which landed him the most coveted coaching job in college basketball: Kentucky’s. (He was also stripped of NCAA tournament wins for NCAA violations under his watch at UMass and Memphis, but that’s another story.) Yet for all his success, Calipari has yet to win a national championship. His freshmen-centric teams have fizzled in the tournament, none more dramatically than his previous Kentucky teams. Anything short of a national title for this year’s highly favored team will further advance the conventional wisdom that leadership from upperclassmen is necessary to win national championships. It also will put a lot of pressure on Calipari from within the Kentucky basketball community to keep his players in school longer so they can bring the old alma mater some hardware for the trophy shelf, which has been awaiting its eighth resident since the last one arrived in 1998. But it will also do something more important.
It will put more pressure on the NCAA and the NBA to change the rules or the incentives, or both, so that players either cannot leave after their freshman year or have less incentive to do so. Though admittedly there is a risk that this could simply result in the increased exploitation of college athletes, it does present the possibility that the NCAA might finally allow players to be more appropriately compensated.
NBA rules — encouraged by the NCAA after Kevin Garnett famously opted to skip college and get paid in cash instead of tuition, room, and board for his talent — state that players must be at least 19 years old and one year out of high school before they can play in the league. The NCAA wants the NBA to make it two years out of school instead of one. The NBA brass is okay with that, but the players association is not, and for good reason.
For all the pious baloney about looking out for the emotional, educational, and physical interests of the players, the current rule achieves one objective for the NCAA: It feeds a steady stream of NBA-caliber players into NCAA programs. It all but forces multimillion-dollar athletes to play for tens of thousands of dollars in non-cash compensation instead. Extending the eligibility ban to two years would double that devaluation. But it would be a bonanza for colleges and universities, which would be guaranteed an extra year in which to continue compensating NBA-level players for exactly the same price at which they compensate the second-stringer who was given a scholarship just to fill out the roster.
This is the NCAA’s hope. Even Calipari says he is for it. (Of course he is; it would net him a championship.) But the flaw is obvious. Banning college freshmen from entering the NBA does not address the underlying reasons they want to enter the NBA: The league pays in cash, and it provides instant financial security. There is no reason colleges and universities could not do both of those. The NBA Players Association has suggested options for enticing athletes to stay in school, USA Today has reported. One is to give them a cash stipend above the $2,000 now allowed. Another is to pay for their injury insurance. A third is to allow them to borrow against their future earnings. None of those is the same as paying a student hundreds of thousands of dollars to play basketball, but they would be important steps toward acknowledging that the issue really is not about academics at all, but economics.
The NCAA continues to pretend that the financial restrictions it places on its athletes are all in the athletes’ best interest. It’s the spirit of amateurism, don’t you know? Corruption, undue influence, and all that. But that’s as serious as a Dick Vitale catch-phrase.
The NCAA forbids its athletes even to pay themselves. For example, athletes are prohibited from trading on their own fame. They may not endorse products or print their own posters, T-shirts, or trading cards and sell them to the chemistry majors down the hall — or to the memorabilia dealer. This would be very useful for the majority of basketball players who become big men on campus but who have no NBA future. And yet it is forbidden, ostensibly to protect the students from exploitation.
While the students are being so protected, the universities, the NCAA, and the TV networks they contract with use the athletes’ performances, names, and images to make billions. The NCAA and the universities claim that the students are compensated by their scholarships, and of course by the quality educations they receive. Many are. But the best are not. Former Harvard player and current New York Knicks star Jeremy Lin’s pay for this season would buy 15 years of tuition, room, and board at his alma mater. That discrepancy in what the players’ skills are worth and what NCAA institutions pay them is why so many flee to the NBA at the first chance they get. If the NCAA really wanted to keep these young men in school, it would share with them a far greater portion of the revenue their labor generates. If Kentucky does not win this tournament, the odds are greater that the NCAA could take its first small steps in that direction.
— Andrew Cline is editorial-page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader.