Politics & Policy

The NCAA’s Madness

John Calipari may be shameless, but he’s playing a silly game.

Say this about the widely despised University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach, John Calipari: At least he punctures the veneer of piety surrounding big-time NCAA athletics.

If his overdog Wildcats cut down the nets in triumph at the end of the NCAA tournament, they will do so as an unabashed youth wing of the NBA. The shameless Calipari attracts players to UK explicitly to train them up for the pros, and many of them depart as soon as they have served out the one-year delay the NBA imposes between high school and the league’s draft. 

There’s no need to break out the fainting couch at this appalling breach of the amateur spirit of the NCAA (such as it is). Calipari is right that his revolving door of “one-and-done” serves the interests of his players. Why should they stay in school longer — getting degrees in something like communications or sociology, if they graduate at all — when for the best of them the fame and riches of the NBA beckon?

In a recent apologia for his program, Calipari compares these players to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who didn’t need a B.A. to make their fortunes. The players may not be entrepreneurs, but they are athletic geniuses in possession of talent worth millions. It’s easy to say that they should stay in school in the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. But there are very few people who in their own lives don’t think that making money is better than not, and making it sooner is better than making it later. 

Certainly LeBron James didn’t suffer from skipping a pit stop at college prior to entering the NBA in 2003 straight from high school. Most high-schoolers who entered the draft prior to imposition of the one-year delay in 2005 did indeed play in the NBA, and some became stars. The idea that a year in college is going to add much to anyone’s learning or maturity betrays a naive misunderstanding of campus life.

The rationale for the NBA sending high-school players into the arms of Calipari and his counterparts is transparently transactional. It saves the league the trouble of developing young players on its own. The NBA subcontracts the job to the NCAA, which, in turn, makes ungodly amounts of money putting on one of the most entertaining shows on Earth every March.

When Calipari exulted after five UK players went in the first round of the 2010 NBA draft that it was “the biggest day in the history of Kentucky’s program,” he drew a rebuke from the UK great Dan Issel: “I thought the goal was to win a national championship.” (If you thought the goal was neither of these things, but to educate and ennoble young men while affording them the opportunity to play the game they love, well, you need to pay better attention.)

Issel’s plaint highlights the weakness of the Calipari approach: Rotating squads of highly talented freshmen bound for the NBA don’t necessarily translate into teams that cohere under pressure in the Big Dance. So Calipari’s proposed solution to “one and done” is, naturally enough, to have the NBA extend its prohibition. That way he can retain the services of some of the best young players in the country for free for even longer.

What’s not to like? Except for the players, everyone — the schools, the coaches, the TV networks, the advertisers — makes out. Calipari makes $4 million a year. Two years ago, the NCAA cut a 14-year deal for television rights to the tournament for more than $10 billion. At the same time, it claims to be protecting its players from “excessive commercialism.”

Calipari is self-serving, but still correct when he says he’s helping his kids achieve their dreams by prepping them for the NBA. You know what would serve their dreams even better? If the most accomplished of them never had to play for a John Calipari in the first place.

Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2012 by King Features Syndicate.


The Latest