I have been silent about this for awhile, but no longer.
The national sports media, especially sports columnists in newspapers, have behaved shamefully in the run-up to the game between the Kentucky Wildcats and the Cornell Big Red. The portrayal has been very unflattering for Kentucky, and excessively flattering for Cornell. This is all justified under the rubric of "America loves an underdog," and "Colleges are places of learning, not farm teams for the NBA."
Nobody should begrudge America their love for an underdog, and far be it from me to do so. In fact, most Kentucky fans will tell you that they absolutely relish the role of Goliath in this drama after four long years of trying to play David -- an experiment which every Kentucky partisan would tell you was an abject failure.
Kentucky basketball is one of the most prestigious college sports programs in America of any stripe or color. That's a fact that none of the specious, ill-informed opinions about coach John Calipari's past can change. Cornell is a fine academic institution in the Ivy League, and does not offer sports scholarships to prospective student athletes. If they come to Cornell, they are either on some kind of academic or other financial aid, or they pay the high price of admission from student loans, trust funds, or their parent's pockets. But this year, Cornell has fielded a basketball team of remarkable skill in spite of the built-in institutional obstacles.
For some reason, many in the media have decided that Cornell represents everything that is good and pure about college athletics, and Kentucky represents everything that is wrong and detrimental. They have decided that this contest is about good versus evil, not about two sports teams competing against each other in a college tournament.
I understand the impulse of members of the media to go down this road -- it makes for inspiring copy and it rolls right out of the keyboard as though it had been waiting all its short existence for just this moment. This is that "One Shining Moment" for sportswriters covering the tournament where they can relax, because this story literally writes itself.
And it is as wrong, ethically and factually, as it is compelling.
Kentucky has recruited a very good team of young basketball talent, a good bit of which is destined for the NBA. How is this wrong? That question is never asked, nor answered -- it's just assumed, and worse, reflects a stereotype that America should not be fomenting in its media.
These young players for Kentucky have worked very hard to get to this point. Granted, their focus has been on athletic achievement and not on academic achievement. What I want to know is this -- since when did athletic achievement become inferior to academic achievement? When did this happen? Did I somehow miss the day, month, or year when America declared that academic excellence is a more praiseworthy or noble endeavor than athletic excellence? Did solving a Rubik's Cube become an Olympic sport without me noticing?
Americans unquestionably reward athletic achievement more. Make no mistake, no matter how many advanced degrees the fine young men of Cornell earn, the earning potential of those degrees aren't in the same universe as that of any of Kentucky's best players. In this country, we define success, all to often, by how much money people can earn in their jobs. That's why we send our kids to school and on to college -- so they can earn a good living. Did the NBA somehow suddenly become a dishonorable or distasteful place to work? Since when?
"But they are using a college as a farm team for the NBA," critics will tell you. My response is this -- If a college prepares a young man for his future in one year or ten, has not the objective been achieved? Yes, college for most people is an academic endeavor for several years, but we don't criticize the prodigy who earns his advanced degree in one or two years. Yet somehow, earning an advanced "degree" in a sporting endeavor is somehow not only unworthy of our praise, but worthy of our derision? That is shamefully, irresponsibly elitist, worthy only of the worldly-ignorant geeks in high school who yearn for the girlfriends the athletes always seem to get.
None of this is intended to belittle the hard work of the players for the Cornell Big Red, nor minimize their academic OR athletic achievements as somehow less praiseworthy than the primarily athletic achievements of the Kentucky players. We should be celebrating both equally -- or at the very least with respect instead of the abnegation of one in favor of the other. Achievement on the playing field is noble and admirable. Achievement in the classroom is no less, and no more so.
So let's stop being dishonest with each other, and stop undervaluing one group of young men at the expense of the other. If you want to root for the underdog, go ahead, that's every fan's right, but cease espousing the false doctrine of academics as a morally superior endeavor. Kentucky's team is doing well in the classroom, so we're told, but the fact that this isn't what they are famous for, nor a pursuit that some intend to continue for more than this year, does not render them inferior in any way to the young men of Cornell.
Kentucky's players are not "thugs" or any of the other sort of invective used to pillory Goliath when David comes to town. Cornell's players are at the Carrier Dome to play basketball, not solve quadratic equations. Let's give both teams credit for what they represent -- some of the best and brightest in America. working toward different, but equally laudable life goals. But tonight, they have only one common goal -- to win a college basketball game.
Let's celebrate not only their differences, but what they have in common, and stop pigeonholing our young men for the purposes of generating page views.
UPDATE: Jeff Goodman has something similar here. Good read.