Kentucky Basketball: Billy Reed Refuses To Live In The Present

Andrew Wiggins in what Billy Reed calls a "zoot suit." - Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The problem with fond remembrance of bygone times is that they are often less rosy than our memories.

Every now and then, a column comes along that I must take exception to.  The one that spurred this little exposition is one by former Herald-Leader and Courier-Journal sportswriter Billy Reed. He has a piece today in Kentucky Forward once again returning to the curmudgeon's refuge — the good old days. Consider:

My life would be a lot simpler if I could just go with the flow. Big-time college basketball is never going to be as innocent or enjoyable as I remember it from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. I’ve tried to sell myself on the idea that since I can’t do anything about the way the game has been corrupted by agents, shoe companies, and TV, I should just relax and get what enjoyment I can from it.

But I can’t help myself. I just can’t rid myself of the quaint notion that college basketball should be played by students who have a sincere interest in getting the education they need to become more than just highly-paid entertainers. Our society can survive without entertainers. We can’t survive without doctors, lawyers, teachers, ministers, scientists, and, yes, journalists.

This is one of the more facile arguments I've read in a while, and to be fair to Reed, I doubt this is much more than a lament rather than a fully-formed argument. If not, even a random blogger like me is going to have an easy time with it.

Colleges' desires have effectively been taken out of the equation since the 1971 Haywood vs. the NBA decision. That opened up the possibility of college players entering the NBA draft at any time, and it is what legal people call stare decisis, the Latin term used to represent settled law. All the lamentations of Reed and his ilk will not restore the NBA's ability to set the draft age unilaterally. That now must be done by collective bargaining.

Further, most basketball players of sufficient skill are not interested in becoming doctors, lawyers, etc. This has been true since time immemorial, even during the golden years Reed so wistfully pines for. Basketball at the college level, even in the 1960's and 1970's, were not played by future doctors or scientists except for an elite few. They were mostly played by future professional athletes who had four years of academics to get through before they had the chance. The ideal that Reed projects on the face of the past has never truly existed except in rare cases.

It fascinates me how Reed can blithely refer to professional basketball players as "entertainers," as though it were some sort of epithet, spat out of the word processor to get the disgusting affront to "doctors, lawyers, teachers, ministers, scientists, and, yes, journalists" off his keyboard lest the typing of it sear his flesh. What are "journalists" these days but entertainers by another name? Perhaps he should be lamenting what his profession has become, rather than deriding the profession of others.

It’s good for the one-and-done guys that federal law guarantees privacy regarding the courses they take, their classroom attendance, and their grades. In a recent interview with ESPN, Rashad McCants, a starter on North Carolina’s 2005 NCAA title team, matter-of-factly stated that he and his teammates rarely went to class — and that Coach Roy Williams knew about it. The interview led the NCAA to re-open its investigation of Williams’ program.

It seems to me that Billy Reed has examined the face of modern college basketball and pronounced it evil. The only difference between this accusation and Bob Knight's famous claim that Kentucky's 2010 team didn't attend class in the second semester is the shameless tergiversation employed in his commentary. Weasel-words, you might say. This sort of academic sham happened back in Reed's fondly-remembered bygone decades as well as today, when the student-athletes were supposedly students first. To note a few:

I can go on and on, and note that the NCAA was effectively toothless for enforcement until the point shaving scandals of 1951.

And let’s never forget the cautionary tale of Derrick Rose, the one-and-done star who led Memphis to the 2008 national title game. After the season, an NCAA investigation revealed that somebody had taken Rose’s college entrance exam for him. The university got probation and "vacated" in the record book instead of credit for finishing second. Rose, the No. 1 pick in the draft, got millions.

This looks to me like a backhanded slap at John Calipari, something Reed has done a few times.  Because he can't seem to keep himself from living in the past, Reed has refused to examine the reality of today's word, and is one of these people who imagines education as a be-all and end-all rather than what it rationally is — a means to an end, or even several ends — but not necessarily the only, or even the best one.

Reed seems to imply that there was something wrong with Rose "[getting] millions." Rose is paid to play basketball, something for which he is eminently qualified. Why would he not get paid what his skill is worth? Billy doesn't say, but presumably the fact that Rose's ACT test was invalidated (there was never any conclusive finding of fraud, contra Reed) should have impacted his pay, even though it has nothing at all to do with his ability to play the game of basketball.

The "vacating" of Memphis' season was simply a remedy that the NCAA applied as it has many times. It makes a kind of convoluted sense to do that if a team plays an ineligible player, even though we all know it's an unrealistic and even silly thing to do.  At least on this point, Reed and I seem to be in agreement.

I guess getting all facts right is too troublesome for Billy, or perhaps just inconvenient to his argument.

They are treated far better, in other words, than their classmates who are there to get an education. These youngsters and their families have to deal with rising tuition costs in a weak economy. Often parents and the kids themselves have to get second or third jobs to pay for tuition and books. Many are forced to borrow money, leaving them burdened with exorbitant debt even before they get their first job.

This is inane, of course. Basketball players are on scholarship, so their peers are not random students paying their own way, but other students there on scholarship. Athletes are not treated better than academic or music scholarship peers, and some of those worthies inhabit the same dorms as the players by NCAA rule, unlike how it was back in the 1950's, 1960's and even 1970's when athletes actually were treated better and had better accommodations than their peers.  Now that pendulum has swung the other way, if we are to believe Shabazz Napier et. al.

He also conveniently overlooks the fact that even at Kentucky, most of the players are not one-and-done, which means most are getting the benefit of multiple years of college, if not all four. An inconvenient fact is that all the UK players in the Calipari era eligible to graduate have done so, and multiple players have graduated in under four years.

In fact, Reed seems blissfully unaware that one-and-done's are a tiny fraction of college basketball players these days, and the vast majority of them wind up staying in school for the full four years of eligibility.  When you let a tiny minority define your argument, you know it's contrived.

I have no idea why Reed thinks it is important to keep living 30 years in the past. It's unproductive to constantly bemoan changes that are always going to happen. More are surely on the horizon as the NBA deals with all manner of lawsuits, some of which are going to be resolved against them. I suppose Reed will lament all that, too, rather than dealing with the reality we have before us the best way we can.

I would refer Reed to a man he doubtless remembers fondly:

Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future. — John F. Kennedy

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