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Kentucky Basketball: Arguments Used by Calipari's Critics Starting to Ring Hollow

Plato would be proud of these guys, and of the University of Kentucky.
Plato would be proud of these guys, and of the University of Kentucky.

We'll be highlighting a couple of articles today that represent a bit of a shift in thinking among many in the commentariat provoked by John Calipari coaching the Kentucky Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament championship this year and the subsequent decision by the starting five to leave school early for the NBA.

First, let's take a look at this article by Pat Dooley of the Gainesville Sun, where he is talking about the sturm und drang that many in the media (here's looking at you, Chuck Klosterman) have created over college underclassmen winning the NCAA tournament and then promptly moving on to NBA riches. Consider this:

Me, I think we're making way too big a deal about it.

First of all, how many players are we talking about? There were 17 true freshmen who legitimately had decisions to make after this year's tournament. Eight of them decided to turn pro. Nine did not.

If losing eight players after a year of hoops is enough to destroy the game, it must be awfully fragile.

He's right. We are talking about an infinitesimal percentage of all Division I players here. To hear some people talk about it, you'd think that every team in America was losing freshmen to the NBA, but that's just not so.

Certainly, it's better than letting them go straight from high school. At least they get a year with a coach yelling and the pressure ramped up and the crowds bigger. It's like going from a go-kart to a Jaguar before you jump in the race car and attack Daytona.

Indeed it is, although again, you'd never know it. The NBA Players Association wanted, and fought hard for allowing high schoolers to continue to make themselves available for the draft. In an adult world, that's the right thing to do, isn't it? Shouldn't we allow adults (and in America, we are adults at 18) to make their own decisions about what they do with their lives? You might even say it's a Constitutional right.

The problem is, the NBA management was finding that their teams were getting caught in the trick bag (more accurately, victims of their own greed) every year, because they could not properly evaluate, except at great cost in time and transportation, these young players straight out of high school. And of course, many young players thought themselves ready for the league right now -- that's how you think when you are young and inexperienced.

The NBA could not talk their team GM's out of drafting these young guys, so they collectively decided to insist a player be at least 19 and one year removed from high school graduation -- the one and done rule -- thus protecting themselves from, well, themselves. In the NBA's case, it has worked pretty well. They make fewer mistakes than they used to, and the "one and done" players, who mostly come from only high D-I schools who have quality coaching and player development regimes, are much better prepared than those straight from high school.

In this case, the interests of NBA management and the NCAA dovetail -- more time in school equals more time to develop, more time to evaluate, and more certainty that the player in question is going to be a viable NBA player and not an expensive flop. You can't eliminate that uncertainty, of course, but you can minimize it. I think both the NBA and NCAA would immediately move the limit out to three or even four years if they could.

From the player's standpoint, though, they see mostly young minority guys being denied a chance to earn a living in order to make life easier for a bunch of rich white folks. Is it really any wonder that they oppose even the one-year rule, and that opposition would ratchet up in intensity the more years you try to pile on? Economically, every year that a lottery pick is denied entry into the draft represents millions of dollars in the NBA (the amount is much less for NFL and baseball players), so you can see why this is a problem.

So when you hear Coach Cal talking about "players first," this is what he's talking about -- economic reality. This is why he comes down on the side of the NBAPA's argument, because he understands that enforcing an age limit past high school is good for the bosses, but bad for the players. The NCAA's concerns are different, even though the higher age limit benefits them as well, not only assuaging their critics who claim that "one and done" makes a mockery of their college's mission, which is ostensibly academic education, but also by keeping more talent in their ranks longer, increasing interest in college basketball and making them more money.

Which brings me to the next article by Deron Snyder of The Root:

According to its mission statement, the University of Kentucky is "dedicated to improving people's lives through excellence in education, research and creative work, service and health care." Judging by the success of its men's-basketball players, the school is doing an outstanding job accomplishing its mission.

Heh. Interesting how those who talk about the mission of an institution often neglect to, you know, actually read the mission statement of same. The piece continues:

Ohio University professor David Ridpath told the New York Times that Kentucky's method of constructing basketball teams is "a complete facade," adding that "anyone who thinks that this has anything to do with the collegiate or educational model is flat-out wrong." Associated Press columnist Jim Litke mocked Kentucky's players being "student-athletes."

But neither Kentucky, Calipari nor the players have anything to be ashamed of. They have been extremely successful at their respective goals. That's their only obligation, not gaining approval from college-basketball fans and media.

Isn't it refreshing to read this? Something that makes sense, that follows from logic and rational thought rather than overwrought emotional blather about making a mockery of a school's educational mission? Which brings me right to what the mission of the academy was originally supposed to be.

Wild Weasel alerted us to an article in National Review the other day that rightly pointed out how far American thinking has strayed from the Platonic ideal of the academy:

The word academic has lost its meaning. It’s now used almost interchangeably with scholastic. Remember, the original academy, which was Plato’s, was located in the Academy, a gymnasium on the outskirts of Athens. Physical education was primary — that is, it came first. Cultivation of the mind was added on to cultivation of the body, not vice versa, and the two spheres overlapped and supported each other.

Mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body: It’s a classical ideal captured by our contemporary notion of the student-athlete. In an earlier age, to be called "a gentleman and a scholar" was the equivalent. It meant you knew how to read books and write poetry as well as ride horses and shoot.

Over time, that ideal lost out to intellectuals who were bad at sports. In Europe the word gymnasium was turned upside down and applied to institutions dedicated to strenuous study accompanied by bodily neglect. Henry Adams endured a German gymnasium for a brief stint in the 19th century. His classmates, pale and flabby, were "proofs of nearly all the evils that a bad educational system could give"

I thought this was positively brilliant. What we have seen today is the mind and body transposed in the ideal of education, and all we have to do is look at the obesity rate to see how unfortunate that is, and how potentially hurtful to society.

Calipari may well be remembered as the man who pointed the way back from the strange land we find ourselves in today, a land in which athletes are considered uneducated buffoons, and unworthy of their lucrative paychecks. The irony is that, too often, it is the physically undereducated paying those salaries through their in-person and TV patronage, living vicariously through the players, and all the while condemning college student-athletes as "mercenaries" and "drive-bys" when they don't grace their alma mater with their presence long enough to earn their degree first.

Bowing down to the false god of a college education has to stop. We must recognize, at some point, that Plato was on to something, which is probably why we revere him. There are other worthy pursuits besides those requiring a college diploma, and the academy should be invested in them as well as in the pursuits of the mind. We don't complain when the mentally gifted leave early, yet we want to enforce a double-standard on the physically gifted and require that they stay, sacrifice a fortune in the cause of obtaining a degree with a vastly inferior return on investment.

Plato would say we have it all backwards.