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Kentucky Basketball: The New York Times Defends Kentucky

Anthony Davis fights Kansas' Jeff Withey for the ball in the 2012 NCAA Tournament finals.
Anthony Davis fights Kansas' Jeff Withey for the ball in the 2012 NCAA Tournament finals.

I suppose it was inevitable that someone would eventually take the contrariran view of Kentucky's recent success rather then repeat the never-ending, "It's the end of college basketball as we know it," narrative that has become so familiar in mainstream sports media articles over the last week, along with "rent-a-team" and various pieces describing Kentucky's one and done players as "mercenaries."

But for that outlet to be the New York Times, home of the much-vilified Pete Thamel and former home of Big Blue Nation enemy Thayer Evans is somewhat ironic, although it is certainly unfair for Wildcats fans to consider the Gray Lady monolithic in her viewpoint of our favorite basketball team.

This most recent piece is entitled "Begrudging the Kentucky Wildcats' success and opportunities" by William C. Rhoden, and it is an excellent one that deserves a full read -- the excerpts do not do it justice. Here's where we'll begin:

In an ideal world, everyone would stay four years and graduate. But Kentucky’s basketball program is in fact a tribute to a real-world system that works, preparing young people for a viable profession — in this case, professional athletics.

This is something that we have frequently pointed out at A Sea of Blue, but that has mostly been pushed down under the water with arguments that the mission of universities is academic first, foremost, and always -- not to prepare young people for the world. Apparently, in the eyes of the critics, you cannot have both. If college athletics, in particular basketball, compromises the academic mission of the university by not single-mindedly promoting academics above all other considerations, it is an unalloyed evil that must be fixed.

Many of us have argued that the over-arching mission of the university system should be to prepare young people for careers, whether they be ones of public service like teaching, research, social work and government service, or the more profit-driven disciplines like engineering, business administration, economics, marketing, or even, heaven forfend, professional athletics. Both positions undeniably have merit, and it seems odd that they must apparently be mutually exclusive.

As has been mentioned in this space before, it seems that the schools themselves are deeply conflicted by these two similar, but apparently incompatible objectives. Most major universities provide satellite campuses for trade-type degrees, but their focus on academic integrity seems to be aimed solely at the flagship four-year and post-graduate university sectors. Somehow, anything that stands between a four-year student and his degree, regardless of how lucrative or honorable it is, is seen to compromise academic integrity.

The Times article goes on to examine the possibility that the racial composition of the "one and done" players, i.e. mostly African-American, is responsible for the depth and breadth of the outrage:

Last week, I asked Tom Izzo, the basketball coach at Michigan State, if he thought a highly talented, highly athletic team of white players would be viewed differently.

"I want to answer that as honestly as I can," Izzo said. "I think it would be different. I hate to say that."

The perception is that these five black players are not serious students and don’t belong at the university. If they were white, there would be more acceptance that they belong at the university.

That is nothing if not a stinging rebuke of those who attack one and done on the basis of academic integrity, but to be fair, it is really just a perception and may, in fact, be wrong. With that said, the racial component of this debate has been a subtext that is generally carefully avoided.

Izzo said this reality [poverty] was why he encouraged one of his players, Zach Randolph, to turn pro after his first year at Michigan State.

Izzo knew Randolph was not ready emotionally, Randolph’s mother knew it and Randolph probably knew it. But when you are being pursued by the poverty hounds and see a fence, you jump it and take your chances with whatever is on the other side.

This is the conundrum John Calipari has to deal with every year. There can be no rational doubt that a senior with a college diploma is more "ready" in almost every measurable way for a career in professional sports than a freshman one year removed from his senior prom. But grinding poverty is also a reality, as is career-ending injury and the fact that a "hot" player one year may become not-so-hot to the professional leagues the next.

How do we stand in front of a freshman from a poor family who is about to be offered sufficient money to remove his family from poverty or low economic status, even if he doesn't wind up as a success in the NBA, and counsel him to remain in school, risk career-ending injury and the possibility of losing status in the following year? Calipari refuses to do that, and that is one reason why he is such a successful recruiter.

But what, you ask, about the middle-class kid who can afford to return to college? In the end, it depends upon what you think a college education is worth. The statistics say that on average, a college diploma is worth approximately $1 million dollars over the course of a career. Obviously, that varies widely by discipline, but can anyone rationally argue it would have been worth $2.1 million for Daniel Orton to attend the University of Kentucky for another year?

The problem, I think, is that the educational establishment desires to avoid discussion of their product in monetary terms ... filthy lucre, and all that. But can regular people who have bills to pay, or who may face long years of student loan repayments really ignore the economic impact of education on their personal lives, and toss the balance sheet into the dust bin in hopes it all works out? Can they really afford to take on careers that make the American dream difficult or impossible? We hear about that all the time, but almost never from one-and-done athletes.

Isn't it time we took all these factors into consideration before condemning a system that, despite its obvious imperfections, does work? After all, the one and done model has made a lot of young millionaires, many of whom grew up poor. Is that really something to be lamented? Is the damage to academic integrity really so severe that we need to place these young people at risk for one or two more years at significant personal cost, advancing toward a degree that will almost certainly not be useful in furthering their careers while sending them, probably still sans diploma, into the professional ranks?

It does seem a strange argument.