There was an article forwarded to me by a number of people written by Michael Weinreb for Rolling Stone magazine. The title of the article, "Is Kentucky Killing College Basketball?" is a variation on a theme we have seen repeatedly since John Calipari came to Kentucky and found he could recruit America’s best young talent by doing what no other coach had ever done — being honest with them about their best interests and their future, and then keeping his word.
Calipari’s success has been so dramatic and so overwhelming that it has produced a number of dire articles from various and sundry sportswriters, all warning that something bad is happening to college basketball and it’s John Calipari’s fault. We get repeated articles from Coach Cal’s detractors implicating him in cheating at both the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Memphis despite the fact that in both instances, the neither the NCAA’s investigation, nor the schools, could find any involvement by the coaching staff. This fact does not deter people like Pat Forde, who are happy to link Calipari in with other demonstrated NCAA cheaters despite the well-known facts that refute that conclusion.
But I digress. The instant article under discussion makes several claims, among them:
- College basketball is sluggish and unwatchable;
- The "one-and-done" rule is part of the reason why, and Calipari is the architect of this abomination;
- Kentucky’s teams under Calipari are a betrayal of what college basketball should be;
- Kentucky doesn’t even bother to "hide behind the veil of amateurism."
- It’s no fun to watch Kentucky beat everybody;
The problem is, I’m not sure how you go back at this point. From a competitive standpoint, I don’t really enjoy watching Kentucky, largely because it feels like the ultimate conflation of college basketball into a professional enterprise. I’d rather watch a game between two very good mid-major teams that feels wholly like college sports. I don’t want this future; I don’t think anyone outside of Lexington wants this future, either. But college sports are a business, and the same commissioners who are now seeking a way to pull back are the ones who transformed this into a business in the first place.
I can’t gainsay a man’s opinion about what he would prefer to watch, but this entire piece is a nonsequitur designed to argue in favor of doing something — anything — to stop Kentucky’s success. Whether it be to reinstate the freshman ineligibility system or some other thing, the unstated but heavily implied desire of Weinreb is for the NCAA (or somebody, for God’s sake anybody) to step in and stop Calipari. His argument leads one straight to the conclusion that it is unfair for Kentucky to be so successful, and something must be done to return the parity to college basketball.
I’m unable to quickly determine Weinreb’s age through Google, but I wonder if he is old enough to remember the dominance of UCLA during the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Back in those days, UCLA was very much more dominant than Kentucky has been, and even though the "one and done" rule was not in force, John Wooden was very much able to assemble teams of similar and arguably even greater dominance. The veneer of the "student athlete" was very much the same then as it is now, just on a slightly longer timetable.
And yet somehow, college basketball not only survived, it thrived. UCLA’s dominance did not kill the sport, and arguing that a similar run of dominance by Kentucky (which, by the way, has not yet materialized) will do what UCLA could not is risibile and indefensible by logic. It is, at its essence, a plaintive, baseless whine. Weinreb offers nothing in the way of facts to support his argument, because the facts simply don’t support it. Dominant teams come and go in college basketball. Great coaches come and go. The game survives.
Nobody could argue, and I won’t either, that college basketball is perfect the way it is. The "one and done" merely makes more transparent the fiction that talented athletes with legitimate professional sports aspirations ever came to college for an education. Most of the players in the John Wooden era had exactly the same aspirations as the Kentucky players do now, which is to play their sport professionally. The big difference is, the NBA was not nearly as lucrative then as it is now, and an education was a realistic goal before moving on to the NBA. Study after study has shown this is no longer the case, and that remaining in school beyond a year or two is as likely to hurt the career prospects of the best athletes as help them.
What Weinreb doesn’t seem to understand is that Calipari is not gaming the system, his competitors were. They were trying to convince young NBA-ready athletes to stay in school to further the interests of the coach and university, not look out for the best interests of the young men, or acknowledge their objectives straightforwardly. Calipari is guilty of exactly one thing — honesty. He is honest with these young men about their present and their future at the expense of his own present and future, and even that of the Kentucky program itself.
In most walks of life, honesty is a praiseworthy and noble characteristic. Somehow, Weinreb and his ilk have turned that on its head to a pejorative, something to be chalked up to salesmanesque posturing, deceptive at its core and inimical to the interests of these young nascent professionals. This is a tragic blind spot of the NCAA do-gooders who think they know what’s best for a "sport," but don’t truly care what’s best for those who actually play the sport. It’s a backhanded way of saying that the players Coach Cal recruits aren’t really student-athletes and that they are therefore a kind of cancer that is killing college basketball. Weinreb never actually says that, but implies it — just look at the title of his article.
This is a stilted, narrow-minded and arguably Luddite viewpoint of the changing landscape of college sports. It’s a sad commentary on the author, not on the object of his lament. "Unwatchability" is in the eye of the beholder, but if you want to assign blame for why college basketball has become a more physical game instead of the fast game of skill it was back in the halcyon days of Adolph Rupp, it is because the NCAA officials guild have refused to stop allowing wrestling matches despite NCAA mandated "emphasis." They continue to allow heavy contact away from the ball and other aspects of physicality that make the defense more effective and force the offense to search longer for good shots. Weinreb is apparently not very familiar with how college basketball is actually played, only with how it looks to his blinkered eyes.
Mike DeCourcy, one of my favorite sportswriters, penned a very nice response to Weinrab’s cavil. Consider:
Rolling Stone published a piece online Friday eviscerating Kentucky basketball. Are we overstating the case to use that particular word? Well, the headline asks, "Is Kentucky Killing College Basketball?" Man, all that was missing from that was the F-word.
To find a time when college athletes did not universally aspire to become professional athletes, one must travel back to the mid-1940s, when the great Bob Kurland opted out of Oklahoma State to work for Phillips Petroleum and remain an amateur player rather than float around in what then were some fairly unformed professional leagues.
Imagine that: To hold this up as the ideal, one must travel back seven decades and embrace an oil company as the "good guy." Naked capitalism, indeed.
I think you’ll find that dovetail’s nicely with my comments above.
Finally, I want to deal with the argument that Kentucky and Calipari represent a "betrayal of our illusions" with respect to college sports, and the "veil of amateurism" comment. If this sounds bizzarely self-defeating to you, it did to me as well.
As DeCourcy correctly points out above, the model of the student-athlete, the true, pure form that the NCAA likes to trot out in front of us in its "most NCAA athletes go pro in something other than sports" advertisements during March Madness died for college basketball back before he, Weinreb (presumably) or I were born. Ever since the NBA became a viable profession, young athletic men have wanted to play in it, and as soon as possible at that. With the changes in the sport over the last five or six decades, that has become possible at ever earlier ages.
Time and inevitable change have betrayed Weinreb’s illusions, something most rational college sports fans abandoned many years, even decades ago. Those illusions now serve only as a basis for regret, a "defensible" way to attack programs like Kentucky for being some sort of iconoclastic, rogue organization while the mid-majors and other lesser schools labor in the pure world of idyllic college sport.
Nothing could be further from reality — mid-majors send early entries to the NBA all the time, and virtually all of them would go if there were enough professional spots for them in the NBA or if they were good enough to be drafted. Weinreb’s illusion is either a deliberate, naive self-deception or a specious argument to provide a justification for his attack. I have no idea which, and no desire to know — either one is offensive to reason and calls either his intelligence or ethics into question.
DeCourcy’s conclusion, citing the example of Willie Cauley-Stein, is much better than I can do, so we’ll close with it:
Funny thing: That’s [to develop more as a player] largely why Cauley-Stein still is wearing a Kentucky uniform. That, and he was enjoying his UK experience. He wanted to win an NCAA championship and get closer to his degree.
"I feel this emptiness in me like I’ve still got something to prove and I’ve still got so much stuff to work on in my game," he said last spring to Kyle Tucker of the Louisville Courier-Journal. "And I love school. I love being at Kentucky. I love the fan base. I love the community. I love the people there."
If that’s killing college basketball, it’s dying a lovely death.