I have loved college basketball over the years. An Indiana University alum and fan, I have also liked the University of Kentucky Wildcats since my wonderful brother and sister-in-law live in Lexington and are fans. I am happy for them and all the UK fans and students who have always been rabid and knowledgeable. Yet I wasn’t rooting for them in the NCAA Final Four semifinal match against the Wisconsin Badgers a few days ago.
Why? Maybe I am old-fashioned but to me college basketball is about a student athlete who takes classes and more than likely earns a degree. He combines education and athletics. There’s a purity that separates it from the pro game.
Until recently. A perfect example is when Wisconsin and Kentucky played last weekend—the Badgers played amateur student athletes and Kentucky essentially started non-student professionals. It was not a level playing field.
How did this happen? A few years ago the NBA and NCAA made a deal with the devil. They adjusted the age at which amateurs could turn pro and made a joke of the requirements for NCAA eligibility to be considered a student athlete. What’s required of players to be considered student athletes and compete against other student athletes?
- Do they need to graduate? No.
- Take three years of classes? No.
- Take two years of classes? No.
- Take one year of classes? No.
- Take one fulltime semester of classes? Not even.
All that’s required of an NCAA student athlete is six hours of classes for a single semester (a full course load is 15 hours). They don’t even have to attend class spring semester. Student-athlete graduation rates will continue to nosedive from historical rates of around 70 percent.
The NCAA is motivated by greed. It didn’t want to risk losing to the NBA any of the top-20 talented basketball players it showcases each year and the television revenue that they create. The price to the cheering public is the death of an icon: The hardworking student-athlete balancing an education with athletics.
Welcome to the new era of the player who has zero interest in college and is essentially a hired gun who uses a year of college hoops to showcase his talent, drive up his value, and jump right to the NBA. He should be playing in the NBA or in the NBA development league and not competing against real student athletes.
However, you can’t blame the kids that are recruited by Calipari. They are 18 year-old kids who don’t want to go to college and just want to play pro basketball. Nothing wrong with that, just don’t go to college.
Calipari, though, lures them with promises of big notoriety and more money. I might well say yes if I were the kid. The fault is our society, the NBA, the NCAA and coaches like Calipari, who in college basketball, stands in a class by himself.
I am told that Indiana University would not accept a Calipari style of recruiting. I hope that to be the case.
The NCAA and NBA may say they didn’t anticipate the new rules would be abused. True, most college coaches haven’t turned this loophole into a permanent strategy the way UK’s John Calipari has. Sure, Calipari follows the letter of the rule. Yet it is dirty pool in my mind. Sports aficionados know Calipari’s strategy but it’s not talked about much by the media (or the NBA or NCAA) because of the money involved. So public criticism is blunted by the people who control and make money off the airwaves
Calipari smartly muddies the water around the issue. He has two tactical defense strategies: 1) he focuses on a few token players (who play little if at all) who are good students; and 2) he employs savvy word-smithing to replace the “one-and-done” phrase that’s critical of his strategy with the elegant “succeed-and-proceed.”
Calipari simply avoids the central issue of false advertising surrounding calling his players “student-athletes.” Heck, even one-and-done is too generous because it suggests the players take classes for a year. “Two-classes-and-done” is the truth for too many players.
Yet it has yielded results in the NCAA tournament. During the past four years, Calipari’s semi-pro, virtual high school all-star team has got to the Final Four three times and won one (or two if they win tonight) national championships.
Wisconsin was too classy to call foul. Although Badger Coach Bo Ryan did say in a post-game interview how proud he was of his student athletes. College Basketball doesn’t mean students playing basketball anymore. Yet my admiration is great for the teams like Wisconsin that have true student athletes and give Kentucky’s hired guns all they can handle.
The NCAA had better be careful. As more and more people realize what is happening, they may sour on this charade. Most fans have a sense of fairness and a nose for false advertising. More and more, they will realize that these are not students-athletes they’re watching.