Has Kentucky Ruined College Basketball?

April 03, 2012|Stephen Markley

There are two major stories coming out of the University of Kentucky’s triumphant and relatively easy march to a national championship this season. The first is Kentucky’s rock solid play throughout March Madness, culminating in a pretty decent thumping of another college basketball superpower, the Kansas Jayhawks(it was one of those games where Kansas made a late run only because the Wildcats couldn’t make a basket for over six minutes, and even then no one but the most die-hard KU fans thought the Jayhawks had any shot at actually winning).

The second is Chuck Klosterman’s provocative thesis spelled out here on Grantland. You should read the whole piece because it’s basically the only thing any college basketball fans I know have talked about for the last week (that, and just how far the stock of UNC’s Harrison Barnes plummeted during this tourney; he’s like the Lehman Brothers of draft picks right now). To sum-up: Kentucky coach John Calipari openly admits that he recruits top high school players for just the one year required by the NBA. He uses them for one season to make Kentucky an elite team, and then, God bless, turns them into a first-round (if not a top 5) draft pick, and sends them on their way.

As Klosterman debunks in his piece, this in no way makes Calipari a bad dude. On the contrary, he’s only taking the entire system of college basketball to its logical conclusion. Take this year’s Naismith, AP, and MOP winner, freshman Anthony Davis: there is absolutely no viable reason for a shot-blocking freak show like Davis to stick around in college for another year, risk injury, and let the University of Kentucky and the NCAA profit off his jersey to the tune of millions of dollars while he eats in dining halls.

Rather Klosterman thinks that with this victory, Calipari’s model will become the standard for all big schools, and the Kansases, North Carolinas, and Syracusi of the world will become glorified AAU teams, cynically reloading each year. This, he argues, will ruin college basketball:

There will be five schools sharing the 25 best players in the country, and all the lesser programs will kill each other for the right to lose to those five schools in the Sweet 16. It will skew the competitive balance of major conferences and split D-I basketball into two completely unequal tiers. Final Four games will look more and more like sloppy pro games, and national interest in college basketball will wane.

Ignoring that this is already exactly what happens in college basketball (has he been watching for the last twenty years?), the major blind spot of Klosterman’s argument (and those across the sports writer-blogosphere arguing with him) requires a Marxist critique.

The reason the NBA agreed to stop high school kids from leaping straight to the pros was because for every LeBron James, who were physically and mentally prepared, there were two Jonathan Benders, who were, to put it nicely, not. The gusher of talented high school players was crapping up both college basketball and the NBA draft because teams refused to pass on the chance of drafting the next Kobe Bryant. Thus, the one-year rule, which Coach Cal so effectively exploits.

And speaking of “exploits,” that’s the entire model of big-time college athletics, especially football and basketball. A lot of people are making a lot of money off of a lot of young (mostly) black men from rough socio-economic backgrounds. If there are any knumbskulls out there who want to make the tired argument that these kids are “getting a free education” they obviously don’t understand the value of bachelor’s degree from Kentucky compared to the obscene gobs of cash that school makes from marketing Anthony Davis’s unibrow alone.

Talented players have no economic incentive to remain in school, and in fact, have a major reason to get out of their indentured servitude as quickly as possible. Until this fundamentally exploitative relationship is destroyed and rebuilt on fairer terms, college basketball will remain a sport best viewed with a wink and a nod. We all know the system functions as a training ground for the NBA Draft. We all know the NCAA system is legally corrupt and therefore hopelessly broken. Coaches and players participate and fans watch it anyway because it’s basketball, and basketball is f***ing sweet.

Nothing Kentucky or Coach Calipari has done or could do will likely change any of that.

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