The NCAA is the worst. This is a well-documented fact that should be obvious to anyone. It brings in more than $800 million in broadcast revenue on a yearly basis under the guise of promoting “amateurism” and the student-athlete experience.
Many have made this point well over the years, and one of the more persuasive cases to come down the pipeline recently was written on Friday by Deadspin’s Albert Burneko. The well-argued piece frames the discussion of the NCAA’s corrupt practices through the lens of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari’s public perception. Noting Calipari’s reputation among some as an “outlaw visionary” who benefits his players at the expense of the NCAA by getting them to the NBA as quickly as possible, Burneko argues that Calipari is as profiteering as anyone in college basketball: “He's profiting, immensely, off of a system that forces players to play college basketball if they want professional careers, and in this respect, he's not different from the NCAA itself, not even one bit.”
The principal point is correct: Calipari is benefitting immensely off of his players’ free labor, just like any other big-time college basketball coach. But the portrait Burneko paints of Calipari as archetypal of the NCAA’s evils is over-the-top, and the example he uses to prove that Coach Cal is no better than a Jim Boeheim actually refutes his case.*
First off, it’s important to acknowledge the facts: Calipari earns $6.5 million per year on a fully guaranteed contract (plus bonuses), and his players get zero dollars. The first-class facilities, rock star adulation in Lexington, mostly unmatched on-the-job training, and full scholarships enjoyed by UK basketball players means that they don’t come out of the deal completely empty-handed—whether they go on to play in the NBA, or not. But denying that Calipari gets by far the better end of the deal is ignoring reality. As Burneko rightly says, “the players take all the risk, and he takes all the money.”
College sports are, at their core, a giant ponzi scheme. The system is unapologetically rigged so that major universities, and an organization run by mostly privileged older white men, can reap tremendous profits from the athletic exploits of significantly less privileged 18-to-22–year-old mostly black men. Like the streetwise, quick-talking bartender at a mob-backed watering hole, coaches may not be the triggermen in this scheme, but blood is on their hands all the same.
So Burneko is absolutely correct when he points out that Calipari is no Robin Hood. Given the serious shade Cal has thrown the NCAA in recent years, it seems like he’d be the first to admit that (the title of his latest book aside).
Here’s the thing though: While Calipari may not have much in common with Robin of Locksley, he’s not exactly a robber baron either—at least not compared to his more culpable peers. Calipari’s unmatched success in getting his players to the next level—while certainly not entirely ridding him of the NCAA’s stench—does, actually, separate him from his rival coaches. Not just in degree, but in kind as well.
Since taking the reigns at Kentucky, Cal has recruited 20 McDonald’s All-Americans to Lexington. Those who have already left Kentucky have all landed in the NBA, and it’s likely that the rest (this includes Kyle Wiltjer, who transferred to Gonzaga after his sophomore year) will end up playing in the pros as well. He has also sent several other players who never played in high school basketball’s most elite showcase to the highest level, and another such current star, Willie Cauley-Stein, should hear his name called by Adam Silver this June. Given all of that, Calipari is kind of like college basketball’s Warren Buffett. For the truly elite amateur players forced to take a year or two to hone their craft before leaping to the NBA, Calipri is as close as one can come to offering a sure thing. When the return on investment is nearly 100 percent, the relationship between kids offering themselves as an investment and the coach determining how to make said investment does indeed fundamentally change.
While it may not make him a hero, it’s still an important distinction to make. In a roundabout way, the decision by some, Burneko included, to focus on the plight of junior Kentucky forward Alex Poythress, who injured himself after devoting three unpaid seasons to the Wildcats and faces an uncertain professional future, proves this point. (I still believe Poythress will make the NBA and keep Cal's McDonald’s All-American–to-pro record perfect, but it's not a sure thing.)
In comparison to the other recent studs that have signed with Cal with dreams of NBA riches, Poythress represents the exception to the rule. But not in the way that Burneko described.
The 13-ranked player in his class coming out of high school, Poythress was a possible, but not guaranteed one-and-done player when he arrived in Lexington. While John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Anthony Davis before him were sure things, Poythress had work to do. And he did it, mostly. He had a somewhat up-and-down freshman season, but occasional flashes of dominance would have secured his spot in the first round of the 2013 draft had he elected to leave Kentucky, with some pundits pegging him as a potential lottery pick.
But he decided to come back and bet on an even better season. After UK’s NIT loss to Robert Morris, Poythress immediately denied that he might go to the NBA after this one season, saying: “I don’t think I’m ready.”
The following year was more inconsistent than his first campaign, with Julius Randle carrying most of the offensive load in the post and leaving Poythress with fewer minutes. Still, despite being a likely first round pick, he came back again this year, with the hopes of winning the national championship he’d come one victory shy of claiming last season. But Poythress tore his ACL and, in the words of Burneko, “is fucked now.”
Here’s where it's worth mentioning two other variables about Poythress that demonstrate why that's not entirely the case. Poythress is, by all accounts, an exemplary student on pace to earn his degree in just three years. Also, his twin sister Alexis is a student at UK.* Before arriving at Kentucky, there was little guarantee that he would have made the pros straight out of high school. Now he will have a free college education to show for his time at Kentucky that was also spent with family, and retain his chance at the NBA. (A torn ACL is not a career-ending diagnosis. His future is more cloudy, sure, but assuming his rehabilitation goes according to plan, he remains an elite talent.)
When we talk about Alex Poythress, and the torn ACL that derailed his junior year, we tend to brand his decision to return to UK as an unwise one. We do that without considering all the factors that may have played into his decision to do so. Given the whole picture though, it seems incorrect to describe this particular player as a disposable part who never reached his full potential, and was then chucked under the bus by Cal and the NCAA machine.
If his poor twist of fate during practice early this season is the best piece of evidence that one can cite when claiming Cal’s “player’s first” program is a web of lies spun by a “middle-aged multimillionaire,” then, well, that says something, doesn’t it?
The NCAA is, for lack of a better word, evil. But while John Calipari might not be a hero fighting against its crooked ways, he isn’t the villain that many, including Burneko, have described.