Former pro player and coach Liam Day explains how college basketball has become less about educating young men and more about getting rich off them.
Back when I was a player and coach, I spent summers traveling, as if in a circus, from basketball camp to basketball camp. They were my summer’s employment. A week at Hamilton College, a week at Northeastern University, two weeks in Ireland, a week back home at Colby College in Maine, capped off by a week down the Cape.
The daily schedule at most camps was roughly the same, varying only in intensity: you’d coach during the day, play in the evening when the kids had downtime, drink at night once the kids were in bed. It was all very manly stuff.
As you might expect the main—check that—the only topic of conversation during the nights’ bouts of drinking was basketball. Swapping war stories, so to speak.
Two of my favorites are the following:
1) The cousin of a famous men’s college basketball coach, who is again leading his team into the N.C.A.A. tournament this week, informed me casually one night at a bar that, when around another famous men’s college basketball coach, whose camp he’d worked earlier that summer, you had to watch your wallet. I thought he meant the guy was unethical, which wouldn’t come as a surprise for a college basketball coach, a profession that is only slightly more principled than politician. But, no, my colleague was speaking literally. He meant that, if you weren’t vigilant, this coach, who at the time was probably making somewhere north of six figures, would steal your wallet.
2) A high school coach, whom I know significantly better than the famous coach’s cousin and for whom I have a great deal of respect, told me that he once attended a lecture delivered by yet a third famous coach, who is also leading his team into the N.C.A.A. tournament this week. The lecture’s topic was the press break. (If you’re not exactly sure what that is, don’t worry; it isn’t essential to the story.) This famous coach delivered what could only have been a 5-minute lecture (for which, I’m sure, he was paid a rather handsome sum). The lecture amounted to the following: we (his team) liked to get the ball to his point guard in the middle of the floor and let him break the press with his dribble.
Sounds simple. Of course, the first question from the audience of high school coaches who don’t have recruiting budgets was this: what if my point guard can’t break the press with his dribble. Response: I recruit a better point guard.
I recall the stories this week for a reason. Once again, March Madness is upon us. The annual men’s college basketball tournament has grown to become one of the most popular sporting events in the country. Perhaps second only to the Super Bowl.
Every year during the N.C.A.A. tournament, millions of people waste money (on office pools) and time watching basketball. There is an annual study that estimates the amount of GDP forfeited from lack of productivity due to the NCAA tournament, many of whose first round games are played during working hours on Thursday and Friday afternoons.
I am one of the millions. As I have every year of my professional life, I will again be taking the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament off from work. I do this against my better judgment. For as I’ve grown older, I’ve grown too old to allow my eyes to be blinded by the excitement of yet another Cinderella’s run to the Final Four.
Men’s college basketball (and football) is a cesspool. Much of the fault lies with the sport’s governing body, whose arcane rules, and the foolish and inconsistent application thereof, almost encourage coaches to cheat. I urge you to read some of Joe Nocera’s recent columns in the New York Times.
An equal share of the blame must be shouldered by the college and university presidents and athletic directors, whose only metric for evaluating coaches is wins and losses. In the current high-pressure system, should we really be surprised if a coach, or what’s more likely, a university booster, gets caught offering illegal gifts to highly-prized recruits in the hope they will attend the old alma mater. Though even that notion is now somewhat anachronistic because today it is sports agents who shepherd young talent from high school to college with the prospect that, if and when these players move on to the NBA, they will see a cut of the profit.
And should we be surprised if, in these circumstances, watching the adults prioritize winning and the money that usually comes with it, the kids who attend these athletic factories and make the schools and coaches and agents millions too rarely graduate. In 2010, Derrick Jackson reported in the Boston Globe that the University of Maryland, then a participant in the N.C.A.A. tournament, had in the past six years graduated only 8 percent of its men’s basketball players.
Ultimately, the greatest share of blame for the current state of affairs in big-time college athletics must be apportioned to a once cherished notion: amateurism. What is quite clear at this point is that the players who will be leading Kentucky and Kansas and Duke into the fray this week are not amateurs. They are serfs; they are indentured servants. I might even call them something else, if it weren’t so loaded a term.
Over the next three weeks the schools fortunate enough to reach the Final Four will earn millions of dollars. The players who make this possible, who are the labor producing the schools’ capital, will receive absolutely nothing. Consider this from Taylor Branch, whose Atlantic article on college athletics last fall may be the single best thing ever written on the topic: A.J. Greene, a football player who now plays for the Cincinnati Bengals in the NFL, was suspended for four games when he played for the University of Georgia for selling his game jersey. During his four game suspension, visitors to the university bookstore could pick up a replica of an A.J. Greene game jersey for $39.95. All proceeds going to the university.
None of this should be construed as an attempt to exonerate the adults in the system whose first responsibility ostensibly remains the well-being and development of the young men in their care. Not least the coaches, who, because their jobs depend on it, care about winning first and whether their players attend class second.
But, however you might try to slice it, amateurism is a quaint notion that is at its heart aristocratic. For who else can afford to be a highly skilled amateur other than someone whose material needs are at least somewhat provided for somewhere else? But as a fairly significant number of the athletes who receive football and basketball scholarships to FBS schools (the largest and most competitive college athletic programs in the country) are young men who come from less than aristocratic means, why should we be surprised that so many of them would either accept gifts, in violation of N.C.A.A. rules, or attempt to enter the NBA or NFL as soon as they are eligible to do so.
A free college education doesn’t mean much when you are forced to forgo earning a salary for four years. A recent study out of Drexel University estimated that 85% of the FBS athletes in this country live below the federal poverty line and that the athletes’ out-of-pocket expenses average $3,222 due to scholarship shortfalls. This at a time when the college athletic conferences and their member schools are signing multi-billion dollar television deals, such as the Pac-10’s $3 billion contract, which it signed last year.
Why shouldn’t the players have their hands out? Everyone else seems to—from college presidents and coaches right on down to the players’ high school and AAU coaches and any species of hanger-on so many of these young men will encounter during their careers.
As if we needed further evidence of this, we’re reminded again in the Times, which ran a feature this week on Nerlens Noel, one of the top high school basketball prospects in the country. The story is rife with the settings and characters who have become stock in the annals of bigtime basketball recruiting: the public high school coach who loses the prospect at a young age, usually after his first or second year of high school; the AAU coach who sees the prospect as his bandwagon to a college coaching job; the $47,000-a-year prep school that has exactly 12 minority students on campus, all of whom are inexplicably tall and just happen to be good basketball players.
What is quite clear in the story, and what no one who is familiar with major college athletics doesn’t already know, is that depressingly few of the characters that make up these stories have any interest in the players as anything other than players. Not as people, and certainly not as students.
There is a brief description toward the end of the Times feature on Nerlens Noel of his performance in a recent game. 6’10” tall, he “played out of position at point guard for long stretches and seemed to complain to the referees more than talk to his teammates. He rarely attempted to score inside.” Did his coach substitute him out of the game? Dare his coach bench him, attempt to teach him that, no matter your talent, actions have consequences, that understanding that actions have consequences is a large part of what makes you an adult?
I doubt it. I’m reminded of a scene in the final season of the television show Friday Night Lights. When explaining to his team why he was benching the star quarterback, the coach said (and I paraphrase): as in the real world, we have rules; unlike in the real world, here the rules apply equally to everyone. Unfortunately, that is a television show and precious few of the coaches who comprise the couplings in our country’s basketball pipeline care about rules or even, more perniciously, the moral and ethical development of their players.
And, if that’s the case, as long as they’re making millions for everyone else, why shouldn’t the players be getting some too? As the two anecdotes with which I began this essay attest to, if the adults who are supposed to be looking out for you all have their hands on their wallets, or would drop you as soon as you failed to break a press with your dribble, why shouldn’t you, as Jimmy Fallon’s character exhorted the fictional band in Almost Famous to do, make what you can, when you can, while you can?
AP photo: onlyagame.bur.org