Monday night capped off one of the most exciting months college basketball has seen in years. UConn’s improbable run to the title made it the second-lowest seed ever to lift the national championship trophy. Aaron Harrison’s string of three straight game-winning three-pointers for Kentucky could only be described as madness. Throw in Dayton’s scrappy fight to the Elite Eight and lowly Mercer’s first-round toppling of Duke and you truly have a March to remember.
But at the end of it all, I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth. We watch college basketball not only because it’s exciting, but because we can see ourselves in the players. These are young men in their late teens and early twenties who face the same problems and experience the same joys as every other college student their age. Yes, they also compete in front of tens of thousands of people every week and some of them don’t spend much time in classrooms, but at the end of the day 95 percent of college players won’t be playing in the NBA next year. It’s a lot easier to understand the thrill of their victories and know the agony of their defeats than it is to empathize with the superhuman millionaires you see in the professional game.
Monday night’s championship game only proved to me how deluded I am. In one corner you had Kentucky head coach John Calipari and his freshmen mercenaries. To a lot of people, Calipari represents everything that is wrong with the college game. Year after year, he stocks his recruiting classes with McDonald’s All-Americans serving their required year in college before making the jump to the pros. Calipari’s contract with his players is simple: “You play here, and I’ll get you to the NBA.” He’s turned the Wildcats into an NBA farm team and openly mocked the NCAA’s holy veneration of the student-athlete.
But as the old saying goes, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” Calipari didn’t make the rules. It’s not his fault the NCAA can’t figure out a way to keep athletes in school, even when the problem is staring it in the face: UConn’s Shabazz Napier, the tournament’s most outstanding player, revealed on Monday that he went to bed hungry some nights this season. And nobody would be upset about Calipari’s sleazy tactics if Kentucky were terrible every season, but the Wildcats were just a few made free throws against UConn from their second title in three years.
So should we all rejoice that UConn won and justice prevailed? Not so fast — the Huskies are probably worse. Last year UConn was banned from the NCAA tournament for failing to meet the NCAA’s absurdly low standards for student-athlete academic progress. For the cohort of UConn men’s basketball players entering school between 2003 and 2006, only eight percent graduated within six years. Less than one in 12 student-athletes received scholarships to attend UConn and left with a degree in six years. The university made tens of millions of dollars in revenue from these young men’s labor, and apparently provided most of them with almost nothing in return. With those numbers, UConn could be held liable for fraud.
In an age when not even Harvard can escape the snares of academic scandal, we shouldn’t be surprised that these are the teams meeting to determine who is the best in the land. At least this way we can’t pretend that everything is okay because two schools like Duke or Stanford that actually graduate their players happened to be the last ones standing.
The death knell of the NCAA and its student-athletes may have been sounded last month when the Northwestern football team took the first steps towards unionization. Reform will take years, and will come more slowly to basketball than to football. But it does appear that the country has finally had enough of this blatant system of exploitation.
As easy as it seems, the moral of this tale can’t be boiled down to platitudes about greed, or capitalism or corruption. The NCAA has serious demons it must exorcise, but as always, the story is more complicated than that. However, there is one lesson that you certainly can take away from this mess:
Go watch more Yale basketball games, because you may be witnessing the last of the amateurs.