Last week I wrote about the ways that both pro- and anti-NCAA camps tend to miss the mark when talking about University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari. He deserves less criticism for breaking NCAA rules and more for profiting from them, because even his “Players First” arrangement forces players to take huge risks for a reward artificially delayed by NCAA and NBA rules, while he himself risks nothing at all and has a guaranteed seven-figure annual reward no matter what becomes of the players who do all the valuable work.
On Sunday, Slate writer A.J. McCarthy published a thoughtful response to my piece. In his estimation, “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 as Kentucky, Cal has recruited 20 McDonald’s All-Americans to Lexington. … For the truly elite amateur players forced to take a year or two to hone their craft before leaping to the NBA, Calipari 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.
Does it? To argue that Calipari’s arrangement with players is meaningfully different—in kind, not degree—from the one offered by other college coaches because of the high rate at which his players catch on in the NBA, strikes me as flawed in at least a couple of ways.
First, and most importantly, it ignores the risk forcibly taken on even by those of Calipari’s players who emerge from his program with their NBA prospects unharmed, or even enhanced. Anthony Davis may have survived his lone season at Kentucky without, say, tearing his Achilles tendon, but he still carried the enormous risk of doing so throughout that entire season—a season during which his work paid him no money, and helped John Calipari haul in at least seven figures.
You may say that Calipari’s system reduced the risk somewhat by featuring Davis during his freshman season, which maximized his draft value as quickly as possible so that he wouldn’t have to expose himself to another season of unpaid risk—but that is a difference of degree between Calipari and another, stodgier coach, not one of kind. Davis took a huge risk because artificial and unjust rules forced him to, and he’ll never be compensated for taking that risk—but his coach was. That would be true at any other college.
Second, the notion that every instance of a star recruit making the NBA is an instance of a fair deal ignores how even those nominal successes can be screwed by their time in college (even apart from the fact that they don’t get paid for their work while there). Consider fellow Kentucky big man Nerlens Noel. Superficially, Noel might seem to buttress McCarthy’s point: He arrived at Kentucky as the top recruit in the nation, tore his ACL just weeks before the NCAA tournament in his freshman season, and still went on to a lucrative NBA contract as the sixth overall pick in the following draft. You may rightly assert that his Wildcat pedigree and Calipari’s imprimatur helped secure Noel’s draft position against concerns about his health, in service of a Coach Cal gets his guys paid! argument.
But then, account for the NBA’s rookie pay scale system, under the rubric of which draft position determines salary for all first-round picks. Prior to his ACL injury, Noel was the presumptive first overall pick in the 2013 draft (actually, “presumptive” may not be strong enough; that he would go first overall was a virtual certainty); when the draft finally rolled around, he fell to sixth, thanks to concerns about his leg and how recovery might hamper his development. The first overall pick, Anthony Bennett, received a first-year salary of $4,436,900; Noel, at sixth, received $2,643,600—a difference of almost $1.8 million in their rookie season alone.
The first two seasons of an NBA rookie contract are guaranteed; the team has the option to pick up a third and fourth, plus the option to make a qualifying offer for a fifth season. All the year-to-year salary increases over the life of that contract are automated, and set according to draft position. Over the maximum five-season lifespan of his rookie deal, Noel’s draft position is worth about $11,000,000 less than if he’d gone first overall, as he would have if he hadn’t suffered the ACL injury. And unlike Alex Poythress, the Kentucky player who decided of his own free will to return to school and wound up with an expensive and prospect-darkening ACL injury of his own, Noel didn’t lose a dice roll of his own choosing. He played the single season of college ball essentially mandated by the NBA’s age restriction, got injured, and got screwed.
(Before anyone does the whole Hey, Nerlens Noel made $2.6 million his rookie year—if that’s getting screwed, sign me up thing: Likely there are people who would happily do your job for 40 percent less pay, too. Probably you would feel pretty screwed if your employer told you that you were about to become one of them.)
None of this—the NBA’s unjust age restriction and rookie wage scale, the NCAA’s criminal restrictions on athlete compensation and unfair asymmetry of risk—is John Calipari’s doing, or John Calipari’s fault. The point isn’t that Calipari is out here doing anything more evil than what his counterparts are doing at other big-money NCAA programs—he’s not—but that the NCAA system itself is so corrupt and compromised, the ripping-off of athletes so fundamental to its business, that it cannot be navigated in a humane and ethical fashion by a coach. To coach in the NCAA is to perpetrate the rip-off. John Calipari might make it as painless as it can be, but it’s still a rip-off—for Alex Poythress, for Nerlens Noel, for Anthony Davis, for all of them—and Calipari is still on the side of it that participates by choice. The side of it that gets paid.
Tellingly, the defense of Calipari winds up echoing defenses of the NCAA itself. McCarthy objects to the use of Poythress to illustrate the shortcomings of Calipari’s “Players First” principle, on grounds that Poythress, who stayed in college longer than he had to and suffered a torn ACL for it, will still “have a free college education to show for his time at Kentucky.”
Remember that Poythress will have earned this education by playing many hundreds of hours of basketball for the university—basketball that generates far more money for the university and the NCAA than they return to him in the form of his athletic scholarship. Remember also that the first season alone of an NBA first-round rookie contract pays more than enough for a four-year degree from virtually any university in the world, and wouldn’t require Poythress to protect his basketball eligibility by turning down other sources of income. Poythress has not received a “free college education.” He has received an incredibly expensive one! He has paid more for his college education than the average college graduate will spend in a lifetime.
More to the point, though: To accept the premise that an undergraduate education is—or even can be—a fair return for the work high-level college basketball players do is to accept the central lie of “student athletics.” If Calipari’s deal as presented by McCarthy—NBA jobs after a year of underpaid work for some, free college educations for the rest—is a fair one, then so is the NCAA itself. In this case the sheen of principled rebellion evaporates from Calipari’s rules violations in an instant, and he’s just a guy who cheats to get ahead, then leaves the consequences for others to absorb.
But the NCAA’s deal isn’t a fair one. An undergraduate education isn’t a fair return for the work college basketball players do. And so Alex Poythress’s decision to stay in school and pursue his degree doesn’t vindicate Calipari’s methods. All it does is illustrate, again, that the difference between the NCAA and Calipari is one of branding. Calipari runs the scam without the bullshit pretense of some lofty pedagogical mission, but it’s still a scam.
McCarthy and other defenders are right to say that Calipari offers the closest thing to an honest bargain players can get from college basketball. It’s also true, though, that the comparison makes Calipari appear better than he is. Only in the context of the NCAA would justice-minded people look at him—a millionaire management-class white dude who asks for a year of underpaid labor, rather than four, from his black teenage workers—and see a beacon of fairness. Go easy on him, the other ticks are much thirstier. That flattering comparison is another of the many ways John Calipari profits not in spite of the NCAA’s awfulness, but because of it.