Faust on the Hardwood: John Calipari’s Transactional Wager with African-American Athletes

I’m watching the UCLA-Kentucky basketball game, which for me has assumed the dimensions of a morality play. I am watching the game and dying inside (D’Aaron Fox thrashing Lonzo Ball). My own personal experience with Making America Hate Again.

I don’t hate the one-and-done Kentucky players, but hate what they represent, and absolutely can’t stand John Calipari, who is greasy and disingenuous and falsely pious and who exploits our nation’s tragic racial history for his own personal gain and glory. I’ve written about this. Duke and (yes) UCLA and other college basketball programs differ only in degree from UK, of course. But by virtue of his relentless capacity for self-promotion, Calipari stands apart, and so has come to represent and symbolize within himself the worst of collegiate sports, epitomizing a national sickness that we need to shake, in which the business of sports has invaded and hollowed out collegiate education. The claim of sports on the college experience is the true education scandal of our times, not the stifling influence of politically correct classroom narratives (which is troubling in its own way, but overblown, and definitely not a cancer on the student experience in the way that college sports has become). 

I do love college basketball, which offers an often-thrilling alternative and competing narrative to the saga of the one-and-done athlete (let’s not bother to call them “student-athletes”). This alternative narrative emerges with teams such as Villanova and Wisconsin and Michigan State, whose players generally stay for four years, who live and play together as part of a larger and more generally recognizable experience of learning and maturation.

I’m not naive. I know these athletes live in a bubble not unlike the sanitized, sequestered environment that privileges the pampered Baby Ballers at Kentucky. But if you at least stick around on a college campus for three or four years, you are, by definition, committing yourself to something larger than the financial transaction that the one-and-done system glamorizes and substitutes for an actual educational experience. And this willingness to participate in a story line that requires inspiring and enlarging others as the condition for, inspiring and enlarging yourself, exposes us to truly compelling individuals who transcend their moment on the court. This year, in particular, I am thinking of Nigel Hayes at Wisconsin, whose intelligence and awareness make him not only a special basketball player, but in a far larger sense a special person. 

By comparison, a transaction is all John Calipari offers his players. You make me rich today and you might become rich tomorrow. Which is fine. But let’s not pretend Kentucky basketball represents anything beyond this simple transaction, including winning. UK fans and boosters and cheerleaders – all of Big Blue Nation – cheer and celebrate and think incessantly about something that is not real.

Players who come through the UK system are commodities. Calipari’s one-and-done “system” is built around these athletes NOT connecting or integrating within the UK community. They stay less than a year, may barely ever be sighted on campus, may or may not attend classes once the basketball season ends, and then they depart, leaving no lasting impact or memory. Many of these players are successful in the NBA; others less so. But Calipari abides and grows fat upon the land they have made fertile (Calipari will make about $7 million this year), while the educational mission of the public institution that employs him founders. 

The Undefeated recently published a lengthy essay about the “gentrification” of NCAA sports. First generation African-American college students (whose parents did not attend college) now receive far fewer athletic scholarship offers than middle-class counterparts with college-educated parents. Less than 20 percent of students playing Division 1 basketball are first generation. The Undefeated notes the precipitous pace of this decline, with first generation male students on NCAA basketball scholarships falling by one-third in only five years (from 28 percent to 19 percent). Reasons for this decline remain unclearly understood, but plausible explanations include rising academic standards, cost and commitment required for training programs that feed young athletes into the D-1 recruiting food chain, and a growing black middle class. 

The essay considers the self-sequestering that now requires young athletes to focus full-time on one sport by the time they enter middle school, to receive virtually full-time support from an array of fitness and skills trainers, and to court the most prestigious and influential AAU programs and private schools. More robust (although hardly rigorous) NCAA academic standards merely add one more barrier to entry for first-generation athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds. The article stakes out no definite position on this development but sympathetically quotes coaches and mentors who worry about shrinking opportunities for kids who bloom late. 

I see a far larger problem, which returns us to basketball’s Faust, John Calipari, and to his transactional wager with students he recruits. Calipari is a formerly good basketball coach who leveraged NBA player age requirements into the one-and-done system that has elevated him to Hall of Fame coaching status. A vastly disproportionate amount of hype attends the most highly ranked “blue chip” high school players, the 25 or 30 who have some plausible chance of playing in the NBA. These are the only players who interest Coach Cal. Removing the age requirement and allowing high school students to jump directly to the NBA (the D-League makes this option to bypass college even more feasible) would detonate the transactional film of sleaze that Calipari, by virtue of his reputation and influence, has layered upon the college game. 

Again, I have no problem with Calipari’s recruits. They mostly seem like great kids. But they represent false hope for the millions of African-American kids who are encouraged from a young age to view sports as their only realistic ticket out of poverty. And it is troubling that coaches like John Calipari benefit financially, to an extreme degree, by peddling this false hope as a kind of snake oil. For this reason, the premise of The Undefeated article seems misplaced. The “Answer” (thank you, Allen Iverson) is not to use athletic scholarships as a vehicle for shepherding disadvantaged (first generation) African American students into college, partly because this emphasis only reinforces a belief that athletic prowess is both the necessary and the sufficient condition for college admission, and that in this sense young African Americans represent some freakishly different – both more gifted and more impaired at the same time – species of student. Young African Americans would actually benefit both from reduced expectations for athletics as a vehicle for social mobility and from more broadly based higher education commitments to first generation minority students irrespective of their athletic ability.