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.

Straight out of Compton: The Education of Richard Sherman

Richard Sherman ignited a national conversation when, posting on the Sports Illustrated MMQB blog, he defended homeboy DeSean Jackson and delivered a cornerback smackdown to the Philadelphia Eagles organization for releasing Jackson because of alleged ties to Los Angeles gang members.
Before addressing larger issues Sherman spotlights, let’s clear out the underbrush.
First, the Eagles organization has not disclosed the basis for the decision to release DeSean Jackson. While it is true that a South Jersey newspaper revealed some of Jackson’s less savory hometown connections, his departure from the team may have been over-determined, in that many partial explanations exist for this decision to part ways, and none appears to take primacy over any of the others. The need to pay Jackson handsomely going forward was clearly an issue — money is never not an issue in the NFL. But while no one disputes Jackson’s prodigious gifts as a receiver, he also was allegedly not beloved in the Eagles locker room and was widely viewed as a player who cared more about himself than his teammates. Jackson and head coach Chip Kelly apparently did not connect personally, and Jackson’s fit within Kelly’s up-tempo offensive scheme remains unclear.
Second, in the absence of any way to know for sure (over-determination and obfuscation go hand in hand), we can assume that Jackson’s somewhat adolescent stylings and dubious associations simplified the decision of the Eagles to let him go. Putting aside a larger conversation about the Hobbesian state of nature inhabited by professional football players (a war of all against all, continual fear of violent death, the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short), teams part company every year with players like Jackson, who are in the prime of their career, and generally no one suffers inordinately on behalf of the departed player.
With a typically rear-view mirror approach to decision-making, however, the Eagles seem to have filtered DeSean Jackson’s future with the team through the lens of Aaron Hernandez, and if the gang affiliations mattered, it was probably because the team was going to make absolutely sure no one could accuse them of not properly acting on the warning signs. In other words, the Eagles hedged pretty radically toward protecting their image, without perhaps much regard for the accurate interpretation of these gang-banging “warning signs”, and therefore (probably too willingly) accepted the risk they might lose a terrific player, to a team in their own division (the Redskins), who would have every incentive, twice each season, to torch the organization that spurned him.
Third, the Eagles surely did not count on Richard Sherman sabotaging their desire to keep this story a blip in the news cycle. We can all admire Derrick Ward’s remarkable Twitter rant about the smug, rampant ignorance of the ESPN corporate drones smogging up the airwaves with empty, self-important chatter about DeSean Jackson’s gang affiliations and character. However, no one these days owns Richard Sherman’s remarkable ability to claim the attention of the nation. While Sherman’s candor surfaces some ugly responses, the ugliness actually signals the value and importance of his message, which is both more nuanced and more global than many of those most irked by him realize. And in the reaction to his MMQB post, the argument almost (but never quite) rose above the stew of hostile bile typically stirred up by stories involving sports and race.
Much has been made of parallel DeSean Jackson — Riley Cooper storylines. Talented Eagles wide receivers born within a year of each other. One black, the other white. One rises out of South Central Los Angeles and consorts with Snoop Dogg. The other hails from Florida and favors Kenny Chesney. The Eagles discipline one for gay slurs, the other for racial slurs. The Eagles sign the white athlete to a long-term contract and release the black athlete. Of course, Richard Sherman can’t resist tapping the Shakespearean dynamics of these twinned storylines — Othello pitted against Iago. However, it would be a mistake to reduce his post to a statement of racial solidarity with his Compton Little League bro.
Richard Sherman is not about “Can’t we all get along?” He is about “Can’t we all understand each other.” Richard Sherman, in pretty much everything he’s said on-air and written online, is about explaining to Americans what it means to grow up in a poor, racially isolated, gang-infested, geographically bleak and endless community like South Central Los Angeles. He is about humanizing inner-city African-Americans and in the process building a foundation for a conversation about race, poverty, inequality, and ignorance that can elevate all of us to a higher plane of existence, simply because we do better understand each other and do better appreciate our common humanity and shared national identity.
In the DeSean Jackson post, Richard Sherman is not passing judgment on DeSean Jackson. He is not passing judgment on LA gangsters. He really is not even passing judgment on Riley Cooper. What Richard Sherman in instead doing is bringing us inside his community, and (as in the movie Pleasantville) suffusing with light and color people normally viewed in black and white. He introduces us to his parents, who both must work late, and introduces us to Jackson’s father, who drives 30 minutes across town to retrieve elementary school Richard so he can play Little League baseball with his friend DeSean. He helps us to appreciate what it may have meant for DeSean Jackson to lose his father to cancer, and how he might not care to walk away from people, unsavory or not, who supported him in dark times.
What Richard Sherman discloses to us is pretty quotidian stuff — mundane details in the lives of normal (if exceptionally athletic) kids trying to reach adulthood under more difficult circumstances than most of us will ever experience. But quotidian is the point. Because quotidian is real. Quotidian is human. Quotidian is what we can all understand without too much trouble. And what Richard Sherman tries to make clear in his DeSean Jackson post, is that we, none of us, can fully sequester our past from our present, our origins from our destiny, our consciousness and our conscience from the people who raised us up and who continue to remind us of the meaning of life in our own specific communities.
These fellow citizens, of Watts or Compton or Brentwood or Beverly Hills, of neighborhoods poor and rich, black and white, all walk through light and shadow, and certainly some live more in shadow, or perhaps fully in shadow. But arising from the same set of circumstances, and bound together by the same history and shared experiences, none of us who live in the light (as Richard Sherman and DeSean Jackson surely do most of the time) can turn away from those who still inhabit a darkness we remember well.