Who's begrudging Kentucky?

April, 9, 2012
John CalipariRichard Mackson/US PresswireKentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari waves to the crowd after winning the 2012 NCAA Men's Final Four.
I was gone for a few days there, but I had made at least a few assumptions about the offseason to come:

  1. It would be long, arduous, and occasionally boring, but hopefully not too boring.
  2. We wouldn't need to spend much of it arguing about the one-and-done rule, because come on, really? Aren't we past that now?

Alas, the latter appears to be untrue. New York Times sports columnist William C. Rhoden wrote a column about Kentucky Monday, accompanied by the headline: "Begrudging the Wildcats’ Success and Opportunities." It goes a little something like this:
A new baseball season is under way, the N.B.A. is headed toward another exciting finish, and yet the University of Kentucky’s success in men’s basketball has sparked outrage that lingers a week after the national championship game. Why is there such hand-wringing? [...]

So why has the prospect of five U.K. young players turning pro unsettled so many people?

If the core of the Kentucky team had been made up of white players with phenomenal athleticism and acumen at every position — operating in the context of a largely black sport — we would not be hearing the complaining. Their success would not be seen as a debasement. The team would be celebrated and feted — as Butler was, as Gonzaga used to be.

The argument, such as it is, is this: People are wringing their hands about Kentucky winning the national title because Kentucky's players were black. If they were white, this would not be the case. After getting Michigan State coach Tom Izzo to agree, and after discussing the difficulties young black males face in education and athletic achievement -- and the opportunities they so rarely get to advance themselves and their families -- Rhoden eventually concludes as such:
Athletes, like any other students, need to be able to take advantage of the opportunities they have, when they occur. It’s just that for many college basketball and football players, their opportunities beyond athletics are limited, even with the benefit of an education. Many white athletes have options that go far beyond the playing field. [...] Professional sports can be an antidote to a harrowing reality for a young athlete. Opportunity is not equal. Even with the risks attached, the one-and-done loophole helps level a grossly uneven playing field.

Which is all true, and all easy to agree with. Of course it is. The only problem I have is the initial premise: Who, exactly, is begrudging Kentucky?

[+] EnlargeAnthony Davis
Richard Mackson/US PresswireWith this type of ability, it's easy to see why Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis is turning pro.
Sure, there are opinions out there. You can find them. To use the classic "mistakes were made" passive construction: Columns have been written. But I'm not sure the hand-wringing is nearly as individually invested -- or nearly as widespread -- as Rhoden or even Izzo imagines, and I'm not sure it has much of anything to do with race. This is a difficult issue to discuss, because I am not an African-American male, and so I admit my perspective is different, less-informed by experience, than Rhoden's or another African-American male's. No question.

But I'd wager the "hand-wringing" about Kentucky, in so far as it exists, is more about what the one-and-done rule does to the sport itself generally and far less about what it means for UK's NBA-bound freshmen and sophomores specifically. The most-cited example before the Final Four came from Grantland's Chuck Klosterman, in which Klosterman wrote that Kentucky would become a model for the rest of the country: Here's how you win with the one-and-done. This sea change would obviously destroy the sport from the inside out, or so the argument went.

Which, with all due respect to Klosterman (and I have a ton of said respect) was pretty much just wrong. Everyone is already essentially trying to do what Kentucky coach John Calipari has done at Kentucky. The only difference is less transparency, less lip-service, and less success. This very premise assumes that even Calipari could recreate what he did in 2012, which, while possible, seems immediately remote: We simply haven't seen one-and-done freshmen like Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (mature, undaunted, team-oriented, entirely unselfish) very often, and rarely on the same team, not to mention on a team that also includes sophomores as good and complementary as Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb.

At this point, if you are lamenting Kentucky's success in moralistic terms -- those kids should be staying all four years! they need to get their degrees! -- you're dumb. Sorry! It's not nice to say that, but it's true! You're dumb!

Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist are ready to go pro now. Why would they stay? They can develop in the NBA; they can get the degree (they don't really need) any time, like many NBA players eventually do. If there is any racially viable aspect to this, it's a paternalistic, prescriptive one, and it's one middle-aged white sportswriters have zero business making. If someone is making this argument, you know well enough to ignore them. Simple.

Meanwhile, the rest of us, those of us who live down here in 2012, don't begrudge Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist and Jones and Lamb and Marquis Teague a damn thing. Nor do we begrudge Calipari. As the coach is fond of saying, this is not his or his players' system. It is the NBA's. Were NBA general managers more capable of restraining themselves, the 15 or 20 18-requisitely talented 18 year-olds would be able to skip the whole college charade in the first place. Those GMs proved they couldn't resist taking the Eddy Currys and Kwame Browns of the world, so the NBA stepped in and made this rule in its own self-interest, and few others', and Calipari recruits the best of the affected players, and then he turns them into a team that can compete for -- and as he proved this year, with a very special group of players, win -- a national title. What, exactly, is wrong with that?

Well, a lot may be wrong with that, actually. But none of it is the players' fault.

If people are upset about Kentucky, well, blame David Stern. Blame the the NBA owners and players for not settling on a better system (two-and-done with an option to go straight out of high school is probably preferable, all things considered) during the 2011 collective bargaining process. But don't blame Kentucky, don't blame Calipari, don't blame his or any other coach's one-and-done players, from Austin Rivers to Kevin Durant to you name it, really.

These players are merely, as Rhoden writes, taking advantage of their opportunities. This is the real world. We have far bigger problems than a bunch of 19-year-olds being able to make millions of dollars if NBA general managers are willing to give it to them. Most of us save our hand-wringing for better things. Those that don't aren't a nexus of popular opinion -- they're just flat out of touch. End of story.



You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?