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,
I am not going to wave a Calipari flag outside the courthouse steps or self-immolate in order to protect his honor. But let's be a little bit honest here. I like honesty. Almost every NCAA men's head basketball coach would like to be in the position that John Calipari is in. They can lie and claim differently, but the vast majority would take Karl-Anthony Towns on their team for one year. Most coaches wouldn't mind their program being a pit stop between high school and the NBA. Coaches like Bo Ryan can argue differently, but they are lying. Bo Ryan heavily recruited Kevin Looney, who is a one-and-done player. So getting that assumption out of the way, which I believe to be a correct assumption, most men's college basketball coaches wouldn't mind profiting from the NCAA rules. It is not John Calipari who forces Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to come to college for one year, it is the NBA who forces Kidd-Gilchrist to go overseas or play in college for one year. Sure, Calipari is profiting. He's not forcing these players to take these huge risks. They are free to sit out a year, go overseas (where there would still be risk for injury) or they can play college basketball for one year in the United States (where there would still be a risk for injury). Absent not playing basketball for a full year and then entering the NBA, the risk is always there. Calipari is not forcing these players to do anything because it's not his rule and he's simply recruiting these players like other men's basketball coaches are doing. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is going to play basketball for a year after high school prior to entering the NBA, it's just a matter of where.
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.
This is an absolute strawman argument. Every men's basketball coach risks nothing at all while coaching. Saint Coach K isn't risking his career coaching Jahlil Okafor. Steve Prohm isn't risking his life or career coaching at Murray State. The risk will always be on the players. I don't know why John Calipari and his "arrangement" is more dangerous than Tom Izzo's "arrangement" where he gets paid millions of dollars and the players 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.”
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.
It can be a flawed argument, but it's an argument that is as flawed as arguing John Calipari is the most evil of evil head coaches because he profits from the one-and-done rule and forces his players to take huge risks prior to entering the NBA. The risks Kentucky players take are no more than the risks any college basketball player takes in wanting to make it to the NBA one day. Doug McDermott was coached by his father and his father didn't take a risk, it was Doug who did all the valuable work during his time at Creighton and took on the risk of injury.
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—
Every single college athlete in every single college sport suffers risk of injury during their playing career. Some of these athletes plan on making their living in sports, others don't. The risk of injury doesn't go away simply because Nigel Hayes is planning on spending four years in college rather than one year in college. If Anthony Davis tore his Achilles tendon, he has the option of going back to school for a second year. This risk of a player's stock being down or an injury occurring isn't present because John Calipari has put a gun to Anthony Davis' head forcing him to play, but because Anthony Davis is forced by NBA rules to either sit out a year, play overseas or play college basketball for a year prior to entering the NBA. Simply because John Calipari is an NCAA men's basketball head coach doesn't make him partially culpable for the NBA rule requiring Anthony Davis to play/sit out a year before entering the NBA, any more than Bill Self is culpable for coaching a group of basketball players at Kansas who may someday want to enter the NBA.
a season during which his work paid him no money, and helped John Calipari haul in at least seven figures.
You are blaming John Calipari for participation in the NCAA system. What does the author expect Calipari to do? Quit? If he quit as the head men's basketball coach at Kentucky would the NCAA system all of a sudden become fair and NBA prospects are no longer risking injury to play basketball in college? Of course not. Calipari coaches within an unfair system, but this doesn't make him culpable for the unfairness of the system.
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.
So again, while being a problem spotter and not a problem solver, what is the solution here? Should John Calipari stop coaching college basketball because the rules are so unfair, which of course would fix nothing because 300+ other Division-I college coaches are still coaching teams under the same unfair rules they would embrace if Anthony Davis wanted to go to their school? Should John Calipari just not get paid for coaching the Kentucky men's basketball team? That seems like a rather unreasonable conclusion.
That would be true at any other college.
Which only highlights the absurdity of blaming John Calipari for an institutional problem.
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)
This is the part where the author has already blamed John Calipari for his recruits having to spend a year in college, allowing his prospective one-and-done guys to play basketball in live action games, thereby risking them getting injured, but now blames Calipari for the NBA rookie pay scale. That's his fault too now.
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.
BUT NO! McCarthy wasn't considering factors which John Calipari didn't have a hand in creating or legislating that show how Calipari is the real problem. If you consider another factor out of Calipari's control, it just goes to show the evil nature of Calipari and how he abuses his prospective one-and-done basketball players merely by choosing to coach college basketball. This is abuse caused only by Calipari.
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.
So once you factor John Calipari's culpability in creating the NBA rookie pay scale system (which he has none), then you can see the real evil behind his mad schemes. So what if no men's college basketball coach had anything to do with the NBA rookie pay scale system? Fuck it, blame them anyway.
Here is another scam that John Calipari participates in. This so-called "American Dream" where everyone has a shot to succeed. How about those who never got a shot to succeed? Doesn't John Calipari care about them? He earns millions of dollars working at a lucrative job, while thousands go hungry, living on the streets, and without sufficient food or shelter. If John Calipari really cared about the scam of the "American Dream" then he would move to another country where (a) there is no poverty or homelessness or (b) no one pretended to care about the poverty and homelessness. As long as John Calipari lives in the United States, he's all a part of the scam.
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.
And is John Calipari going to reimburse Noel for that $1.8 million difference caused by no actions on Calipari's part other than a freak injury occurring to Noel when Calipari had chosen to put Noel in the game? Of course not. It's all a part of Calipari's plan to recruit one-and-done basketball players and then steal hypothetical money from them when they get injured on the court, all the while Calipari is manically laughing at how his team has now a lesser chance of winning a championship. It's all part of the plan that John Calipari and the NCAA have.
Of course, one could also point out that Anthony Bennett was also a one-and-done guy, so the money Noel "lost" was "gained" by Bennett through the scam Dave Rice is running at UNLV where he recruited Bennett to play basketball. Dave Rice is culpable as a basketball coach in the NCAA scam too, right?
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.
This has to be one of the most poorly defended articles I have read in a while. Okay, that's sad for Noel. I have absolutely no idea what this has to do with John Calipari. If Noel didn't tear his ACL as a member of the Kentucky basketball team then he could have done it as a member of the UNC or Indiana basketball team. I wouldn't argue against the NCAA costing Noel this money, but dragging Calipari into it due to his status as a basketball coach for an NCAA team is ridiculous.
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.
So now we are differentiating between the risk on the court a guy who may be one-and-done takes with the risk on the court a guy who may play in the NBA but chooses to stay in school for 3-4 years takes? The risk is the exact same. Nerlens Noel could easily go back to school and turn into a guy who stays in college for 3-4 years. All of a sudden, Calipari is no longer responsible for Noel's draft status!
He played the single season of college ball essentially mandated by the NBA’s age restriction, got injured, and got screwed.
But Noel could have gone back to school. Alex Poythress would have left after his freshmen year too if his draft stock would have been higher at that point. Noel rolled the dice of his own choosing by not coming back to school for his sophomore year. He could have made the same decision that Poythress made.
(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.)
This isn't close to being an accurate parallel. A more accurate parallel would be if I had the chance to get a job, but because of circumstances out of my control they re-opened the job search and hired someone else for the position and paid them more than they were offering me. Then I would get a similar job for less pay at another company.
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.
I must have misread that. I'll try again.
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.
Oh, what you write does say it is John Calipari's fault. The author states the following in this column:
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.
It sort of sounds like he is blaming Calipari for the unfair asymmetry of risk and unjust age restriction doesn't it?
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.
Doesn't this sound a bit like blaming Calipari for the rookie wage scale? Specifically since this was a point brought up to counter an argument that Calipari's success makes him different from rival coaches and therefore shouldn't be put to blame for "the deal" he offers his players.
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.
So why in the hell are you singling out Calipari for disdain? Other than it pumps up pageviews and the comment section to have a debate about Calipari, of course.
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.
As is every single NCAA college coach. I don't get the point that is trying to be proven here.
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.”
Well, that defense sucks then. There is no required defense of John Calipari. He coaches men's basketball at the University of Kentucky. Some of his players who choose to go to the NBA after one year, as they are required to wait that long by NBA rule. Some players wait longer than one year to go to the NBA and other players of his have no chance of making the NBA. John Calipari tries to win games for the University of Kentucky while teaching his players how to play basketball better, which may or may not help them make it into the NBA. His track record says he is pretty good at getting his players into the NBA while following the one-and-done rule set out by the NBA. The rookie wage scale has nothing to do with NCAA college basketball.
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.
If John Calipari died as a child, then Alex Poythress would still be playing hundreds of hours for a university and receiving no money in return for the money he generates for the university.
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.
When you find evidence that John Calipari is directly responsible for college athletes not getting paid, then call me.
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.
Maybe this is true. It sounds like both McCarthy and the author here are arguing about whether college athletes should get paid, but putting "Calipari" in the title in effort to gain more attention for the same old tired argument.
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.
Oh, we are talking about Calipari's rules violations now.
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.
If the NCAA isn't a fair deal, then no methods used by any NCAA athletic coach are vindicated in any way. This is because zero college athletes get paid for participating in their sport and generating revenue for the school. This is true whether the athletes be women's soccer players at Lehigh University or football players at the University of Texas. These athletes spend hundreds of hours of their time trying to perfect the sport they aren't getting paid to perfect. If the system is corrupt, this means any athletic coach in the NCAA is culpable on the same level as Calipari. No method used by a coach, interestingly other than to commit a rules violation (that the author felt the need to randomly bring up as a case against Calipari's methods) by paying the players, will vindicate that coach's methods because the NCAA system is corrupt.
Calipari runs the scam without the bullshit pretense of some lofty pedagogical mission, but it’s still a scam.
It's a scam, but not a scam of Calipari's doing. He's trying to do what other men's basketball coaches are trying to do, which is work within the rules and recruit a team that wins games. It's not Calipari's scam, he's simply choosing to work at the University of Kentucky. His quitting as the head coach at Kentucky would have zero impact on the scam the NCAA is running. Therefore, his culpability is the same as every other coach's culpability, yet for some reason other coaches aren't mentioned in this column. Weird.
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.
What are Calipari's other options again? Other than to quit his job as the head coach at Kentucky, of course. I don't think some people see a beacon of fairness in having basketball players at Kentucky stay there for a year before they go to the NBA. I think Calipari offers certain college basketball players a way to reach their goal of making it into the NBA, just like other NCAA men's basketball head coaches offer prospective one-and-done players or even players that will be at the school risking injury over a four year period.
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.
I don't think this article was quite as profound or persuasive as the author believes it was. To frame this argument in the context of John Calipari and try to make it seen as he's hero for college athletes is very misguided. It's simply not true. The basic argument McCarthy was making was this:
The NCAA is, for lack of a better word, evil. But while John Calipari might not be a hero fighting against its crooked ways, he isn’t the villain that many, including Burneko, have described.
Right, Calipari isn't the villain. Because if he is the villain then every other NCAA coach who participates in the scam is a villain as well. If the author doesn't blame Calipari for the NBA's rookie salary structure, the one-and-done rule, restrictions on athletes' compensation and the asymmetry of risk then what is he blaming Calipari for? Being a cog in the machine? I guess both arguments pro- and anti-Calipari are wrong in that case.