Kentucky Basketball: A Model Job Training Program

I know there are thousands of student-athletes who make a significant commitment to attend classes, study, and work toward graduation and a college degree. And they are doing that while spending hours at practice and traveling to games and meets and so on. Good for them. I expect they value a college education for being more than just an extended job training program.

This post isn’t about these real student-athletes.

It’s about the quasi-professionals who show up at the basketball and football factories for a year or two on their way — with luck — to the pros.  They view the college experience for them for what it is: a job training program.

And I guess I don’t have anything against this as long as we don’t view these pros-in-waiting to be student athletes.

Here’s what got me started on this today during my hour chasing the treadmill belt at 5:30 a.m. Essentially the entire Kentucky basketball squad that just won the NCAA championship is heading to the pros, without waiting to cross the stage to grab their sheepskins.  From USA Today, “Davis, Jones among five Kentucky underclassmen headed to NBA“:

NBA executives, they’re all yours.

Anthony Davis, fellow freshmen Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague, and sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb have all declared for the NBA draft.

“This is a players-first program,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said to open Tuesday’s news conference. “During the season, it’s about the team. … When the season is over, it’s about moments like this.”

Wait, I have a tear in my eye.

OK. I’m back. Sorry about that.

Anyway, if the Kentucky basketball team is moving on to the pros, good. In this day of outrageously high tuition, increasing student loan debt, and declining job prospects, the University of Kentucky  and coach John Calipari offer a model for a job training program that works. Most students enrolled at colleges and universities throughout the country should be so fortunate.

William C. Rhoden opines in the NYT:

Later this month, college underclassmen who wish to enter the N.B.A. draft must declare their intention to do so. Five of those undergraduates are expected to come from the Kentucky team that helped Coach John Calipari win his first national championship. All of Kentucky’s starters — two freshmen and three sophomores — could be selected in the first round when the N.B.A. holds its draft in June, their next crucial step toward the realization of a cherished dream.

Yet Kentucky’s success has prompted critics to predict the demise of college basketball and the end of higher education as we know it.

In an ideal world, everyone would stay four years and graduate. But Kentucky’s basketball program is in fact a tribute to a real-world system that works, preparing young people for a viable profession — in this case, professional athletics.

Not only in basketball and football but also across the spectrum of intercollegiate sports, top-tier athletes are honing their skills for the pros. Tennis players and golfers often leave college after one or two years to turn pro. Baseball players are drafted out of high school; many of those who accept college scholarships play for two or three years before leaving for the pro ranks. In hockey, talented underclassmen leave college after the season and join the pro team that holds their rights.

Intercollegiate athletics feed and nourish the professional leagues. But they also doing what colleges are supposed to: preparing their students for a productive future.

One of the problems, of course, is that university presidents and others don’t want to admit that they are running a multimillion dollar sideshow to what should be the mission of the university: helping students get an education.

Here’s Joe Nocera in the NYT, “Football and Swahili“:

I was at the University of North Carolina when I heard the Swahili anecdote.

It was at a luncheon organized by some faculty members who have become, like me, critics of the N.C.A.A. and the hypocrisy of college sports. Among those attending was a former Carolina football player named Deunta Williams.

About halfway through lunch, the talk turned to education. The University of North Carolina, mind you, is a place that professes to care a great deal about whether its athletes go to class — and earn a degree. And, of course, the N.C.A.A. claims — preposterously — that athletes are students above all else.

Yet several of the professors complained that whenever an athlete enrolled in their classes, they got a letter from the athletic department asking them, in effect, to go easy on the player. After all, he was holding down a full-time job: playing football for the university.

Williams, however, had his own set of complaints. Athletes, he said, could only take the classes the athletic department wanted them to take. Coursework couldn’t interfere with practice, of course. It was always better that the classes not be too difficult — otherwise, there might be eligibility problems. And one other thing:

“All the freshman football players take Swahili as their language requirement,” Williams said. Why? Because the athletic department tutors are strong in Swahili. (In fact, 7 of 25 freshmen football players took Swahili in 2006, Williams’s freshman year.)

I’ve been thinking about that Swahili story a lot these days. Over the past few months, as I’ve tackled the problems with college sports — and called for players to be paid, instead of serving as free labor in a multibillion-dollar industry — many readers and bloggers have responded by pointing to the presumed value of the free education they’re getting. Some have argued that the right answer is for universities to de-emphasize athletics. Others have said that schools should stop accepting athletes, no matter how talented, who lack the skills to do college-level work. Just last week, Bob Costas, the estimable NBC sportscaster, devoted two hours of airtime to the state of college sports. (I was one of the panelists.) A half-dozen times, he asked whether it was right for schools to enroll athletes who couldn’t handle the academic requirements of college.

I have come to believe that that is the wrong question. Yes, the world would be a better place if universities were not trying to manage a huge entertainment complex “on the side.” But schools with big-time football and basketball programs are not acting irrationally. In addition to the millions of dollars such programs reap, they can put a school on the map, making it more attractive to potential applicants. A good college team can bind together a campus like nothing else.

In playing for the team, the athletes are giving their schools more immediate value than anyone else in the student body. They are also doing something that requires at least as much skill as playing in a university orchestra. Even putting aside the question of pay, surely the university ought to feel a moral obligation to return the favor by giving the players the tools to succeed in life.

Instead, universities do the opposite. With their phony majors and low expectations, they send the unmistakable message to the athletes that they don’t care what happens after their eligibility expires. It’s a disgrace.

Instead, why not allow football players to major in, well, football? This is a solution put forth by John Kilbourne, a professor of movement science at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. Kilbourne, a former dance major, points out that college dancers can focus almost exclusively on the thing they are passionate about — even though the vast majority will not ultimately be professional dancers. Why is it so terrible to think of a football player doing likewise? Surely they could get more from a course in, say, “racism and football” than in most of what they are now forced to take.

There is another way to come at this. It requires tossing the “student-athlete” pretense overboard and being honest about the revenue-generating role athletes play — and the fact that many are ill equipped to do college work. Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sports management at Drexel University in Philadelphia, has proposed “reimagining” the college system to acknowledge that football and basketball players are employees first and students a distant second. In her model, players would get paid something — and if they chose to pursue a college education, that would be an extra benefit. If they needed remedial reading and math instead of Shakespeare, the university would provide that, even if it didn’t ultimately lead to a college degree.

“All of the problems in college sports stem from one root cause,” she told me recently. “It is all built on a lie.”

Until we acknowledge that lie, the freshmen football players will be studying Swahili.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: April 13, 2012: An earlier version of this column incorrectly reported the number of freshmen football players at the University of North Carolina who took Swahili in 2006. It was seven, not “all of them,” as Mr. Williams was quoted as saying.

If the “student-athletes” at the basketball and football factories are preparing for a career in the pros, then let them major in football or basketball. Hey, it’s a job training program — and one that at Kentucky, at least, works.



3 responses to “Kentucky Basketball: A Model Job Training Program

  1. The way I understand it is in basketball you have to be one year removed from you high school graduating class, and in football two years removed before you can declare for a professional sport draft. Here’s my thought…call me crazy: In any sport, if you go professional before your junior year, after the government takes their’s out of your signing bonus, you will repay your institution of higher learning 100% of your scholarship amount. Before your Senior year you will repay 50 % of your scholarship amount. If you are one of the few that actually makes it through your senior year then hopefully you future isn’t “would you like fries with that”. With tight budgets, that money should be going to the best and brightess academically, not who has the best jump shot or 40 time.

    • Might be better just to let them head to the pros and then hit them with an accelerated version of the Buffett Rule, with proceeds to Social Security and Medicare.

  2. Funny you mention Buffett…the man who advocates raising taxes on “millionaires and billionaires”, yet is suing the federal govenment over the 1,000,000,000.00 in back taxes he owes from Berkshire. Yeah, that’s one BILLION. Why do you think Lebron went to Florida and not New York….no state taxes!!! What’s that worth on a salary of 100 mill! Plus, there is no amount of new taxes that can be imposed to save SS or Medicare.

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