March Madness—Can Sports-Fan-Love Translate into Justice for Players?

I am a Kentucky Wildcats basketball fan. I was born and raised in the Bluegrass State not far south of Lexington, so the electricity, the loyalty of being a KY basketball fan goes deep for me. My father got his PhD at Duke and has never faltered in his allegiance to the “other” big blue. Even with a Duke fan in my household, several years at UNC (the “other” hue of blue), and calling many other college towns home, I have stayed true to the UK Big Blue when it comes to basketball!

Sometimes people ask me how I can be a UK basketball fan when the program seems so obviously distorted with the “one and done” patterns of recruitment and NBA bound players. Others ask how I could root for a coach like John Calipari who some say is a “known cheater,” “sleazy,” and so obviously working the system.

As someone who is committed to justice in the world of revenue sports, I do not take these questions lightly. And I hope you don’t either. And so, I pose the question to all us sports fans:

How is UK basketball emblematic of what is right and what is wrong with college revenue sports on college campuses?

I ask this question in the same spirit as those who are calling the Big Ten and the NCAA to react to the legislation Indiana just passed that opens the door to legally protected discrimination of LGBTQ people.

Underneath these calls to make the sports world a voice for social change are some deeper questions for those of us who love sports.

Can sports fans harness their passion as a force for justice, for social change?

Or are big-time sports a space where those who cheer their teams on don’t want to be bothered with “real life issues” like discrimination, racism, and economic justice?

I have been up close and personal to some of the worst ills of the world of big-time sports in our twenty plus years in big-time football. And I continue to struggle with how to be a voice for change in this business that supports my family. I don’t expect that struggle to be resolved any time soon.  But my support of UK basketball has not endured simply because of childhood loyalty and blind allegiance. I support KY basketball these days because I believe Coach Calipari is actually doing something pretty valuable for players in the way he works the system.

While I do not doubt that Coach Calipari is serving his own self-interests and ego along the way, he actually seems to understand how farcical all the rhetoric of the NCAA is when it comes to what they try to tell us college revenue sports are all about. These “amateur” endeavors (that’s what the NCAA keeps telling us they are) are really all about REVENUE. And, the ways that revenue gets generated are fueled, first and foremost, by players. But the way that revenue gets distributed does not benefit the players in a way that is even remotely commensurate with the way others prosper in this system.

In fact the metrics of revenue distribution leave most Division I revenue producing athletes living under the federal poverty line (by about an average of $3000 a year). And the players are penalized, even banned from play for the rest of their lives, for breaking the dizzying array of rules set up to keep them from benefitting not only from their labor, but from their name, likeness, and participation in any revenue generating activity associated with their play (like a commercial or the sale of T-Shirts).

Coach Calipari knows that, given the current system, the only way very talented Division I basketball players can truly reap the financial benefits of their basketball skills and their labor is to play professionally. His program at UK is a way for them to maximize the timing and tenure of their profitable playing days. He is, in ways that are hard to see for most people, an advocate for players in this way.

People criticize Calipari for his success, but he is not the one who created this ridiculous system that the NCAA and its member institutions tout as the vanguard of integrity for collegiate sports. Calipari and the remarkable team he is currently coaching show us in clear relief how this whole NCAA endeavor really works.  It is the NCAA-driven system that helped make playing in college and going pro such a fraught decision. What incentive is there for a truly NBA-caliber player to keep playing in college when their marketability is at its peak?

Calipari tells players’ families he can help them reach their goals to play in the NBA and that they might just have the opportunity to win a national championship along the way. He doesn’t try to be something he is not (which, by the way, may be the most profound disease of places like the University of North Carolina, who try to say they are one thing, but are really something else).

I don’t have a problem with the way Calipari works the system if it helps players maximize their opportunities in a way that truly works for them. Only 2-3% of Division I basketball and football players will make it to the NFL and NBA. The way Calipari works the system acknowledges that fact. If you are good enough to go pro, spend the time required by the NBA in the college system in a program in which you will receive maximum exposure. In other words, going to UK is a business decision. Why are we so offended in American society when young men of color make business decisions for themselves? Do we suffer the same affront when a young white man makes a decision to maximize his talent and marketability in a way that alters his educational plan?

Players and their families make a choice when they go to UK about what is most prudent for them with the skills and potential that they have. I wish the NCAA system were different and didn’t create such unfair choices as well as such clear disadvantage for young men of color. But, given the system and the way it actually functions, I can understand why parents of players who are good enough to play at KY and go to the NBA would choose that route for their sons.

If fans are really up in arms about the likes of Calipari, then I wish all that offended energy could get channeled into real pressure on the NCAA and its member institutions to make the system more just, less hypocritical. How about directing all the passion and concern for “one and doners” to the NCAA and the system that created the dichotomy in the first place? If you are worried about integrity in college sports, don’t blame the players. And don’t blame a coach who has figured out how to be successful in a cut-throat business. Go to the very sources of the moral lapse—greed, racism, and a system with so much smoke and so many mirrors that people mistake the problem for the solution.

March Madness really is just that—madness! We get ourselves all worked up about players who have the audacity to think they deserve to benefit from the money machine they themselves generate. We cheer them on and then we tell them to be quiet when they want to tell us what they need to truly thrive. We spend our money and our energy living and dying with every point they score, every pass they make, but we choose to sit still when it comes to the most offensive dynamics of college sports today.

It truly is madness to think that these injustices are right in front of our faces and, yet, we still continue to see what we’ve been told to see—fairness where there is exploitation and “cheaters” where there are often people who are telling us the truth about something we don’t want to admit.

I’ll be cheering on the CATS next weekend when they take on Wisconsin whether it is in Indianapolis or elsewhere because the NCAA saw a viable threat to their bottom line and moved the venue. It should be a great game! And regardless of the outcome or the venue, I know when it comes to the way March Madness spreads its spoils and its influence, there are still way too many losers among those who give us so much to cheer about this time of year.

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