The Real Grand Experiment? It's John Calipari's Kentucky

Originally published in Bloomberg View.

Joe Paterno's Grand Experiment is lying in a heap in the middle of Pennsylvania. About 500 miles to the southwest, however, in Lexington, KY, a more realistic Grand Experiment in college sports is taking place.

This one is powered not by hypocrisy or high-minded rhetoric about how "student athletes" shouldn't be getting "cheated" out of their educations. Its architect is the slick-suited, $31.7-million head basketball coach of the University of Kentucky Wildcats, John Calipari.

Coach Cal even has his own name for his experiment: "Players First" a clever inversion of the "you-will-be-joining- a-rich-tradition" rhetoric one typically hears from college coaches. The only tradition Calipari is selling to potential recruits is his history of turning talented freshmen into high-priced, first-round NBA draft picks.

The deal he offers them couldn't be more straightforward: Give me seven months and I will make you rich. It's basically a one-year associate's degree in basketball with an unparalleled job-placement record. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is reported to have joked, Calipari is "turning out more millionaires than a Wall Street firm."

Calipari's experiment is made possible by the National Basketball Association's rule that makes players ineligible for the draft until they are 19 years old or one year out of high school. They have to find something to do for that year after graduation. Why not play college basketball?

Thus was born the "one and done" tradition, which Calipari has embraced as enthusiastically as one of his more sanctimonious critics once embraced the three-point shot. ("I can't say hello and goodbye in seven months," said Rick Pitino, the coach at the University of Louisville who pioneered the use of the shot while coaching at Providence College in 1987.)

Coach Cal doesn't rebuild. He reloads. The Wildcats, last year's national champions, lost not only their starting five but their sixth man to the NBA draft. Nevertheless, this year's team, which features three of the nation's top-10 recruits—including the most sought-after high-school player in the country, Nerlens Noel—started the season ranked third.

This is not exactly what the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which is trying desperately to preserve its "collegiate model"—you know, the one that allows it and its members to make hundreds of millions of dollars a year on the backs of athletes who aren't paid a dime—likes to see.

The NCAA blames one and done on the NBA's rule change, instituted in 2005. No doubt the NBA benefits from using the college game as a filter to help it better evaluate young prospects. The NBA is also a business. It's merely making a decision intended to minimize risk for its owners.

For its part, the NCAA is a nonprofit. If it's so serious about its collegiate model, why not simply declare freshmen athletes ineligible for competition? Better yet, why not acknowledge that the issue isn't one and done—it's that athletes who perform in front of millions of paying customers cannot with a straight face be considered "amateurs."

Instead, the NCAA has gone all in on amateurism. Its answer to the ever-growing number of recruiting infractions isn't to consider the possibility of paying athletes, or even to allow them to accept endorsement deals (a step that the U.S. Olympic Committee took decades ago). It's to rewrite its 400-plus page rulebook to permit harsher punishments.

We have seen how this approach works. Like Prohibition, it perpetuates the growth of a parasitic underground economy.

Rather than rethinking the collegiate model, the NCAA prefers to try to prevent Calipari from continuing to exploit an exploitative system. The organization has been after Coach Cal for years, and has almost got him on more than one occasion. Two of his four Final Four appearances have been erased from the record books: once when one of his players was found to have taken money from an agent, another time when one was discovered to have submitted fraudulent SAT scores. In both cases, Calipari himself was cleared of any wrongdoing.

The centerpiece of the organization's latest rulebook overhaul, intended to make coaches more accountable for their players' behavior, seems to have been written with him in mind. It's hard to believe there aren't pictures of Coach Cal and his top recruits thumbtacked to a large bulletin board inside a conference room at the NCAA's Indianapolis headquarters.

Calipari knows he has a target on his back, as do his nominal superiors, who take every precaution they can to protect him. Kentucky's assistant athletic director for compliance doles out tickets to the team's games, vetting designated recipients to make sure they have no connections to prospective recruits or their coaches. Meanwhile, whatever classes Calipari's players are taking, they're passing them. Kentucky's basketball program continues to meet the NCAA's academic requirements.

Paterno used to boast about how Penn State didn't segregate its athletes into special dorms and cafeterias. (He was wrong about that, but anyway.) Not Coach Cal. He can be seen on the Internet proudly showing off the Wildcat Coal Lodge, a brand-new dorm for Kentucky's basketball team decorated with photographs of former stars and current recruits and outfitted with flat-screen TVs, recliners, a pool table and a 24-hour kitchen.

Calipari was wearing that same smile after Kentucky suffered its first loss of the young season on Tuesday night, to Duke. He complained about the opposing players flopping for foul calls, then acknowledged that his freshman team was "still learning." He knows he'll have them ready by the time March Madness rolls around—and that there will be a fresh batch of recruits right behind them when these kids move on to the NBA.

Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. A long-time contributor to The New York Times Magazine, he is the author of the best-selling Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning, The Challenge, and Death Comes to Happy Valley. He's @jonathanmahler on Twitter.