Longtime Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein announced yesterday that he’s leaving the university to take over as coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. It’s a move plenty of other college coaches have made before, but the departure of Beilein—reportedly beloved, supposedly clean, and, at 66, downright old, and consequently the owner of a particularly potent reputation as a molder of young men—is different, at least in that it’s caused a great fluttering of consternation among a certain cadre of sportswriters, all of whom have located great meaning in the story of a man leaving one job for another.
Sports Illustrated dubbed Beilein’s departure a “disheartening sign for a changed sport.” The Athletic went with a “dark day for the sport.” One nationally syndicated columnist said it was “not a good look for college basketball.” Another described it as “not good for college basketball.” All of these writers (and many others) highlight Beilein’s integrity and brilliance and conclude, in one fashion or another, that he is just too good and too pure for the slimy, selfish sport in which he has spent his professional life. They point to Beilein’s departure—not the fact that the NCAA is a worker’s comp racket that exploits teenagers with the contrivance of the NBA; not the fact that college coaches make absurd amounts of money and are some of the most powerful people at universities while their players struggle to get by; not the fact that the NCAA punished a school for giving players too much money for textbooks; and not the fact that the fucking FBI is for some reason enforcing the NCAA’s byzantine rulebook and people are going to prison just because they gave unpaid players and their families a little extra cash—as evidence that things are looking pretty bleak for college basketball. The men who run the sport cannot fail, it seems; they can only be failed.
Sports Illustrated’s NFL problem-solver Mike Rosenberg took the opportunity of Beilein’s departure to write an obituary for the guy and also share his own feelings about how college basketball players are destroying the sport for the people to whom it really matters. He waxes poetic about how “outside of his family, Beilein has gotten his greatest joy from helping young men improve at basketball from the ages of 18 to 22,” and about how “few people ever loved college basketball the way John Beilein loved it,” and how “finding another John Beilein will be virtually impossible. There was only one like that.” (He also sneaks in a take about how Tom Izzo’s abusive behavior during the tournament this year was just “tough love,” but you probably could have guessed where he stood on that.) While Rosenberg is jerking off into his tear-stained hanky, he explains that college basketball has a problem, and identifies it:
Rosters turn over every year. Guys who are fringe NBA prospects and good students leave school early, or at least test it. The transfer market gets more active every year, and rules keep getting more lenient so they can go wherever they want and, in some cases, play right away.
You can argue that this is all progress, and maybe some of it is. But if a sport loses John Beilein, that sport has a problem.
Workers doing what they can to get better working conditions and fair value for their labor is, in fact, progress. Beilein isn’t a selfless priest who’s been laboring in a leper colony at the far end of the world, but a man who’s made $2.45 million a year for the past six years in a line of work that by definition involves profiting from the labor of exploited teenagers. Rosenberg, though, looks through the narrow end of the telescope, and dolefully intones his findings: A good coach, and a good man, has left college basketball, and that is bad.
Rosenberg is hardly alone in reaching that conclusion. If you ever want to see how the narrow and neutral purveyance of information can be used to serve some interests above others, just read about John Beilein. Adrian Wojnarowski wrote that Beilein had “become increasingly frustrated with the nature of college basketball recruiting and the retention of top players. The impending loss of Michigan freshman Ignas Brazdeikis, senior Charles Matthews and sophomore Jordan Poole to the NBA Draft dented what might have been a national championship contender.” Paul Biancardi tweeted yesterday, “Had coffee with John Beilein in Atlanta during the live period. He loved Michigan, but was frustrated with the new NBA Draft rules. Roster continuity was an issue with his good players. The FBI situation also had him questioning much about the college game.”
“Player retention” and “roster continuity” are euphemisms. When a coach complains about this, remember, he’s complaining about losing his unpaid labor force, without which he certainly would not be raking in the big money. Objectively, what these insiders are saying is that Beilein was upset that the unpaid workers he was managing were prioritizing their interests over his own; this is rhetorically posed, though, as “frustration”—the anger of a good man at a system that has betrayed him.
The take-havers, of course, don’t need to use such tricks, and can just say things outright. Over at The Athletic, Dana O’Neil, writing in the same self-serious, head-wagging style as Rosenberg, called Beilein’s apparent demise a “dark day for the sport.” She wrote:
Beilein is 66, an established coach at the top of his profession and the top of his game. Revered for his brilliant mind — only Beilein would have the confidence to admit that he wasn’t so good at coaching defense and turn over half of the game-planning to Luke Yaklich, previously an assistant at Illinois State — he’s also well-respected for the way he does things. Which is to say above board. We college basketball writers like to play a little game when we gather — name the coaches you’re pretty certain don’t cheat. It’s a short game, as you might imagine, but it always includes Beilein.
(This sounds like a fun game that definitely happens, and is definitely best played by people whose understanding of ethical conduct revolves around debating who most assiduously respects a set of rules designed to prop up a system that exploits the labor of young, mostly black men for immense gain.)
Lexington Herald Leader columnist John Clay said Beilein’s departure was “not a good look for college basketball.” He wrote that Beilein was no doubt ready for a new challenge, then said:
You also wonder how much Beilein was tired of the ruthless, backstabbing, underhanded, sleazy and, in some cases, criminal world of college basketball recruiting, a world laid somewhat bare by recent FBI college basketball corruption trials.
Clay doesn’t bother to grapple with why college basketball is “ruthless, backstabbing, underhanded, sleazy and, in some cases, criminal,” or with why Beilein, who has spent his entire career in and ascended to the peak of this field, is supposed in any way to be somehow apart from it. But this is known and knowable: It’s because the NCAA, which is effectively a monopoly, is deeply invested in artificially suppressing the value of the labor that keeps it massively profitable, resulting in sneaky tactics aimed at subverting its rules! Rackets are the work of racketeers, whose nobility isn’t usually marveled at when they finally decide to go straight.
Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News, marveling, wrote, “...You can’t help but wonder—is he chasing an elusive ideal, or is he being chased out of a college game that has become uglier and more difficult to navigate? [...] His greatest strength—identifying and developing young players—became his biggest obstacle. If you want to know why Beilein made the move, you only needed to see him a few weeks ago, shortly after three more rising stars—Ignas Brazdeikis, Jordan Poole and Charles Matthews—announced their intentions to turn pro.”
It’s worth mentioning that these players decided to go pro, thus forgoing the valuable tutelage of their highly-paid coach, because they want to be able to earn money and set the terms on which they work. The entire conversation around Beilein—honest man, beloved coach, brilliant myth—only exists as it does because sportswriters have so completely bought into the idea of amateurism as something other than a scam that is meant to enrich people like Beilein at the expense of people less powerful. Their conception of the sport is one that sees Beilein—and Tom Izzo and Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim—as the keepers of the true soul of the game, the ones who make or break it. From this point of view, players like Brazdeikis, Poole, and Matthews aren’t so much actual people as they are property, resources to be rightly allocated and disposed of by people like Beilein. Rosenberg illustrates this quite neatly when he credits Beilein for what people who worked for him did and didn’t do, writing:
He leaves Michigan as the school’s greatest coach, and more than that, as its ideal one. Every year, Michigan fans felt like their team had a chance because their coach was so good. Beilein would figure it out, somehow. And every night, Michigan administrators went to bed knowing their basketball program would not embarrass them. You looked at the team bios every year and you saw real majors. You looked at the police blotter and you almost never saw his players’ names.
(The shitty “real majors” crack here, incidentally, isn’t even true—a quick look through player bios on Michigan’s website shows a whole lot of unlisted and undeclared majors over the past few years.)
College basketball players—this shouldn’t and maybe doesn’t even need to be said— should not only be granted basic agency by sportswriters, but should be paid fairly for their work. There are ways to do it. As long a there’s a sports-industrial complex devoted to the status quo, though—as long as sports columnists are churning out slobbery paeans to the Greatness Of Coaches that identify the central appeal of the sport in the work of old men who oversee it—change and progress will come more slowly than they should, and real people will pay the price.
Coaches would be nothing without players. If Beilein found himself suffering headaches because his players were eager to leave an exploitative system and seek fair compensation for their work, he had the ability to work to change that system from within. Instead, he decided to go and do something else. That’s fine, and says more for his integrity and goodness than his having spent decades making millions of dollars as a pillar of an indefensible scheme, but there’s nothing worth mourning here. Nor is there any meaning to be found, other than what’s obvious: college basketball was rotten before Beilein and with him, and will continue to be so without him.