Are you ready for some more Sweet 16 action? Well, too bad—it’s time to talk some good, ol’ fashioned amateurism.
On Thursday, coaches and players getting ready for today’s second batch of Sweet 16 games met with the media for their normal round of moderated Q&A sessions. Thanks to what appears to be a single reporter, the question of player compensation came up in several sessions for the teams in the Omaha region—Duke, Kansas, Syracuse, and Clemson. Each time, everyone nodded and said basically the same thing they’ve said all season.
Obviously, the above headline and image gave away where this is going. The question came up in Duke’s session on Thursday, being posed both to senior guard Grayson Allen and Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski. Here’s Krzyzewski’s full response to whether the current college athletics model—amateurism, now apparently enforced by the FBI—is the right one for college basketball:
It’s not my model that we guys have. We do what the guys tell us to do, okay? So, no, the model needs to be changed, especially in regards to what a kid and his family can do before they come to your institution because the school and the coaches have no control over that.
And I think it starts with that and a different definition of amateurism. And whatever that does, once they get there — kids get a lot right now. In the last three to four years, I’m not sure how much research you’ve done on it, but if you would compare what kids get today as compared to four years ago, it’s a dramatic improvement, dramatic — not small, dramatic.
But, again, I’d like for them to take a look at what happens before you get ‘em to make sure that the kid and his family are afforded the opportunity to max out like anyone else in our country what talent will give you.
This issue has come up at least once a week since the FBI investigation was announced and everyone started clutching their pearls, so, again, let’s clarify something really quick. When it comes to discussing the rules by which college basketball coaches abide—both on-court stuff, like the number of timeouts allotted, and off-court matters, like deciding whether the players deserve a cut of the billion-dollar pie—too many folks seem to forget that there is no “The NCAA.” There is no, “them,” and there is no “the guys.” Krzyzewski, like every other men’s basketball coach and athletic director in Division I, is the NCAA.
The NCAA is a body constituted of committees and councils that decide each year what adjustments need to be made to the game. These committees and councils, all with increasingly boring names, are made up of coaches and athletic directors. This means the group of people who most directly profit from the dirt-cheap athlete labor provided by the NCAA’s system are simultaneously in control of how and whether the league changes, with a “student-athlete rep” sitting on many committees as well. (But not the Infractions or the Infractions Appeals committees, though.)
Krzyzewski is on-record as saying “I will never have a relationship with a committee,” but the fact remains that the NCAA is a massive bureaucracy that’s heavily tilted in the favor of the major college basketball and football programs, because they’re the money-makers. If he chooses not to participate in the boring meetings part of things, fine. But to sit there and pull a Michael Scott and try to slide over to the other side of the table, to gaslight the reporter and everyone who reads the aggregated statements by attempting to convince them that the NCAA is like a central league office or an owner’s group is preposterous. Krzyzewski knows better than anyone how the sausage gets made in college basketball, and he knows exactly who has the power to change that.
Is it fair to ask the average college basketball coach to fully reject the system that pays their mortgage(s)? To an extent, probably not, though they should be required to at least acknowledge the implicit imbalances a system that pays its best coaches $10 million per year and its best athletes $0.00 per year. But Krzyzewski is not the average coach; he’s the most powerful and best-paid coach in college basketball. He’s the winningest coach in the history of the sport. He’s the United States Olympic team coach. He singlehandedly made the one-and-done workaround acceptable to even the most stuffy asshats surrounding college athletics. His “boss”—we found out who really runs the Durham campus when the university president, equipped with a megaphone in front of Krzyzewski’s office, begged him not to take the Lakers gig—is Kevin White, who serves on the dang Men’s Basketball Selection Committee.
When TV ratings dipped back in 2014, Krzyzewski had no problem issuing his thoughts on what the specific fix should be, calling for the league to create the position of a college basketball commissioner, something he’s been suggesting every season for the better part of the past 20 years. He’s passionate about it, telling the News & Observer in 2014, “when they put the dirt on me, inside, underneath the dirt, I’m still going to be yelling for somebody to run college basketball.” He does this because he thinks it’d be a good idea, one that would further professionalize his sport while also allowing coaches the ability to cultivate relationships with a single commissioner in hopes of being able to more efficiently enact changes.
If Krzyzewski really wanted to alter or do away with the current amateurism model, he might not be able to singlehandedly accomplish it, but he could and would share his idea of how players should be able to employ agents, get a slice of jersey and ticket sales, be legally considered employees, and seek endorsements with the shoe companies (you know, the ones that outfit every Duke athletic team and keep Krzyzewski’s pockets full and happy). Even in just two years of covering the Blue Devils, I sat through enough Krzyzewski press conference to understand this a guy that, even when he’s emotional (and is aware he’s being recorded), is calculated and thoughtful in choosing every word, especially on questions about The Game.
Krzyzewski did admit that “the model needs to be changed,” and said that high school players should be able to make that shoe money; he also spent more than a third of his answer annoyingly reminding the room how much better things are for athletes than they used to be—“not small, dramatic.” He’s not a full-tilt dweeb like Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, who continued his long record of being dead-wrong on amateurism and speaking in place of players Thursday, but on this issue, it’s fairly clear Krzyzewski isn’t planning on a late-career pivot to labor activist.
I don’t have the answers. The model needs to change though. I think everybody would be in agreement with that. There’s something about amateur athletics, I think, that’s still very, very positive. And the way the players are taken care of now is so much different than the way they were taken care of even 10, 15 years ago.
But the reality of it is it’s big, big business. It’s big money and everybody is looking to make something out of it. And whether it be scouting services or AAU programs, shoe companies, universities, you could look at all areas and the reason people are in the business is to try to make money.
And you can make an honest case that the student-athletes obviously are the ones that create the money but really receive very little of it. So I think there will be an adjustment. I don’t know the magnitude of it. But I look forward to seeing some changes, though.
Self isn’t exactly what I’d call the ideal voice of the player movement, but he’s at least able to call something what it is. Hopefully the most powerful coach in college basketball, who always chooses his words carefully, won’t try to play dumb the next time around.