The New York Times, a grandfather clock that tells you what time it was five minutes ago, roused itself to a state of drowsy confusion on Tuesday to recount Kentucky coach John Calipari's long history of violating NCAA rules and escaping consequences.
The piece, by Michael Powell (who once described the New York Marathon as a "glorious cross-city sprint"), cops a tone that is both scolding and titillated, simultaneously, like a furious FCC complaint about the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show lingering creepily on a description of Janet Jackson's boobs. This reflects not so much a thoughtful ambivalence toward Calipari as it does the Times—as ever more concerned with triangulating the safest position than with saying anything worth saying—being forced by the exigencies of a single-elimination tournament to publish its John Calipari take before history has had a chance to render the adopting of an actual position on the man safely irrelevant, and just going, "Zuh?"
This is an awkward moment to steer for a safe median in the discussion of college sports. The culture is increasingly aware that the NCAA itself is a vast mechanized scam whose perpetrators and enforcers rightly belong in jail; this awareness abuts more immediately and precariously than ever the annual enthusiasm for March Madness, the orchestrated collective swoon over the idea of hard-working amateurs who do it for the love of the game, man. If opposition to vast worker's comp avoidance schemes whose lifeblood is the toil of underpaid teenagers turns out to be incompatible with throwing on your alma mater's sweatshirt and participating in the office bracket pool, that hasn't stopped most of us from trying both; which one the culture will choose, long-term, isn't at all clear. In any case, the ground's a-movin', and the familiar old moral alignment of the thing—Coach K over here Doing It Right, Jerry Tarkanian over there Being Satan—is all scrambled now. Nowhere is the scrambling more apparent than when we talk about John Calipari. Lumbering journalistic oafs like the ones at the Times aren't the only ones that struggle with it.
Is Calipari—quite possibly the most brazen and upwardly mobile serial flouter of the NCAA's rules, ever—cheating scum, or an outlaw visionary? Is he insurgent cool or car-salesman sleazy? Is he the scourge of the NCAA? Or an opportunistic shithead? If we can agree that the NCAA is little more than a racketeering outfit with cooler highlight footage, is a guy who scoffs at its warped rules and transparently self-serving morality a hero?
The first thing to do is to parse Calipari's NCAA rules violations from his actual sins; they're two different and only indirectly related things. As for the rules violations: basically, in his stops at the University of Massachusetts and the University of Memphis, Calipari-run basketball programs, probably acting under his direction, arranged or permitted or allowed via intentional or unintentional inattention prohibited benefits for recruits and players. The specifics differ—Derrick Rose got a shady SAT result swept under the rug, Marcus Camby got laid, and so on—but, yeah, broadly, Calipari's players were getting and doing shit the NCAA says they're not allowed to get or do. Pretty much nobody disputes that.
Given that the NCAA is in the actual day-to-day business of stealing money from teenagers who do all the valuable work and giving it to old white dudes who do none of it, and thus has no right to exist, these rules violations are pretty easy to dismiss. Calipari played some role or another in some of his basketball players receiving compensation for their work. Thbpbpbbpppbpbpbbpt. To whatever extent Mike Krzyzewski's Molder Of Men shtick isn't just a smarmy branding facade slapped on similar rule-breaking practices, this makes Calipari less of a crook and a cheat than Coach K, not more of one.
Even if you pretend to believe Calipari's denials of his own personal involvement in the rules violations at UMass and Memphis (and, c'mon, almost certainly at Kentucky, too), he's still offering players a more honest arrangement than they'll get at Krzyzewski's Character-Building Academy. Calipari, at least, is honest about why everybody's there: the players are there because the NBA's preference for a free minor league means they're not allowed to go pro yet, and he's there because he wants to win basketball games and make a lot of money. So they give him a year (or sometimes two) of dunking on fools, and he gets them drafted into the NBA, and they all live happily ever after.
Except for the ones who don't. Take Alex Poythress, who came to Kentucky as one of the top high school players in the country in 2012, averaging an impressive 11 and 6 and looking every bit the part of a Calipari-era Kentucky star that first year in Lexington. Watch him go bananas against Duke in only his second official game as a college basketball player.
He's ferocious, springy-explosive, and skilled in that video, like Thaddeus Young but with actual game, and he's 19 years old. After a strong freshman season, he could have been a lottery pick in the weak 2013 NBA draft, but made a questionable bet, electing to return to Kentucky after what had been a down year for the program. His minutes and touches plunged the next season, though, as the program made room for Julius Randle and other incoming star freshmen. After a disappointing sophomore season, Poythress elected to return again as a junior.
It's important to remember that Poythress already had essentially lost millions of dollars by this point, both in the damage done to his draft stock and in the wages he missed out on by delaying his professional career by a year. If he hoped to restore his reputation with a strong junior season, that's understandable, but the decision backfired horribly. In a practice this past December, Poythress tore his ACL on an uncontested layup, ending his season. Alex Poythress is fucked now.
Returning to Kentucky for another year would be ludicrous; Calipari will wear a burlap potato sack on the sideline of a nationally televised game before he will hold back a one-and-done freshman star to carve out meaningful minutes for a senior with a jacked-up leg. But also, Poythress's odds of being drafted anywhere in the first round—or at all—in 2015 essentially now don't exist. While John Calipari is leading the undefeated Wildcats through the tournament, Alex Poythress is rehabbing his knee and hoping for a long-shot camp invite from some NBA team over the summer so that he won't have to move overseas to play basketball. Poythress took John Calipari's honest deal of his own free will—but, when he didn't play it exactly right, when he didn't cash out at the precise right moment, they reverted to the familiar roles: a young guy who got fucked by his participation in the college athletics scam, and a middle-aged millionaire who got his money anyway. If you're looking for a Robin Hood, keep looking.
And if this isn't precisely John Calipari's fault—he's neither the architect of the NCAA's fucked up system, nor in position to topple it—it's also John Calipari's career in microcosm, and a neat illustration of why, for however much schadenfreude you might feel watching the NCAA grasp helplessly at air in his wake, he's no goddamn hero. Because in the deal he made with Alex Poythress—like in his relationship with the many players he couldn't fit in his lifeboat when he escaped UMass and Memphis just ahead of NCAA sanctions—all the risk, literally all of it, went to the players, and all of the money went to him. He's profiting, immensely, off of a system that forces players to play college basketball if they want professional careers, and in this respect, he's not different from the NCAA itself, not even one bit.
What good is his flouting of the NCAA's fraudulent morality when the consequences never adhere to him, but only to 19-year-olds who make questionable choices, or whom he leaves behind? In recent days word has gotten out that Calipari, who failed miserably in an earlier stint as an NBA coach, "desperately" wants to return to the pros. If he turns out to time that leap to carry him free of a Kentucky-aimed NCAA sanction-blast at the last possible moment, who'll be surprised? And if, two or three years later, he returns triumphantly to the college ranks—at UCLA, inevitably, on some I just couldn't pass up the challenge of restoring this great program to its rightful glory—who'll account for the downgraded prospects and diminished outlooks of the Kentucky recruits who bore the full force of that blast in his stead?
This is where the Times gets it wrong by failing to note and parse the difference between rules violations and real sins. John Calipari's real sin isn't that he defies NCAA rules, but that he profits from them. But it's also where those of us who applaud the anti-establishment bravado of an inveterate rule-breaker get it wrong, too. If John Calipari is more honest than his pious competitors about the nature of the arrangement he makes with players, it's a difference of degree, not of kind, and at bottom, it's still the same arrangement. The players take all the risk, and he takes all the money.
"Players First," Calipari's self-professed organizing principle, sounds great—Oh, he puts the players first!—when Anthony Davis or Derrick Rose is putting on a hat next to the NBA commissioner. But, consider Alex Poythress, or the myriad players who've fallen into the NCAA enforcement sinkholes he's left behind him, who risked more on John Calipari than he ever will on them, and then ask: First to what?
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