The case for Calipari

Consider a scenario: “Student-athlete” is recruited by a booster, who receives kickbacks from a major program at a major university. This “student-athlete” comes from a poor family, whose livelihood hangs in the balance, entirely dependent on a future lucrative professional contract. The transition from high school to college goes smoothly; soon, this “student-athlete” is basking in (uncompensated) stardom, the toast of the collegiate sports scene. Then, a precipitous fall from grace.

The “student-athlete,” amid a flurry of outstretched hands, is signing autographs after a huge win. One hand extends a gift, a personalized t-shirt bearing the name and likeness of the “student-athlete,” which he takes, unthinking, so as not to be rude. A few days later, the phone rings — it’s the NCAA. The “student-athlete” has been banned for life for accepting a gift in violation of NCAA rules. Draconian, but permissible nonetheless.

Though an extreme case, the above example is illustrative of the inane restrictions imposed by the NCAA against “student-athletes.” Coaches, on the other hand, who commit similar infractions, often go unpunished, privileged by impunity until caught on camera or brought down by a whistleblower. The latter model, however, while seemingly unjust and even immoral, might actually be the better one.

John Calipari, whose Kentucky Wildcats were ousted this weekend by Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin Badgers, is no stranger to controversy. Wherever he’s coached — UMass Amherst, Memphis, Kentucky — he’s won. The problem is, it’s not merely that he wins, but rather “how” he wins.

The speed with which he has found success has occasioned suspicion, if not outright condemnation. His programs are stopovers for elite one-and-done types, whom Calipari grooms into first-round draft picks, whose exploits at the next level are widely foreordained. This is because Calipari is an expert recruiter, although, as evinced by the controversy surrounding former players Marcus Camby and Derrick Rose, he has cut corners. Yet his track record eclipses his shadier dealings, and today Calipari is a celebrity.

Calipari is unrepentant about his modus operandi. He does not walk the tightrope that divides sports and academics, like the North Carolina football program tried and failed to do. He is squarely on the side of sports. Calipari is not a shill for the NCAA or the several programs that have employed him; in a recent interview, he endorsed the idea that college programs should insure their “student-athletes.” He does not partake of the charade.

Calipari’s kids are rarely, if ever, in trouble, and he instills in them a team-oriented style of play that is a rarity among the upper echelon. This character-building is something to celebrate. While he is not at all beholden to the academic side of college sports, this is not the business he is in. It is far better that he acknowledge his ambit — he is a coach, after all, not a professor — than placate his critics by dissembling a teacher-coach. His forthrightness is a refreshing counterweight to the farce that big-time programs are equally committed to athletics as to academics.

If Calipari is indeed flouting the rules, he should be reprimanded. Still, it is worth examining the impetus behind those rules and their unequal application. Athletics and academics have for so long been entwined that it will take a herculean overhaul to extricate them from one another.

Either the NCAA will cling to the improbable marriage between athletics and academics and let it run itself into the ground, or it can be upfront about the inherent contradiction between academic integrity and for-profit college sports. In this regard, Calipari is a beacon.