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How to Save College Basketball

Sayonara, sneaker pimps.

THE SPORT OF college basketball is now a dumpster fire. The smoke can be seen rising over Los Angeles and Memphis and Bloomington, over Durham and Chapel Hill and even Lexington. At the highest levels, the game has devolved into a mere showcase for its top players, whose coaches allow them the freedom to display their individual awesomeness at the expense of the team. And I realize this makes me sound a bit like a right-winger, but the sport suffers from a crippling culture of entitlement that begins when players are barely out of grade school. That’s because college basketball’s values are now relentlessly commercial. The game has become an ersatz version of the NBA, professionalized for all the wrong reasons.

I grew up loving this game. Everything else in my life might come and go—a wife, girlfriends, jobs—but college basketball (specifically University of North Carolina basketball) has remained a constant, like something out of nature. Every winter, it returned and lasted into the spring, and it seemed like it would go on like this forever.

It wasn’t that long ago—though how long ago it now seems—that fans like myself could feel righteous in our affection for the game. Of course, it helped if we didn’t pay close attention to the recruiting process—who really wants to see grown men wooing teenagers in any sphere of life?

In the game’s heyday, a period that for this writer lasted from the mid-’60s to the early ’90s, fans could still enjoy the illusion that players had fallen in love with their chosen college and that these players would become suffused with the same school spirit that brought ancient alums tottering across campuses with tears in their eyes for fiftieth reunions. Even better, there was at least a decent chance that we could watch players evolve during their four years of eligibility, except in the rarest cases of stars who left a year early.

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Astoundingly, given the cynicism of the present era, it was also possible to believe that there might be some value to a player receiving a college education, that for ballers from disadvantaged backgrounds who were good enough for college but not for the pros, their scholarships might even serve as an instrument of upward mobility.

College basketball then seemed to be all about selflessness and “sharing” (the rhetoric of kindergarten applies here). Titans like Bobby Knight, John Thompson, Dean Smith, and John Chaney ruled the sport like philosopher-kings, directing their teams to whip the ball from side to side or inside and out, shifting a defense with the easeful command of swiping a finger across a touch-screen. This was the basketball version of the “total football” played by the Dutch national soccer team in the 1970s, where every player could be an attacker. That Knight might toss the occasional chair or jerk around the occasional Hoosier did not mean that he wasn’t philosophically right about how to play the game. In his love for the democratic flow of the motion offense, he was practically an aesthete and a moralist rolled up in one.

By comparison, watching millionaires battle millionaires in the NBA, the NFL, or major league baseball was like watching the triumph of unfettered individualism. Who wasn’t ultimately for sale? LeBron James might have grown up in Akron and professed an undying love for Cleveland. But he didn’t love those places as much as he loved himself. The college game seemed more rooted in place, more commanding of loyalty, possible to love without getting burned.

This is not to say that college basketball has always been an oasis of purity. Point-shaving scandals have afflicted the sport in every decade since the 1940s, leading the sportswriter Hal Bock to write that, “if Dr. Naismith hadn’t invented basketball, professional gamblers almost certainly would have.” Southern universities were slow to integrate their teams (and therefore, increasingly quick to lose, as demonstrated by the epochal loss of Kentucky’s all-white team to Texas Western’s all-black starting five in the 1966 NCAA championship). The dunk was banned from 1967 until 1976 in what now seems to have been a last-ditch attempt to water down a growing African American flavor to the game, a rule change that was like extracting the hot sauce from a pot of gumbo. And coaches and boosters have continued to cling to the august tradition of illegally paying players for their services.

But these afflictions, dreary though they were, did not disturb the game as much as when Sonny Vaccaro, the legendary “sneaker pimp,” convinced Nike in 1984 to use all of the $500,000 it had budgeted for several rising stars to sign Michael Jordan, a junior guard from the University of North Carolina, to an endorsement deal that would include his own brand of sneakers— the Air Jordans. He was the first of a new breed of ballers to become advertising juggernauts, offering the promise that you, too, could flash superhuman capabilities if only you bought the right kicks. From the mid-’80s on, the “next Jordan” would be sought relentlessly not only by coaches but also by marketers, and a player’s business acumen would come to matter as much as his offhand dribble—hence, LeBron James’s announced intention of becoming the first billion-dollar athlete.

Elite players increasingly viewed their college stints as advertisements for themselves. That ethos has insinuated itself even into the lower levels of so-called amateur basketball. I remember watching current Phoenix Suns point guard Sebastian Telfair as a ninth-grader on Coney Island making an ad for And 1 sneakers, which he was doing for free. He was flattered that the company wanted him, and he trusted that his participation would be good for the Telfair brand. “Make it more ‘street,’” the director kept demanding of the sweet-faced, baffled kid just out of middle school. Nearby, his high school coach ranted about And 1 needing to do more for “the community.” It took a long time for me to figure how tiny a community he meant.

But it isn’t just the athletes and their handlers who want to get paid. It’s the colleges, the coaches, the families, the NCAA, the networks, the advertisers. Everybody has their hands out, with money passing back and forth like crumpled bills at a crack bazaar. They all have their reasons, as they always do. Money changes everything, and big money changes everything most of all.

IF THERE’S ONE GUY in particular who’s a genius at appealing to the new generation of players, it’s the University of Kentucky’s John Calipari. And to prove it, he has got the 2012 NCAA title and four consecutive top-rate recruiting classes to his name, with a fifth a near certainty. “It’s a different time and age,” Calipari has admitted. “If a coach is a jerk, [players] are texting each other, ‘My coach is a jerk, he doesn’t care about me.’” Calipari is so careful with the feelings of his 18-year-olds because he knows that the lines of authority have crossed, with players and their families conferring power on the coach, paralleling a larger societal shift from away from the “daddy as dictator” model of child-raising to the “daddy as buddy” model. Few top players these days would be masochistic enough to sign up for the Marine boot camp that Bobby Knight once ran.

Calipari is well-versed in the currency of this new world, bringing Jay-Z into the locker room, and chasing after Charlie Sheen so that he could pose with him for a photograph that was instantly tweeted out by his sports information director. He knows the young guns today aren’t interested in having their characters molded so much as having their egos stroked and their brands built. His promise is that he will develop such players for the pros, that—in the phrase of the moment—he “will not hold them back” and that the sooner they’re ready to go, the better. It’s a canny pitch for greedy times.

And indeed, players pass through Kentucky like luxury cars through a Saturday morning car wash—hosed down, buffed, shined, waxed, and sent back out onto the street in a jiffy, where they drive off into the glorious future.

This is not generally the case at mid-major schools like Butler, Virginia Commonwealth, and Gonzaga, which compensate for their lack of top-tier talent by playing a team game that emphasizes skill over athleticism. Even though these schools over-perform in the NCAA tournament nearly every season, few big-time programs dare to emulate their formula. That’s because coaches fear that they won’t be able to attract the kind of All-American recruits who prefer to play in systems that are customized around them.

Such players may come and go with barely a thought to class. And yet the universities—the poor, impotent universities—do nothing except maybe a little kvetching.

It’s simply not in their interest to raise more of a fuss. By financial standards anyway, the game has never been quite so successful. In this light, it is possible to view college basketball as a particularly aggressive tumor on the academic body, growing larger and more powerful than its host. In April 2010, the NCAA signed a $10.8 billion contract with CBS and Turner Sports for the broadcasting rights to March Madness for the next 14 years. This past season alone, the NCAA raked in $666 million from that deal and then distributed $503 million to its member institutions. And players at top-level colleges, according to several studies, can be worth around $1 million each. Given the decline in funding for higher education at the state level, it’s just too hard for schools to say no to money like that.

SO WHAT’S the solution? How can the game’s integrity and style of play be improved? Mitt Romney had a five-point plan. Mine is only four.

End the one-and-done
. Not a single official, coach, or athlete I spoke to is in favor of the current rule that requires a player to be either 19 years old or one year out of high school to enter the NBA draft.

First off, it’s bad for the players. Would a precocious high-tech geek be required to attend college for a year if she had already invented the next big thing in her garage? Players should be able to enhance their skills against top competition while at the same time making much-needed money for their families. Not everyone requires college.

The one-and-done rule is also rough on coaches concerned about group dynamics. “It really inhibits the concept of team,” says Judy Rose, the athletic director at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and a former women’s head coach. “I know how hard it would be to explain to my kids that Johnny or Susie are going pro and so they’re not going to class, but I’m going to have to penalize you if you start doing what they’re doing.” Take the case of Austin Rivers at Duke last year. Rivers, a freshman, was determined to gun his way to a first-round pick while his teammates had no choice but to watch him dominate the ball game after game. What resulted? Massive chemistry problems—and a first-round tournament loss to lowly Lehigh.

The one-and-done rule is problematic for universities, too. Nothing lays bare the already troubling contradiction between big-time college sports and the university’s ostensible academic mission better than players making courtesy calls to classrooms while they spend a semester or two pursuing their true vocation in the gym.

The most logical solution is already at hand. Adopt the college baseball rule for basketball—that a player may go pro out of high school, but if he chooses college, he must stay three years. Interested parties are already lobbying for such a change in policy. “A couple of years ago, Mike Krzyzewski and I went to talk to [NBA Commissioner] David Stern,” says Bobby Knight. “We had in mind that basketball would go to the three-year rule that the NCAA uses for baseball. Stern was enthusiastic. Then that idiot player rep [Billy Hunter] of the NBA Player’s Association called me and nothing happened. And the NCAA did nothing to follow up with it.”

Improve the minor-league basketball system. This might be modeled after professional baseball’s minor leagues, or it might imitate the European practice of sports academies where gifted athletes are identified early and allowed to focus wholeheartedly on their sport without being hampered by the American predilection for a spurious well-roundedness.

Brandon Jennings decided against going to college in 2008—he was said to have had “academic issues”—and was essentially forced to spend a year in Italy, sharpening his skills for a pro team there before landing with the Milwaukee Bucks. That’s insane. Such players should be able to pursue their ambitions without having to go overseas or show up in an 8:00 a.m. “Rocks for Jocks” sham of a class. “Let’s face it,” says Craig Littlepage, the University of Virginia’s athletic director, “there are some young people who don’t want to go to college, and there should be an avenue for them.”

The NBA already has a developmental league, known as the d-League, but it holds no allure for the best high school players, because they receive more publicity—and enhance their brand—by attending one year of college. If guys were allowed to go pro out of high school, the d-League might become a hip alternative—its players would enjoy better competition, games on ESPN, and the same sort of unseemly attention from recruiting junkies now reserved for college prospects.

Among the attractions of a viable farm system for the NBA is that it would likely put an end to the current controversy over paying college basketball players. Those who want money will be able to get it—even if it won’t be that much to start. And there is yet another virtue: The establishment of a minor league will begin the long process of turning college basketball back into a game with its own character. It wouldn’t just be a vocational school for the NBA.

Clean up youth summer leagues and tournaments. Many of the worst sins of the modern college game can be traced back to the youth basketball circuit. Every summer, junior high and high school players are flown by shoe companies around the country from one tournament to another, put up in hotels, showered with free gear, and treated with swooning solicitude by marketing reps on the hunt for the next great player who will one day endorse their products. Individual advancement is the goal, games are auditions, and no one cares that much about winning. Players tend to see themselves as objects of desire and often turn into monsters of entitlement.

Rob Harrington, a noted recruiting analyst and selector for the annual McDonald’s All-Star game, says that the youth leagues inculcate the belief that college basketball should be seen “less as a competitive destination and more as a platform for ascending to the NBA. Guys go to college to play for the shoe company that sponsored their youth squad. In fact, all the players now are comrades under the same shoe umbrella.”

The long-running saga of UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad, recently ruled ineligible by the NCAA, is instructive in this regard. Ranked by ESPN as the No. 2 player in the high school class of 2012 and considered a surefire first-round pick by the NBA next spring, Muhammad and his family have long been cultivated by Adidas. His sister, Asia Muhammad, a professional tennis player ranked outside of the top 375 players, nonetheless has a promotional contract with Adidas. As a result, no one was particularly surprised when Muhammad picked UCLA as his college destination, despite the school’s mediocre 19-14 record in 2012. UCLA is an Adidas school.

To eliminate the undue influence of shoe companies from summer youth play is far easier said than done, given the vast amounts that companies such as Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, and Reebok donate to make such competition possible. (They’re also paying college coaches and programs.) So here’s a modest proposal, though guaranteed to piss off the sneaker pimps anyway. Allow no contact between shoe company reps and players and their families until after high school. Cut back on the number of games and tournaments played outside of the regular high school season. Put local school systems and high school coaches in charge of summer teams from their area. By putting ostensibly responsible adults who spend most of the year teaching in charge of teams, players are more likely to get a realistic view of their responsibilities and possibilities.

Whack the hackers. “I went back the other day and watched the 1989 ACC [Atlantic Coast Conference] tournament final between Duke and North Carolina that was supposed to have been the ultimate physical contest,” says Harrington. “It wasn’t nearly as rough as an average game now.”

That’s because the game has become ice hockey on hardwood. Refs allow too much physical contact. Rebounders are grabbed and held at the waist, cutters are banged, and mayhem ensues all too often without a call, especially on the crowded inside. As a result, offenses are far less fluid than they were 15 or 20 years ago.

It’s just another way in which the college game has come to emulate the pro game—specifically, the pro game as inflicted by the bad boy Detroit Pistons squads of the late ’80s. It’s boring, brutal, and cuts against the exhilarating, free-flowing motion of the game at its best as taught by Bobby Knight and Dean Smith.

Call the fouls.

A COUPLE WEEKS back, I called an old acquaintance, the anti-matter to my matter, my alter ego at Duke University, a fan known far and wide as Crazy Towel Guy for his habit of inciting the fans at Cameron by standing up at key junctures of games and whipping about a plain white towel that he could also be seen chewing on during more anxious moments. He has a real name, somewhat less eccentric: Herb Neubauer.

After having congratulated him with great difficulty for Duke’s win over North Carolina in football, a victory that happens on about the same schedule as the reemergence of locusts every 17 years, I asked Herb if he thought the game of college basketball had changed in the time since he left his job as a manager of Food Lion grocery stores to make a life of fandom, following the Blue Devils in all sports wherever possible, sort of a Deadhead of Dukedom.

Herb thought a little bit and then he said: “The game is not as well-played now. The kids see all these highlight reels on TV and that’s what they want to do. They’re more athletic as a rule, but not better players. Not as far as the basics. Youth ball eliminates learning fundamentals. Guys are playing too many games weekend after weekend.”

I found myself agreeing with Herb, as I often did. I am apparently naïve enough to marvel at this—that I as a North Carolina fan could identify so thoroughly with the ur-fan of our arch-rival. We also concurred that, with the emphasis on the dunk and three-pointer—the most glamorous shots of today—the mid-range game is a lost art. For the average player, the 20 or so feet between the three-point line and the rim have become like the stultifying wheat fields of Kansas on a cross-country trip: a place to either avoid altogether or drive through fast.

I even found myself nodding my head sympathetically when Herb spoke nostalgically of the years that he considered the peak of college basketball—not coincidentally, the period from the mid-’80s to the early ’90s when Duke, under Mike Krzyzewski, kept showing up at the Final Four. “It was a team game then,” he said. “And there are very few ‘team’ coaches left anymore—[the University of North Carolina’s] Roy Williams and Mike are among the few left.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“It’s how kids are brought up now, I guess,” he said. “And even if you’re Mike or Roy, you can’t break them. You have to babysit them. But one thing that’s not different: Great teams still need great chemistry.”

If Herb and I, a Duke and a Carolina fan who by rights should hate each other, could agree on what was wrong with college basketball and could concur on what needed to be done to fix it (Herb, too, hates the one-and-done rule), then who knew what might be possible. World peace? The end of Washington gridlock? Or maybe better than that: the return of the game we still love. How about that?

Will Blythe is the author of To Hate Like This is to Be Happy Forever and an editor-at-large at Byliner. This article appeared in the December 6, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Sayonara, Sneaker Pimps.