On Monday, Wendell Carter’s mom ripped college basketball a new one.
Speaking to the Knight Commission, Mrs. Carter compared college basketball to slavery and prison.
There’s some valid criticism here, some hyperbole and some food for thought. Let’s dispense with the hyperbole first.
The comparison to slavery or prison is, at the least, overwrought. No one is forced to play college basketball. It is still the most certain path to the NBA but it’s hardly the only one. The G League is an increasingly viable option. Several players have now gone overseas for a year or two rather than playing college basketball and come back and made the league. Some have also taken a year of prep school and then applied directly to the draft rather than playing college basketball (or at least have recognized it as a valid option). At least one guy opted to sit out a year of college and simply train for the draft.
That’s at least five distinct paths to the league. No one has to go to college and as UNC has proved, you can go to college and not even worry about classes.
If you play overseas, obviously you get paid, just as you would in the G League which now pays at least as well as does Kentucky.
We meant We$tern Kentucky.
There’s no reason why you can’t start working for a living at 18 or, in the case of the Ball brothers, even younger. It’s a significant choice, it’s not as much as you would make in the NBA, but it’s a living.
Mrs. Carter also said this: “It feels to me that, this is kind of tough to say, it looks like there is an attempt to legalize purchasing people is what this looks like. When you pull back everything, you want to find a way to legally purchase the talent of an athlete and not compensate him for it financially. Compensate him by affording him an education that he did not ask for and giving that to him and telling him it will be beneficial to him when the talent is all you wanted from him anyway. When you pull back everything, that’s all this is. How do we purchase this talent and not compensate the player?”
She somewhat contradicts this in her insistence that her own son get his education. She was pushing him to choose Harvard over Duke, remember, and just before Wendell opted for the NBA draft, she publicly said she’d like for him to return to Duke for his sophomore year.
But why? To get exploited? To be enslaved for another year?
Because it “...was a wonderful experience and everything that he needed it to be for him to come to the next level.”
How can it be a wonderful experience if you were forced to do it without compensation? That doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Now she has a valid criticism of the NCAA where coaches now make lavish salaries - even assistants.
Coach K’s first salary at Duke was around $40,000 or so; now he makes millions. No one is taking $40,000 anymore.
Well, maybe at Kentucky.
We kid! We kid again!
Is it a fair exchange? To play a sport and get a debt-free education?
That depends on the person really.
For the Carters, clearly it was worth it. For Jeff or Jason Capel? It’s hard to argue that it wasn’t.
There’s no question that a lot of guys are exploited and we can turn to our friends in Chapel Hill for a handy example. Mary Willingham said that some of the football and basketball players UNC recruited had, maybe, fourth grade academic skills.
They were trained by professionals, had a crack at major league jobs and got to live as riotously as they wanted to for 4-5 years as long as they showed up to practice and games - and the vast majority of them were ripped off and many should never have been recruited at all. They simply weren't prepared to do college level work.
Many people are though and if you can get a scholarship to college for, say, crew, where there is no professional future, why wouldn’t you? And if you can get it at Duke or Harvard or Princeton, you can parlay that into a lifetime of prosperity - again, debt free.
So to an extent it’s personal choice and responsibility.
Perhaps the G League is the best answer. Almost every NBA team now has a G League affiliate. That works out to about 390 NBA jobs and about 360 G League jobs for a total of (give or take) 750 jobs.
That’s still not a lot though and it’s dwarfed by the number of athletes in college which totals up to around 460,000. Presumably that includes D-II and D-III.
We haven’t found a list of how many D-I athletes are on scholarship, but let’s get some ballpark figures.
There are 351 D-1 basketball programs. The NCAA limits men’s basketball to 15 scholarships so that’s a maximum of 5,265 scholarship players.
There are 130 D-1 football programs and the NCAA limits teams to 85 scholarships.
So let’s say that’s 11,050 scholarship football players. Between football and men’s basketball, that’s 16,315 athletes, for our purposes all on scholarship.
To pay them a reasonable salary in 2018, let’s say $40,000, that would add up to $652,600,000 (Standard caveat: our math is always suspect).
However, Title IX mandates equal treatment for men and women and that includes athletes so that figure would need to at least double to 32,630 athletes for a total of $2,610,400,000.
Since the NCAA didn't cross $1 billion in annual revenue until this year that’s not possible - at least not from NCAA income.
What about $10,000? That still works out to $326,300,000 which is roughly a third of the NCAA’s annual revenue. On some level the athletic departments need to generate enough money to stay afloat. Where’s that line? We have no idea.
There are potential secondary streams of revenue of course - apparel, autographs, endorsements - but those are individually oriented. Marvin Bagley could have probably made $100,000 this season but Jordan Goldwire might not have made a fraction of that.
The fairness of this gets even stickier when you look at smaller schools, not least of all HCBUs.
If college sports are entirely commercialized they’ll almost certainly follow the path of other businesses where bigger, stronger competitors squeeze out the smaller, weaker ones. In the case of college sports, that will likely mean that the major conferences will push out the lesser ones and total scholarships (or jobs, depending on how things are defined) will shrink to somewhere around 200...just enough to accommodate football, men’s basketball and Title IX obligations.
There are no easy answers here. Money has long since compromised the ideal of the student-athlete and education stopped being a priority a long time ago.
However, Mrs. Carter is right - there’s no point in people going to school if they don’t want to or if they’re not prepared.
So maybe the NCAA should adapt by re-emphasizing academics. Base everything on academic performance.
In other words, if your team doesn’t perform adequately, there are no bowl games or tournaments and your athletic income has academic-based incentives.
There are fairness issues in this scenario too and we’re grossly oversimplifying. We’re not saying we have all the answers. But we know Mrs. Carter places a tremendous emphasis on education and would like to think that a system that gives incentives for academic performance would be an improvement she might find acceptable.
As lucrative as her son’s future is, less than 1,000 people will have NBA or G League jobs at any one time and a lot of those will be short-term. Everyone else, as John Calipari put it recently, is on their own. Might as well give them tools to build a successful life rather than just casting them off when their eligibility expires.
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