Trouble lurks beyond March Madness
College basketball has problems, and the excitement of the Final Four can't hide them
It appeared throughout the tense finale on Monday night that the NCAA basketball season was a shimmering, crowning success, as mammoth Duke and gallant Butler played a classic national championship game.
The truth couldn't be more to the contrary.
The game certainly was tremendous. Duke won its title earnestly and rightfully, one of the best teams in the country throughout the season and clearly the best team during the fortnight. In a star turn, Butler reminded doubters that even in an age of isolation plays, dunks and 3-pointers, real basketball -- the best-played basketball -- is still about defense and desire, passing and teamwork.
But now that it is done and attention can shift back off the court, the foundations of college basketball are painfully exposed. The basement is leaking. The beams are sagging. The furnace needs replacing. In fact, all of its hypocrisies are more obvious now that the streaming-confetti moment of Monday night's final buzzer has passed.
The sport has been devoured by money; and, yes, we can all roll our eyes, shrug and ask what portion of American society hasn't been. But the disparity between those who really benefits from the gold rush and those who just sifts through the sand and winds up with nothing might be greatest, and have the greatest implications, in college basketball.
While Northern Iowa was defeating Kansas, while Butler was upsetting Syracuse, good work with data was being done on the other side of those entertaining anecdotes, work that reflects the decay in the institution. The University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport revealed in a study that the difference in graduation rates between white and black players is growing. The graduation rate of some teams in the field of 65 NCAA tournament teams this year is less than 40 percent, and even the modest goal of reaching a 50 percent graduation rate is a struggle for others. Those numbers undermine the central idea behind the health of college sports: the student-athlete.
Many top players, hamstrung by the NBA's minimum-age requirements, are relegated to playing at least one year of college ball until they can reach their payday, artificially lowering the graduation rate -- those players never intend to graduate and wouldn't even play the college game were it not the best of their limited options -- and cheapening the values of intercollegiate basketball.
That was on front-and-center display on Wednesday, as five Kentucky underclassmen, four of whom were freshmen, declared for early entry into the NBA draft. They were joined on the same day by Kansas freshman guard Xavier Henry, Cincinnati freshman guard Lance Stevenson (the Big East's rookie of the year) and Ohio State junior guard Evan Turner. Several more declared on Thursday.
And if the NCAA unnecessarily expands its tournament to 96 teams, which it has signaled it is likely to do, it will move even further in the direction of devaluing academics in exchange for a money grab. The gig is up.
Some powerful voices, such as the sociologist Harry Edwards and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have lent their weight to the discussion, essentially sending the message that, in its current form, NCAA basketball -- at least off the court -- is untenable.
The moment, long on the doorstep, has arrived and is knocking loudly. If the NCAA doesn't improve its teams' graduation rates and close the numerous loopholes of hypocrisy -- primarily the hypocrisy that allows coaches to accumulate millions from both inside and outside the university while players live under draconian rules -- it is time to change the model: Pay the players and confront -- if not destroy -- the myth of the student-athlete.
Right now, the players are being exploited; willfully perhaps, but exploited nevertheless. The decency of the deal college basketball made with itself long ago -- that the athletic abilities of young people will allow them access to an education their algebra skills could not -- has always been suspect. It is a fantasy that makes everyone feels good, from fans who watch their favorite teams and alma maters put on a good show, to coaches who believe in the fiction that they are furthering opportunities beyond lining their own pockets with tremendous sums of money, to the universities that use these kids to enhance their profiles and increase their funding. And if a player winds up joining the Boston Celtics and entering the Hall of Fame, then everyone wins.
But that, of course, is the best-case scenario for only an infinitesimal number of athletes. The more common scenario is that the students who are afforded a free education in exchange for their basketball abilities, rarely use it to its potential, while their universities and (especially) their coaches get rich. The deal is inherently one-sided.
Paying the players the same way schools hire professors and guest lecturers and university presidents would at least remove the sham that players are on campus solely to learn, and that the university admits them for any reason other than to generate money for the school. Was John Calipari's band of freshmen at Kentucky on campus to do anything other than win basketball games? They declared for the NBA before finals week of the spring semester.
And student-athletes who actually do want an education would hardly be harmed by a pay-for-play system. Their compensation would complement the scholarship that covers their tuition.
Under the current decaying system, this is the end game: Universities and the NCAA draw enormous revenue, and coaches profit tremendously, often becoming millionaires at state-funded institutions that lately have been cutting resources for the non-jump shooters on campus.
The lifeblood of the college game right now is the coach rather than the student-athlete. As star players leave almost as soon as they arrive, the coach is the constant, the familiar name, the only stability that keeps the sport from becoming a revolving door of anonymity. The coaches and their salaries, sneaker deals and virtual unaccountability expose the sport's atrophy.
So pay the players. Or, alternatively, the NCAA should make another deal with itself, and start to recruit players who will commit to the school and to their education rather than to the basketball program. Return, in other words, to the ideal of the true "student-athlete." Those players might not be as athletic, as gifted, as fun to watch. The game might not be as exciting without the Derrick Roses and Michael Beasleys and Kevin Durants, but the sport would regain a bit of its integrity.
The NCAA must do more than simply say that academics matter. It has to prove that they do.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," to be published in May. He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42