Saturday, September 23, 2006

College Rant

I was reading Peter Boyer's story "Big Men on Campus" from the Sept. 4 issue of The New Yorker on the Duke lacrosse case, which also widens out into a general discussion on the uneasy marriage of academics and big-time athletics at an institution such as Duke, which aspires to be a world-class university.

It starts with a brief profile of Duke President Richard Brodhead, talking about how he had spent his entire life at Yale from age 17 in 1964 until taking the Duke job in 2004. And here's how he was welcomed:

    On June 28, 2004, Duke’s ninth president moved into his new office, in the Allen Building, near the university’s main quad. As Brodhead was getting settled, Joe Alleva, Duke’s athletic director, rushed in with urgent news: the Los Angeles Lakers had offered Coach K the job of head coach, and Krzyzewski was thinking of leaving Duke.

    After forty years in the academy, Brodhead, on his first day in the new job, was facing a crisis wholly foreign to him. But he understood that losing the star coach would be a disastrous beginning, and he took Krzyzewski to dinner and desperately sought common ground. There was no way that any school, even Duke, could compete monetarily with the N.B.A. (the Lakers had reportedly offered Krzyzewski forty million dollars), but Brodhead did have one edge: his status as an academic heavyweight. He told the coach how highly valued he was at Duke, not just for his winning but for his talents as a teacher, and if Krzyzewski stayed he would retain his auxiliary position as a "special assistant" to the president. As the days passed, Brodhead found himself joining the crowds of students chanting "Coach K, please stay!" and helping to fill a human chain forming the letter "K" outside Cameron Indoor Stadium. On July 4th, Krzyzewski made his decision: he would stay. But he waited until the next day to relieve the president of his agonies.

    "What you saw there was the lay of the land," Orin Starn, a Duke professor who specializes in the anthropology of sports, recalls. "The fact is that it’s the basketball coach, Coach K, who’s the most powerful person at Duke, and in Durham, and maybe in North Carolina -- much more powerful than the college president himself. So Brodhead -- I mean, there was almost this kind of ritual humiliation, this ritual obeisance, or fealty, that was required of him."

I watch just a modest amount of college basketball and almost zero college football, mainly because I think the quality of play is so poor compared to the pro levels of both sports. I went to a small school, and I often have friends who went to bigger schools tell me that I "just don't get" big-time college sports because I didn't experience it first-hand as an undergrad. And I think to myself, "Hmmm, the football and basketball coaches are better-paid and more powerful than not just the faculty, but also the administration and president of the school? Yeah, I guess you're right, I just don't get it."

It's so ridiculous that players took so much criticism for jumping from high school to the pros, rather than contributing to the enrichment and empowerment of college coaches. (Malcolm Gladwell notes in his eloquent blog posts about the NCAA that the amateur ideal originally applied to coaches and athletics departments as well as athletes.)

It's so ridiculous that Chris Webber took so much criticism for accepting money while at Michigan, when the NCAA made a gazillion dollars off of the sale of Michigan merchandise.

It's so ridiculous that Oklahoma President David Boren doesn't have better things to do than protest the results of a football game.

Reggie Bush, Rhett Bomar... it's all ridiculous that these stories are even news, considering the vast sums of money made off the backs of these players.

I can only hope that the NBDL grows into a legitimate minor-league system, so that 18-year-old basketball prospects can truly have the same choice as 18-year-old baseball prospects or hockey prospects: go to college, or turn pro and go to the minors. (Yes, that choice is available now, but it's not currently seen as a viable option, nor is the NBDL used as a true farm system -- currently it's about veteran retreads moreso than developing young players, though the fact that several top draft picks were sent down for seasoning last year is a step in the right direction.)

I am in agreement with Brian McCormick -- who has written extensively about his ideas for changing the American player development system -- in the sentiment that kids who are not interested in nor qualified for college should not be there.

Beyond having moral qualms about schools and college coaches making so much money off of their players, I also think that the NCAA system often hampers the development of young American players.

Why should the best young U.S. basketball players be subjected to the NCAA's practice-time limitations? Are the best young musicians limited in how much they can practice?

Of course there's the cess pool that is everything to do with the NCAA's recruiting system, which ultimately results in players spending their summer trying to make names for themselves more than developing as players.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but "Godspeed, Sonny Vaccaro" - may your proposal for a prep basketball academy improve the player-development system for high-school kids, and hopefully lead down the line to another alternative for top players who don't want to spend their March building up the coffers of the NCAA, CBS, and college coaches.