John Calipari, hero anti-NCAA crusader?

NCAA Men's Championship Game - Kansas v Kentucky

Those who oppose the NCAA as an old-fashioned, draconian regulatory body designed for the sole purpose of maintaining profit-driven financial control over a highly valuable workforce are praising yesterday’s comments by University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari, who addressed a basketball-related change in NCAA rules that will allow college players to declare for the NBA draft and, if invited, attend the NBA combine before they have to decide whether to withdraw from the draft in order to maintain their collegiate eligibility as follows:

Met with our team today. Told them that during the season it’s about the team and sacrificing for each other – which they did this year. When the season’s over, it’s about each individual player and what’s right for them and their families.

With that being said, every player who is eligible for the draft, including our walk-ons, will submit their names for the NBA Draft in hopes of being invited to the combine in May. The new rule states they can submit their name a total of three times. If they choose to withdraw, they have until 10 days after the combine. It’s a true win-win for the student-athlete.

Just so you know, having every kid put their name in the draft is about all players getting the right information. Players not invited to the combine know what that means. Players invited to the combine and told to go back to school know that that means. As I said, it’s a win-win for the student athletes. I like the rule.

(Emphasis added.)

On one hand, Calipari is right to encourage his players to gain as much information as they can about their professional prospects, especially where there is no penalty to the player for seeking that information. The new regime– allowing players to wait until after the combine to decide whether to withdraw from the draft– provides players considering continuing their basketball careers on a professional level a valuable option.

Calipari isn’t merely praising this change as a beneficial option for “student-athletes,” however. As I read his comments, Coach Cal is going to force every one of his players to exercise this newly available option, and, while the NCAA’s critic like it whenever anyone pushes the governing body to its limits, Calipari’s motivations may not be so altruistic or reform-motivated.

It’s difficult to imagine any individual who has benefited more from the one-and-done rule in college basketball than Calipari, and part of committing to a player-recruiting strategy that’s designed to funnel the players with the most NBA potential to Lexington for their one mandatory year of college ball is that he needs to turn his roster over every year to make sure he can guarantee playing time to the best of the next, incoming bunch. NBA-ready players who linger in college gum up the wheels of Calipari’s machine.

Imagine that Anthony Davis, who was considered a possible top NBA draft pick before he played a single game for Kentucky, and who led the Wildcats to a national championship in his first and only collegiate year before New Orleans in fact chose him with the first overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft, wanted to spend another year (or three!) in college. Davis was a sure-fire NBA lottery pick, and Calipari needed him to move along to make room for incoming big men Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein. Establishing an across-the-board rule that every Kentucky player, including walk-ons, must test the draft waters every year makes it easier for Calipari to push players like Davis into the draft without creating the appearance that he’s targeting anyone individually.

Interestingly enough, Davis has said that he did want to stay at Kentucky beyond his freshman year, but Calipari told him he had to leave. Here‘s Davis in a June 2012 interview with Dan Patrick:

Patrick: Did you tell Kentucky Coach John Calipari you were going to go pro or did he tell you?

Davis: He told me. He told me to [come into his office]. When I walked in, first thing he said: “Look, Ant, you have to leave. You did too many great things this year. Won a national championship, got every award. There’s no point in you coming back.” I started laughing. But he had no smile on his face. He was dead serious.

Patrick: Did you want to stay at Kentucky?

Davis: I wanted to stay. Great team, great coach. But the way life is, you have to move on.

As I wrote at the time,

It’s tough to know how much to make of this out-of-context exchange. When Coach Cal called Davis into his office, was that the first time they talked about the star freshman’s departure? When Davis laughed, was it because he found the suggestion outlandish and wanted to stay, or was he just being sheepish? When Davis told DP he wanted to stay, was he being serious?

Still, there’s a persistent feeling that Cal really was kicking the kid on down the line to make room for the next crop of high-profile players. In a program operated on a one-and-done model, having a player of Davis’ talent stick around for another season could mean that UK would lose at least one of its top recruits, who commit to Kentucky because they want to shine for a single season and move along to the league where players get paid above the table.

Yes, Calipari again, as always, is pushing the NCAA to its limits, but, even though he’s doing so in the context of player-friendly reforms, it’s fair to ask whether his motivation for doing so remains a self-interested one.

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