Aristotle, who never had a shoe deal, or an agent, or a brand-new Cabriolet financed in full by the firm of Anonymous And Unknown, was very certain that a lack of money lay at the root of many of the problems in the society of his day. Thoughts like this one is how Aristotle came to be acclaimed a genius, which makes me wish I could have lived back then and amazed the folks in the marketplace by reading them old King Crimson lyrics or something. Anyway, once upon a time, when he was being very smart, and much smarter than the goatherders and Hoplites, Aristotle said, "Inequality is everywhere at the bottom of faction, for in general faction arises from men's striving for what is equal.” And this pretty much held true for millenia, until 1941, when W.C. Fields produced his rebuttal on American movie screens everywhere: Never Give A Sucker An Even Break.
At this point in time, given all we know, it’s hard not to conclude that, at their highest levels, college athletics, particularly football and basketball, are nothing but hiring halls for suckers. If you believe that all these players are working towards degrees while being paid only what the NCAA says they’re allowed, you’re a sucker. If you’re a player who doesn’t dip his bill into the deep, deep trough from which the blazered alumni gorge themselves, you’re a sucker. If you think what you’re watching isn’t basically an industry, you’re a sucker. If you realize all of this, and don’t care, and thrill to the competition anyway, congratulations. You and Aristotle are on the same sideline.
I was struck by this thought last week, when the NBA’s developmental G-League announced that, starting next year, it would offer 18-year-old players who had finished their high school eligibility a salary of $125,000 to play actual, above the table, professional basketball. This, it was said by the NBA, which only ever has altruism in its heart, would solve the “problem” of the one-and-done. In 2005, with the panjandrums in college basketball in a panic over high school stars jumping to the NBA, and with the NBA pretending that this was a problem, a rule was established 19-year-old age limit for draft eligibility. This pretty much required most of the high school stars to submit themselves to the NCAA cartel for at least one season.
In practice, this blew apart the whole fraudulent notion of the “student-athlete”; many of the star players at the upper levels of college basketball played out their one-year indenture and then split, as any thinking person would do. (For the moment, we’ll leave out of the discussion the few who went overseas to play as actual pros instead.) They were pursuing their degrees, but were gaining damn little ground on them. Soon, one-and-done was said to be as big a problem as straight-to-the-pros once was. The relationship between the NBA and college basketball, a marriage of convenience in its best times, was fraying. The reality that colleges were essentially promoting an minor league for the NBA began to get up the noses of the academic side of the institutions, and the NCAA was losing in court over its preposterous kabuki amateurism. The NBA didn’t need any of that noise to screw up its brand. Hence, the G-League. Hence, the new policy.
It’s impossible to see the G-League’s move as anything but making available some simple justice. Everyone—especially the courts—has grown tired of the ethical gymnastics the NCAA has had to perform in order to keep its primary workforce underpaid. Rampant public greed and stupidity generally become boring after a while. So comes now the G-League to call everyone’s bluff. It establishes a true market value for an 18-year-old basketball player—one, I would caution, that is bound to rise, as frightening as that is for some people to contemplate. Having done that, as Jeffrey Dorfman astutely pointed out in Forbes, any player who opts to go to college has a basic idea of what his worth is in the market for 18-year-old basketball players. Thus, for the first time, a star college player will have a specific floor for estimating how much of a sucker they really are, in terms of money, anyway. An 18-year-old basketball star is now worth $125,000 to an employer, whether that employer is the Maine Red Claws or the Duke Blue Devils. The market is set.
Naturally, some of the people making the real money in college basketball are birthing bovines all over the public prints and the airwaves. Here’s Kentucky’s John Calipari, pretending to care to Yahoo News.
“My concern comes back to I want to know what happens to the kids that you’ve encouraged not to go to college if they fail,” he said. “What are you going to do for them? That’s my whole thing. What is it going to do to eighth and ninth and 10th graders? Are you going to have a whole wave of those kids that think, ‘I don’t need school I’m going to go to the G League.’”
John Calipari, Educator. The mind, she boggles.
One of the other arguments mustered against the new G-League plan is that, while the players who took the offer are playing before 450 bored feed salesmen in the tank towns, the college players are being whisked around in jets to play before 60,000 screaming maniacs on national television in a football dome. This point seems compelling until you start feeling like the snake in the Garden of Eden while you’re making it. Take the ego-boost, the time on television, the adoration of the masses, the envelope under the table, the free shoes with the Benjamins stuffed between the laces, the brand-new SUV off the lot at Anonymous And Pseudonym Motors. And submit yourself to a ridiculous regime of pretend ethics designed to make everybody but you rich. But, hey, free room service. Until some assistant coach rats you out, and your life gets destroyed on television. (Bear in mind that, as we speak, the federal government is making a case in court that athletes defrauded their institutions by taking money that would result in said institution being penalized. This is the new-jack stupid criminal case of all time.) Pretending that the new G-League offer is depriving some students of the opportunity to visit dozens of Marriott properties around the country is to trap yourself in a logical and ethical cul de sac.
And, please, leave the whole education bit aside for a moment. We all know we’re talking about money here—how much money and who gets it, the fundamental dynamic of American capitalism. And once that dynamic is engaged, it’s almost impossible to turn off. It beat tennis and golf. It even beat the Olympics. It’s taken longer in college sports because of this country’s weird insistence that major sports entertainment is the province of our educational institutions, rather than of sports clubs, the way they do it in more sensible corners of the world. But it will happen in this area, too. It’s been underway in an underground economy for more than a century. The economy is now right out there in God’s own sunlight.
You cannot forever tell American citizens, no matter what their age, that they cannot make money off what they do best. The entire weight of the culture is on the other side of that idea. Any attempt you make to do so will make you look like a cheap grifter at best, and a sweatshop impresario at worst. The people running college sports have been willing to take on that appearance because they made a ton of money playing the role. Now, however, that thing that every monopolist fears most—an actual free market—has appeared right there before them, and they’re stumbling around trying to figure out what’s next.
Choice is good. Generally, choice is always good. If you’re an 18-year-old basketball player, and you’re not quite good enough to go to the NBA, you now can decide to take the $125,000, which you can salt away for an eventual degree, or get your mom out of the shotgun shack, or you can go for the glitz, glamor, and Awesome, BAYBEEEES of the college game. If that’s your thing, go with God. The important thing is that you, the athlete, get to decide for yourself. The easy and profitable symbiosis between professional and college basketball is breaking down, and free-market capitalism is coming to a playground near you. It’s enough to make me sound Republican.