Much ado about nothing

<strong>Much ado about nothing</strong>

If a basketball team preparing for a run at a ninth national title and a football team aiming for an SEC divisional championship weren’t enough, John Calipari and Mark Stoops decided to spice things up a bit this afternoon for all their passionate and rabid fans.

As you know, Calipari has been spearheading a campaign to build a new basketball practice facility for his program. Throughout the summer, the high-profile Hall of Fame coach has frequently hinted at all the money recently earmarked and spent on the numerous other programs on campus. With basketball being the flagship UK sport, he felt it was high time for his program to reap once again some of the spoils.

While basking in the comfort and opulence of his resort hotel suite in the Bahamas, Calipari went on the offensive again. In arguing his point, he took what many consider to be a shot at Kentucky’s up and rising football program.

“The reason is, this is a basketball school,” Calipari told reporters. “It’s always been that. Alabama is a football school. So is Georgia. I mean, they are. No disrespect to our football team. I hope they win ten games and go to bowls. At the end of the day, that makes my job easier, and it makes the job of all of us easier. But this is a basketball school. And so, we need to keep moving in that direction and keep doing what we’re doing.”

A few minutes after Kyle Tucker of The Athletic tweeted out Calipari’s quote, Mark Stoops responded with some biting sarcasm of his own.

“Basketball school? I thought we competed in the SEC?” Stoops said on Twitter. Stoops followed up his tweet with the hashtag “4straightpostseasonwins.”

As expected, social media immediately blew up. Kentucky football diehards, armed with pitchforks and torches, immediately went on the offensive, claiming Calipari was wrong to disparage the football team in such a dismissive manner.

You know what? They’re not wrong. But neither is Calipari, nor Stoops, nor anybody else with an opinion on this sticky topic.

When all is said and done, Kentucky IS A BASKETBALL SCHOOL. A rising tide floats all boats and over the years, the Kentucky Basketball Program has been an endless source of joy, pride, and financial riches for our beloved commonwealth. Mention University of Kentucky sports to anyone outside of the state and nobody thinks football, or baseball, or volleyball, or rifle, or tennis, or any other sport for that matter.

It’s always been basketball, and Calipari—as the leader of the program—is simply doing whatever he needs to be doing to make sure the program remains “the program with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball.” You can’t fault a guy speaking with such passion and conviction.

And it’s not like Calipari’s ignored his gridiron compatriots or any of his other cohorts in the athletic department over his 14-year tenure either. He came in and set the bar high. He’s always been cooperative in recruiting and public relations. As a result, all the other athletic departments have benefitted tremendously on the coattails of Calipari’s self-professed (but immensely accurate) “Kentucky Effect.”

But neither is Stoops wrong either. Kentucky fans want and expect their head football coach to vigorously defend his turf. Over his 10-year tenure, Stoops has changed that turf from one of “laughingstock” to one of “laughing all the way to the bank.” He’s rightly upset to hear Calipari’s comments as his coaching staff continues to fight the other traditional football schools for the top recruits.

Did you really think, however, that either Calipari or Stoops would just simply bend over and kowtow to each other’s demands? They’re both simply doing what they’ve been paid to do—fight for their respective programs to make them the very best they can be.

Unfortunately, unless another Joe Craft-type benefactor comes down the pike, there won’t be enough money in the pot to fund everyone’s wishes. But it’ll be UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart weighing in on those important decisions. It won’t be you or me.

So, everybody chill. Don’t fret. Most importantly, don’t divide the fan base during this glorious time of gleeful anticipation. I guarantee you cooler heads will prevail. Calipari will laugh off his comments. He and Stoops will then find a way to walk back their little brouhaha, kiss and make up, and stroll hand in hand toward another run at championship glory.   

Name, Image, And Likene$$

Name, Image, And Likene$$

Don’t get me started on this topic. I’m likely to say something I’ll later regret. But for the time being, as far as name, image, and likeness (NIL) is concerned, I’M AGAINST IT!

Now I’m not against individuals making money. After all, this is America. If you’re cunning enough and motivated enough and talented enough, you can make all the money you want.

I’m also not against college athletes having a little extra change in their pockets. They certainly deserve it for all the blood, sweat, and tears they put in the gym perfecting their craft. I just don’t want some pie-in-the sky statute regarding fairness and equity ruining the college game we’ve all grown to love. Football Saturdays and March Madness weekends are part of my sports DNA. Please, don’t do anything to screw it up.

Before you accuse me of being a self-centered loser, here’s a little background information for those of you who aren’t quite sure where I’m coming from.

What is NIL?

The NCAA recently enacted legislation allowing student-athletes in college to benefit and profit off of their names, images, and likenesses. It was a reluctant move by the much-maligned governing organization which—for the past few decades—has profited heavily from the cash cow directly generated by those who they allegedly claim to serve.

Over the years, the NCAA (and the conferences and schools it presides over) has raked in millions and millions of dollars in gate receipts and television revenue while the athletes themselves aren’t allowed to participate in any of the free-for-all money grab going on around them. Supposedly, these football and basketball prodigies hammer away as indentured servants. They allegedly don’t have extra money to eat at McDonalds, to go on dates, or even to do their laundry (cue in violin music, please). All the while, the overlording rule-makers stare greedily at their own bank accounts bulging at the seams.  

So why did the NCAA finally reverse course and cave?

Public pressure for one. When individual states (including Kentucky) started enacting legislation giving student-athletes free rein to cash in on autograph signings, appearances on Cameo, and t-shirts and sponsorships bearing their faces, the Big Bad NCAA and its president—Mark “Darth” Emmert—was forced into action.

Why Everybody Loves NIL

Everyone (but me) seems to be applauding and cheering on this new legislation. Coaches like Mark Stoops and John Calipari have both put on happy public faces. They really don’t have any choice but to clap loudly, or else they’ll come off looking like jerks. Think about it. If you’re making millions coaching these young men, you have to feel obligated to give them a little extra piece of the pie—or you really are a jerk.

Media people all seem to love the decision too. They see themselves as the ones anointed to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the captives, and the release from darkness for the prisoners. They’re all celebrating (at least outwardly) the clarion call of all these previously oppressed athletes rising up on a level playing field and sticking it to “The Man.”

Of course the athletes themselves are ecstatic. “It’s long overdue,” they cry. “Here we come. Better put a few more Big Macs on the grill.”

Why I Don’t Like NIL

Here’s the way I look at it. The NCAA set up and organized the platform for all the players to compete. They put in the effort, took the initial risk, financed the infrastructure, made all the network deals, and promoted the heck out of their product over all these years. Why shouldn’t they continue to reap the fruits of their labor? If athletes can get a better deal somewhere else, then just go outside the system and do it. No one’s stopping you.

NIL Cheapens the Value of a Scholarship

If you’re telling me that a free-ride lifetime athletic scholarship isn’t an overly fair tradeoff for playing the game you love, then you’re  devaluing the worth of a college degree. My parents, frugal as they were, advised me to spend money freely on two things: my home and my education. I’m proud to say that my UK degree remains to this day my most valuable asset.

I also just spent a small fortune putting my daughter through a private out-of-state university. If the University of Southern California had offered to pay for all her tuition, books, room and board, private tutoring, first class travel, deluxe hotel accommodations, and state-of-the-art medical care for her entire four-year stay, I would have gladly kissed the feet of Tommy Trojan (and retired earlier).

Current UK athletes should value their education in the exact same vein. The University of Kentucky, with its rabid Big Blue Nation, has already increased the value of their individual names, images, and likenesses—several fold—just by inviting them into the successful UK corporate brand. They’ve just been given the best education money can buy—without having to plunk down a single penny.

NIL Invites Too Many Outside Influences

And yet, even with this glorious free ride, everyone demands that these student-athletes share in the pot. As I said earlier, that’s fine with me—just not at the expense of choking the golden goose that has fueled our appetite for amateur sports as we know it. Unscrupulous agents descending on campus, rival deals between teammates dismantling team chemistry, and member institutions losing significant portions of their revenue stream to boosters paying the athletes directly could all potentially upset the apple cart.

And this doesn’t even include what could happen in the media world. Imagine a scenario where the best player appearances, the best player interviews, the best of anything media related always goes exclusively to the highest bidder. If you’re an outlet with cash to burn, then you’ll control the flow of information. That type of police state can’t be good for the game (unless you’re JMI Sports—UK’s current multi-media partner). And that certainly doesn’t bode well for all the other legitimate and hard-working journalists scrambling for their livelihoods to report news and maintain accountability.

To me, all these risks simply aren’t worth it for what amounts to the nickel and dime benefits that NIL legislation targets. Many ivory tower purists will argue that it should come down to what’s best for the student-athlete. Here’s where it gets hairy because what appears good on the surface is what could ultimately cause the entire system to crash and burn.

The Ultimate Demise

I never played college sports, but I do listen to people who did. The other night, while I was waiting to go on as a guest on Dick Gabriel’s Big Blue Insider radio show, I heard some insightful comments from the guest who was on ahead of me. Former UK linebacker Kash Daniel, who could have personally benefitted immensely if NIL had been enacted during his playing days, had these extremely perceptive thoughts.

“Scheduling is one of the biggest challenges these programs are going to face,” Kash said. “Playing college athletics at the Division I level, no matter what sport it is, is a full-time job—plus going to school. When you’re not in class or with tutors or anything that requires your academic attention, you’re in practice, you’re in treatment, you’re in extra study hall, you’re watching extra film. You’re literally doing everything you can to be the best player you can be…I don’t really know how you could do [NIL activities] during the season.”

“It really just comes down to the administrators, the head coaches, the team captains to say, ‘Hey, this is great. We get to make a little extra coin off our name now. But remember why we’re here. Remember that we still play for the University of Kentucky, we still play for Coach Stoops, and we still play for one another.’”

College coaches, like Calipari and Stoops, have always harped endlessly about player distractions—friends and family whispering in your ear, girlfriend problems, impending career choices, and mental health challenges all vying for those precious 24 hours in your day. NIL could easily become the TOP distraction. Remember, these ARE student-athletes. Their focus needs to be in the classroom and on the court—not on making money, analyzing contracts, and paying taxes. They don’t need the stress of another full-time job. They should enjoy their college experience—perhaps the best four years of their life—without having to compete with fellow teammates for a table at the next car dealership giveaway.

The truth is that NIL will not be a good thing for the majority of student-athletes. It’s an additional headache that will simply not be worth it.

It certainly won’t be worth it if it messes up my Football Saturdays, my College World Series, or my NCAA tournament. Everyone agrees that there are already plenty of outside influences affecting the purity of the college game. Welcome now to the Wild Wild West. NIL could be like that thief in the night, signaling for all of us the beginning of the end.

Granted, for those very few uber-talented student-athletes who are graced with wise outside counsel, these next few months could provide for a significant personal financial windfall. More power to them.

My prayer is that for the rest of us mortals in the sporting world, NIL proves eventually to be much ado about nothing.