[Image via Chet White/UK Athletics]
What is it about sports that encourages us to project our own morality unto a game designed as entertainment?
This has been happening for centuries, of course—perhaps since the advent of athletic competition. The modern-day Olympics exist as a means of waging war in the form of a hockey rink or swimming pool (and sometimes less glamorously, a curling sheet or ping pong table). Free agency systems in every sport foster greed and self-interest, and subsequently, a Puritan backlash against such pragmatism. The concept of powerhouses and underdogs leads to condemnation of the champ and support for the scrappy upstart.
Such projection is already inherently silly in the realm of sports, where the games were intended as an escape from a drab reality, but it becomes downright ridiculous in the context of the college version.
Not concerning the structure itself, obviously. By all means, lambast and lampoon the NCAA and its plutocratic bylaws; nowhere in America will you find a less honest hive mind of Gilded Age avarice. The folly of the student-athlete has finally come to light in the second decade of the twenty-first century, but too often the victims in the crossfire become the workforce being manipulated.
One-and-dones. Rentals. Mercenaries.
Mercenaries! This is all media-branded rhetoric, and the last term is especially incendiary. I found it used in the latest column of Charles P. Pierce’s at Grantland, and he’s dropped it more than a few times in his college basketball diatribes when referencing Kentucky. “Mercenary” is as loaded as any verbal gunshot, evoking a sense of hired soldiers and eschewed ethics—both of which the label is oh-so-cleverly slung at. The mercenary cares not whom he works for or what he’s been tasked with; his only concern is the reward. He’ll move on to the next town as soon as the job is done and another bounty is posted.
Keep in mind that the subjects of this rhetoric are exclusively 18-years-old and younger.
It’s lazy, it’s dangerous, and I take particular issue with Pierce employing this language. Pierce is a thoughtful man who has covered sports and politics for almost 40 years. He’s done so from a progressive perspective and with a sardonic voice, roasting both big business and collegiate athletics in a blend that’s become the standard brew for any sportswriter with a conscious. I admire his writing and I enjoy his tone. My winded scripts are aesthetically similar—inadvertently pretentious and seemingly co-authored by a thesaurus.
Pierce hates John Calipari. Loathes him. He penned a hit job against Cal and his new Kentucky Empire on the eve of the 2010 tournament that reads like a Pat Forde bingo card, and Pierce has been sure to snipe the man and the school at every opportunity since stepping aboard Grantland. The source of this enmity? Not sure. I’m probably too young. Pierce is Boston-based and covered Cal for years during his tenure at UMass, so maybe the coach ruffled some feathers there like he is wont to do. Calipari wasn’t the coolest customer of the past millennium, after all.
But this one-and-done hysteria—the mercenary language—carries greater consequences than an iconoclastic stance. It conveys a stark hypocrisy in the writer, as if he or she isn’t writing for compensation at the employer of their choosing. To address someone as a mercenary, or to collectively paint a team as a “mercenary army” (as Pierce did this morning) is to suggest their lifestyle is unholy and your own approach is superior. That there is something implicitly wrong with young men acting in their financial interests within a system that does the same.
To call NFL Linebacker X greedy for fleeing town to the highest bidder is one thing. He now has enough money to at least drown out your whining. But most of these collegiate mercenaries, the one-and-done players who will be in the NBA before they can drink, are 17-years-old when they pledge their allegiance to a university, and many are even younger. Midwest Region MVP Karl-Anthony Towns was merely a sophomore in high school when he committed to Cal’s Cats. 2012 No. 2 pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was 16 when he announced his decision to attend Kentucky. Trey Lyles was still was 14 (!) and just a month into his freshman year of high school when he committed to in-state Indiana, a premature decision that preceded a move to Lexington.
Kidd-Gilchrist was one of those mercenaries, and Towns—increasingly pegged as the eventual No. 1 pick in this year’s draft—will be one-and-done as well. His classmate Lyles may follow him if projections keep him in the top-20. Calipari has already had 13 such players at UK join him and leave him in the span of nine months, and that number figures to keep rising as long as Kentucky keeps winning and players as good as Towns want to be a part of it.
That anyone finds moral fault on the players’ end of this baffles me. Only in sports is a young man of Towns’ caliber shamed for achieving his dreams as preternatural as possible. Whereas Bill Gates is exalted for not needing his Harvard degree to change the world, players like Towns (and DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, John Wall, and oh so many more) receive a nation’s scorn for being eager to reach the highest level of their craft. And it isn’t homogenous across sports. The media fawned over 19-year-old golfer Jordan Spieth in last year’s Masters, propping him up as an heir to Tiger’s throne. Spieth had recently burned his last three years of eligibility at the University of Texas as part of his decision to go pro, presumably because amateur golf was too easy and the money was nonexistent.
When I get a job (fingers crossed!) in the field of my choosing, the first, second, and third factors in my decision will probably center around the monetary details of whatever contract I’m signing. Dollars? Mobility? Security? That’s only natural. But the first major financial consideration of my life came when I “committed” to college. Many students are fortunate enough to have a wide array of acceptance letters to choose from, and most of them act in their best interests when narrowing down their options. The better the school’s academics, the better the forecast for your long-term earning potential.
Silver-spoon legacies notwithstanding, the majority of students who have the opportunity to attend an Ivy League institution don’t grow up with an emotional attachment to the school beyond respecting its academic reputation. A teenager’s explanation of why he or she chose to become a Yale Bulldog would likely sound analogous to the words of high school seniors Isaiah Briscoe and Skal Labissiere when they committed to Kentucky last November:
“Since my freshman year, I always wanted to go there,” Labissiere said during his announcement on ESPNU. “I watched Coach Cal on TV, watched his team on TV with Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel. That’s one of the reasons I worked so hard with my academics and on the court; I wanted to have the chance to play there.”
“Everything about Kentucky made me want to attend the school,” Briscoe said on ESPNU. “Playing with great players, I can handle playing with great players. Coach Calipari has a machine going on with getting point guards to the NBA. John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Derrick Rose. I can see myself in that mold.”
Exposure. Pedigree. Job placement. Rational considerations for rational actors. A 19-year-old business major would be lauded for such forward thinking, but a basketball phenom is the mercenary. The sinner. The money-grubber. Imagine how many engineers would leave school early if Boeing didn’t require a bachelor’s.
The length of the stay is what rubs America wrong. The average student develops a lifelong bond with their university over the course of their studies, whether they’re on a three-year fast track or going for the full Van Wilder. Kentucky’s mercenaries can’t possibly build a rapport with the school in their abbreviated careers.
But why do sentiments like these flood my timeline on game day?
The irony here is that Kentucky may not even have the most one-and-dones in the tournament. Duke’s Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor, and Justise Winslow are all expected to leave Mike Krzyzewski’s tutelage after just one year on campus, the school that was once the ostensible bastion of all that was still right in this crooked sport. A school whose alumni shamed a Naismith Trophy-winner for daring to leave with eligibly remaining, and who worship a coach that once bullied another player’s family for succumbing to that sin. The Wildcats have only one sure bet in Towns; Lyles is a likely inclusion, but streaky Devin Booker’s fate remains foggy, and the diminutive Tyler Ulis is in Lexington for the long haul.
Four five-stars from Kentucky’s historic 2013 recruiting class—Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Dakari Johnson, and Marcus Lee—returned to Kentucky for their sophomore years. First Team All-American and Naismith finalist Willie Cauley-Stein has shunned the NBA twice. This doesn’t make them better people than Towns, Lyles, or no-doubters like Cousins or Davis or Wall. Whether it was financial in nature (seeking to improve draft stock) or based in emotion (the enjoyment of being the biggest man on campus), each returnee made a difficult but logical decision that sportswriters across the country have no moral ground to judge on.
I expect the mercenary label to be tossed around more than once this week as Kentucky is contrasted to a veteran Badgers team. Wisconsin has no one-and-dones and may never will. But before another Baby Boomer declares that Bo Ryan has already won the battle of ethics because he can’t recruit players good enough to leave him after their freshman seasons, think about the reason why ambitious Bill Gates attended Harvard in the first place.