Next Tuesday, a group of young men in their late teens and early 20s will launch the 116th season of Kansas University basketball.
There’s no way to prove it, but it’s likely this opening tip-off is as highly anticipated, and highly touted as any in the school’s history — maybe as much as any team at any American university since the game was invented by Dr. James Naismith in 1891.
By one route or another, the players on this year’s KU team come from 11 states, Canada and Cameroon. Accounting for some red-shirt seasons, the team includes seven freshmen, five sophomores, three juniors and three seniors. One of the players, before he has played a college game is being looked upon as one of the best ever. In addition, there are several other players who, the experts say, are likely to play just one year at KU and then turn professional and earn millions of dollars.
The game of basketball today is a far cry from what Naismith designed. Likewise, the term “student athlete,” although technically correct, is a misnomer.
Unfortunately, college basketball, as well as college football, at least at this nation’s major universities is big business in every sense of the term.
It is what it is, and if a university such as KU or any other Division I school wants to compete or be a contender for league or national honors, the chancellor and/or regents of the school have to buy into the system.
But, in so doing, they have given up any pretense that the game is being played by “student athletes.” This is a shame.
The 18 players on this year’s KU men’s team, as is the case with a majority of other Big 12 conference teams, don’t have the privilege and joy of being normal college students. They live together as a unit; they eat together; they exercise and train together; they are tutored together; they travel together; and they get their health care together. They do almost everything together. They are even monitored together every day to make sure they are attending classes.
There is no way for them to experience their days on Mount Oread as regular students. They are living in a very clear, public fishbowl, where every action, good or bad, can be observed by fans, critics, boosters, other students and the media.
Coach Bill Self has a tremendous responsibility, as well as measuring up to tremendously high expectations. Self has the task, aided by a very attractive salary, of trying to mold this group of youngsters into a “team” rather than merely a collection of highly skilled, physically talented former high school all-stars who probably have been babied and lauded since first showing superior athletic skills as early as their junior high school days.
Self is expected to justify his high salary by producing not just an average team with an average win-loss record but a championship season with really no reason not to advance to the magical “Final Four” in the season-ending NCAA tournament.
School work, getting an education, is important because a player will not be eligible to play if he doesn’t maintain a certain grade-point average, but for those on the team who are looked upon as sure-fire “one and done” players who are likely to turn pro at the end of the season, there really isn’t any need to worry about grades, other than for the current semester.
It’s a huge game, huge in every sense of the word, with players the center of attention. Chancellors like the favorable publicity, which they hope will encourage wealthy alumni and friends to consider fiscal support for the school. Hundreds of well-paid jobs in the athletic department rely on a winning program. Lawrence merchants want a winning team that will attract thousands of spectators to the city who, in turn, will spend millions of dollars in stores, restaurants, hotels and gasoline stations. It goes on and on.
It is a giant business getting bigger and bigger, with schools vying for lucrative television contracts that only come for winning teams who must attract super-talented athletes and support them with continually updated physical plants and facilities.
The central players in this multimillion-dollar exercise, the “student athletes,” are denied the very special enjoyment and benefits of being regular students. Granted, they have the unique opportunity of getting a free college education, but far too many fail to take advantage of this opportunity.
There are hundreds of other athletes at KU on scholarships who do merit the title of “student athlete” and use their athletic skills to gain a solid education, which, in turn, opens many attractive job opportunities upon their graduation.
Unfortunately, this might have been the case for many KU basketball and football players years ago, but in today’s high pressure, must-win environment in big-time college basketball and football, it’s not as prevalent.
It is what it is, right or wrong, with school officials, the Kansas Board of Regents, fans, alumni and friends saying full speed ahead. Win, win, win, no matter the “cost.”
This year’s KU basketball team is sure to provide a memorable season and generate tremendous fan support. Consider how great it would be if the players — all of the players — got just as great a reward from their scholarships and a solid education leading to productive lives following graduation as they do from a successful season.
Big-time college sports is big-time business, with education as a necessary facade. The late Phog Allen, one of the nation’s most successful basketball coaches, when asked who were his best players, would reply that he would base his answer on how the players turned out five years after their graduation.
It seems like a pretty good measure, both then and now.