The Wall Street Journal’s Dennis K. Berman wrote a piece this week comparing the basketball programs at the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville. Kentucky coach John Calipari, as Berman notes, built his program on the backs of players who spend one mandated year in college before jumping to the NBA. Louisville coach Rick Pitino, by contrast, built his with players who are more likely to stick around for the full four years. The implication from Berman is that Kentucky’s program is “hollow” like the Death Star, while Louisville’s is built in the manner that most fans and basketball observers would consider the “right way.”
My observation is quite different: to me, there is no college basketball program in America that epitomizes the problems with college sports better than the Louisville Cardinals.
Louisville’s basketball program is by far the richest in the nation. Thanks in large part to a beautiful new publicly-financed arena that has sent its revenues through the roof, the program hauled in more than $40 million in revenue last year. It made anywhere between $23 million to $28 million in profits, far more than any other school. The young men who helped generate those profits, who 21,000 fans pack the KFC Yum! Center to see play? They were paid nothing, even though a 2011 study calculated the market value of a Louisville basketball player at just short of $1 million.
It’s not that Louisville doesn’t have the money to compensate athletes. Pitino made $4.8 million this year; with bonuses, he made $7.5 million in 2011. The athletic department, bolstered in part by basketball revenue and in part by its successful football program, is expanding athletic facilities at rapid rates. In 2008, it relied on a $10 million donation and state financing to make a $72 million upgrade to its football stadium.
Louisville has perfected college basketball’s revenue-maximizing system, raking in millions of dollars in profits from advertisers, ticket and merchandise sales, and television deals, then paying out millions to coaches and administrators and pretending that what it is doing is somehow not a business but an educational mission. This isn’t just a Louisville problem: it’s what schools across the country are doing. Revenues are rising rapidly, and they are going to pay skyrocketing salaries for coaches and to build new facilities or upgrade those that already exist. At none of these schools is the athlete sharing in the system.
Kentucky (which is my alma mater) is no exception. Its $19.9 million in projected basketball profits tied it with Kansas and North Carolina as college basketball’s second-richest programs, and at $4.5 million a year, Calipari’s salary is roughly equal to Pitino’s. It has a sparkling $30 million practice facility and recently spent $6 million to upgrade the scoreboard and sound system in its football stadium. The market value of Kentucky players is more than $645,000. It, like Louisville and every other NCAA program, doesn’t pay its players either.
But here’s the thing about Kentucky: intentionally or not, it has blown a hole in the idea that college basketball is a virtuous educational endeavor pursued solely by amateurs who love the game. Calipari’s program more than any other takes advantage of the fact that college basketball is a minor league business for the NBA by understanding that the most talented basketball players are using college to get to the pros as fast as possible. If Kentucky’s players can’t share in the riches they generate for Kentucky, they’ll at least be getting paid for their work soon enough. That’s far from an ideal setup and hardly excuses Kentucky from scrutiny, but it at least halfway acknowledges and exploits the flaws in the argument that the top levels of college basketball are anything other than a business. Because it does that, the program is a slap in the face to purists, right way-ers, and the “amateurism and education crowd” that hasn’t updated its views to fit reality.
Major college sports operate in a perverse system that generates billions of dollars a year off the backs of free labor, and both Kentucky and Louisville are willing participants. But if no basketball program does a better job of making the system look ridiculous than Kentucky, perhaps no basketball program is right now doing a better job of epitomizing the lies on which that system is built than Louisville.