Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 28, 2010

March Madness

Filed under: Academia,sports — louisproyect @ 9:58 pm

Although none of the sports writers alluded directly to this, the contrast between Cornell and the University of Kentucky was mostly about race. Cornell was an Ivy League school with a meager budget for basketball compared to Kentucky’s whose scholar/athletes were mostly white. Kentucky was just the opposite. Like most Division One schools, the best Kentucky basketball players would likely go directly into the pros without graduating while the Cornell athletes could look forward to professional careers. Seniors dominated the Cornell starting team, while the Kentucky players were largely freshmen. But finally it was about race just like Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky.

Cornell: a study in white

U. of Kentucky: not as smart; not as white

On WFAN, the NY sports talk radio station, all they could talk about a day or two before the Kentucky-Cornell game was how Cornell players could solve a Rubiks Cube in record time. A Youtube clip that went viral showed how it was done. A check on Google for “brainy Big Red” (the school colors) returned over 5000 hits. This from the San Francisco Chronicle on 3/26 was typical: “All the fan adulation and media hype shifted to Cornell this week after brainy Big Red (29-5) stunned the field with a run to the round of 16.”

Like many African-American basketball players who go to Division One schools, Kentucky’s John Wall—likely to be picked number one in the NBA draft—had eligibility issues stemming from payoffs from the school that he received through his agent. As David Zirin has pointed out, this is par for the course for the basketball factories that should be regarded as minor leagues for the pros and nothing else:

These “amateurs” are playing in a tournament where they are the content for a $6 billion television contract. They wear sneakers that enrich their coaches and athletic departments. The NCAA then owns their image in perpetuity, selling it for use in video games, advertisements and other assorted merchandise. Everyone gets paid except for them, and the NCAA is facing a steadily advancing lawsuit by former NCAA All-American Ed O’Bannon on this very question. If the goal is not to graduate but just to “make millions,” then let’s lose the charade and pay them some kind of a stipend for their labors.

If Kentucky’s goal was to compete with other Division One schools for its share of the money pie, they couldn’t have hired someone with better qualifications than John Calipari. When Calipari was at the U. of Massachusetts, his star player Marcus Canby was revealed to have received $28,000 from agents. His next college gig was at the U. of Memphis where his star player Derrick Rose, like Canby a future pro, also got payoffs in 2008. Additionally, there was evidence that someone took Rose’s entrance exams for him. Despite having the most wins in NCAA history, the U. of Memphis had to forfeit its games that year.

In between the U. of Mass and U. of Memphis jobs, Calipari coached in the big leagues for the New Jersey Nets. When criticized by Newark Star-Ledger sports reporter Dan Garcia, Calipari called him a “fucking Mexican idiot” and was fined $25,000 by the NBA for his racist outburst.

Despite the sleazy character of basketball factories like the U. of Kentucky and the coaches they hire to ride them to the top, there is little doubt that Ivy’s like Cornell and my own employer Columbia University are up to the same kinds of tricks. Instead of banking on revenue from postseason appearances, the Ivy’s are all about collecting research grants from big corporations and government agencies, including the Pentagon. Between Nike and General Electric, perhaps your hands are cleaner when they are tying the laces of sneakers rather than conducting nuclear power feasibility studies.

Finally, a word should be said about another part of the Cornell experience that hardly gets connected to March Madness, even though it is certainly a kind of madness—namely the epidemic of suicides.

Since last fall, there have been six suicides at Cornell, a number of which involve victims hurling themselves over a bridge into a steep rocky gorge below. Every so often, a prestigious school seems to go through these problems. In 2003, 6 NYU students killed themselves, using an exposed ramp on a high floor in the main library as a launching pad.

Psychologists seem fairly united in explaining the suicides as a product of stress and depression, an occupational hazard of studying at expensive universities where you are expected to succeed. With the predominant ethic of bourgeois society amounting to “making it”, it is no wonder that more athletes are not involved in collecting baksheesh or young scholars throwing themselves off bridges. With all the other problems facing America in its imperial dotage, the corruption and self-destruction of its youth deserves its own spotlight.


  1. The youth are debt slaves, thanks to policies enacted by a generation who attended public universities for free. That’s how the -self destructive- youth see it.

    Comment by purple — March 29, 2010 @ 2:55 am

  2. You should check out Blue Chips (1994), starring Nick Nolte as a college basketball coach and Shaquille O’Neal as his prime prospect, full of raw talent. And two other movies about college sports madness (both are about football instead of basketball): The Program (1993) with James Caan, and Johnny Be Good (1988), starring Anthony Michael Hall as the top high school quarterback in the country:

    Comment by Brandon — March 29, 2010 @ 7:02 am

  3. Here’s Matt Taibbi’s take on it:

    Comment by Mark — March 29, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

  4. The abuse and misuse of college basketball players is right there in the math. Dreams of NBA wealth are a fantasy. There are about 6,000 Division I college players plus a couple of thousand more in Division II schools. Almost to a man they’re thinking about the big bucks in the NBA. In real life, few manage to get anything at all. Untold thousands end up nowhere after their “college experience.” The NBA only has about 420 jobs available – that’s all. This year only 55 rookies managed to make an NBA team. Some of the best NBA teams have a single rookie and the NBA Champs, the LA Lakers, have none at all. That’s 55 success stories out of 6,000 to 9,000 hopefuls. You might think there would be more suicides among disappointed college basketball players than among depressed scholars.

    Comment by Richard Greener — March 29, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

  5. Richard, the students at least get scholarships to attend college. Those that are wise should not squander the opportunity to get an education first and a possible NBA job a distant second. That seems reasonable to me.

    Comment by Paul T. — March 31, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

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