Mike Krzyzewski has built a career and a legacy and yes, a fortune, from the sport of college basketball. And yet there he was Tuesday, posing questions with answers few of his peers would want to consider – essentially saying, at least as strongly as he could, that maybe this game he loves is being played by the wrong rules.
In response to questions about the ongoing federal investigation into shoe companies and basketball recruiting that has already cost Rick Pitino his job at Louisville, the Duke coach painted a picture of college basketball that, while entirely accurate, will make NCAA purists cringe. And he called for consideration of changes that, while entirely necessary, will make NCAA purists apoplectic.
The fact that college basketball is stuck in the middle of two big-money enterprises – shoe companies and the NBA – that play by different rules is not something anyone seems to want to acknowledge, even as that conflict infects every aspect of the sport. Tuesday, Krzyzewski dove in headfirst.
“This is a great game,” Krzyzewski said. “I’ve lived my life with this game. I’ve stayed in college basketball. I believe in it and I’m not alone. There are thousands of coaches and players who have been involved with it. That’s a slap in the face last week. And it’s continued. But it has forced dialogue about this middle – amateurism. Do you pay them? Do you do this? Do you do that? Whatever. I think those are good discussions.”
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With nary a “student-athlete” to be heard, in a matter of (several) minutes Krzyzewski pointed out that the college game is unequipped to handle all the money swirling around players before and after they’re in college (true), that there’s nothing illegal or unethical about shoe companies recruiting elite players with financial incentives (true), that college basketball is a billion-dollar industry (true), that no one in college basketball has the power or platform to fix any of this (true), that one-and-dones should be free to turn pro straight out of high school (true) and that the NCAA is basically funded by men’s college basketball revenue (true).
None of these concepts are novel. But it’s rare to hear anyone this deeply entrenched in the business openly question the NCAA’s cherished anachronism of amateurism like this. Krzyzewski is speaking truth to power, except there are few in the sport more powerful than him and when it comes to the issues he’s addressing, there really isn’t anyone who has the power to fix them.
“We are not running this the way a billion-dollar industry should be run,” Krzyzewski said. “We try to put a circle into a square. That’s what men’s college basketball is. It’s not a bad circle. But it can’t be done like the square.”
Perhaps the most interesting among all of his comments was his condemnation of the NBA’s one-and-done policy, since Krzyzewski has been among the most active college coaches in recruiting one-and-done players over the past decade and won a national title in 2015 with a team built around them (albeit with less success in tournaments before and since).
His argument: Players are getting paid before they get to college, so if they’re going to end up in the NBA anyway, why make them adhere to the NCAA’s amateurism rules for one year for essentially no reason?
“If these kids are being recruited and doing that stuff, let ’em go,” Krzyzewski said. “Let ’em continue to go in that. God bless ’em. They’ll get an extra year in the NBA. And then the NBA has to be responsible for developing them. The NBA is great. I love (commissioner and Duke alum) Adam (Silver), I love everyone. They got a good thing going. They put them into ours, they get to see if they’re good enough, they market them, and then they take the really good ones. I mean, Jayson Tatum is more marketable then if he just came out of St. Louis. Or Malik Monk. Or whatever.”
But the thrust of all Krzyzewski’s arguments was the same: There’s too much money in the entire sport of basketball for the NCAA to pretend there isn’t. That isn’t going to change. The question is whether the NCAA can – or is even willing to – adapt.
There’s nothing new about that – educated people have been making those arguments for years, even if the pace and tenor have both intensified lately. The only difference Tuesday was who was talking, but it’s impossible to overstate how big a difference that is. Krzyzewski insisted the federal investigation was not the tip of any iceberg; his willingness to discuss the problems facing college basketball in such blunt terms could be.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock