In an ideal world, everyone would stay four years and graduate. But Kentucky’s basketball program is in fact a tribute to a real-world system that works, preparing young people for a viable profession — in this case, professional athletics.
Not only in basketball and football but also across the spectrum of intercollegiate sports, top-tier athletes are honing their skills for the pros. Tennis players and golfers often leave college after one or two years to turn pro. Baseball players are drafted out of high school; many of those who accept college scholarships play for two or three years before leaving for the pro ranks. In hockey, talented underclassmen leave college after the season and join the pro team that holds their rights.
Intercollegiate athletics feed and nourish the professional leagues. But they also doing what colleges are supposed to: preparing their students for a productive future.
Calipari and his staff have done this well. In his first two seasons at Kentucky, Calipari has had eight players leave early for the N.B.A. — five of them freshmen.
So why has the prospect of five U.K. young players turning pro unsettled so many people?
If the core of the Kentucky team had been made up of white players with phenomenal athleticism and acumen at every position — operating in the context of a largely black sport — we would not be hearing the complaining. Their success would not be seen as a debasement. The team would be celebrated and feted — as Butler was, as Gonzaga used to be.
Last week, I asked Tom Izzo, the basketball coach at Michigan State, if he thought a highly talented, highly athletic team of white players would be viewed differently.
“I want to answer that as honestly as I can,” Izzo said. “I think it would be different. I hate to say that.”
The perception is that these five black players are not serious students and don’t belong at the university. If they were white, there would be more acceptance that they belong at the university.
“It’s sad for me to say, but it’s probably the truth,” Izzo said.
Perception or not, the reality is that the sports industry has done its part preparing young men and women for their careers as professional athletes. Only a small percentage will succeed, but only a fraction succeed at the highest level in any profession.