The University of Kentucky's men's basketball team seems to be living the dream, earning a trip the NCAA Final Four after beating last year's champion and runner up in dramatic fashion. But in a fairer system, the freshman stars of the team would be watching the tournament on TV, inside mansions they bought with multi-million-dollar NBA contracts.
That they are playing college basketball instead, enriching everyone involved but themselves, is a result of one of the most exploitative and cynical deals in all of sports.
In 2005, at the urging of then-commissioner David Stern, the NBA adjusted the collective bargaining agreement to require that draftees be 19, and a year removed from high school. Since then, dozens of elite athletes who would earn millions of dollars a year on NBA rosters have been essentially forced to spend a season as unpaid interns in a sports industry that generates huge revenues for everyone but them.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari, who relies more on this one-and-done talent than any other coach, earns 4.2 million a year plus a package of sweet perks including two cars, a country-club membership and performance-based bonuses. Advancing to the Final Four earned Calipari and the rest of the Kentucky coaching staff more than $300,000 in bonuses. If Kentucky wins it all, the staff will collect about three-quarters of a million dollars in bonuses, all told.
The value of an athletic scholarship for an out-of-state player at Kentucky is about $33,000 a year.
The extraordinary salaries are a direct result of a system that bestows lavish gifts upon college football and basketball coaches for the very reason that the schools don't pay the players. (I argued in a column last year that Alabama's Nick Saban wouldn't earn more than all but a few NFL coaches if his players received a share of the enormous profits Bama's football program generates).
Overall, Kentucky took in about $23 million from its men's basketball program in 2012, according to Department of Education data.
Technically, the Kentucky players are student athletes, freely exchanging their talent on the court for a full college scholarship. In reality, they are victims of a discriminatory rule designed to allow NBA franchises an extra year to evaluate their talents without spending a dime to do so. Top basketball schools like Kentucky, which prior to the rule watched glumly as elite players like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant jumped straight to the NBA, have also greatly benefited from lucrative television deals. Die-hard NBA fans who previously had little interest in college games now watch to get sneak previews of such transcendent talents as Kansas University's Andrew Wiggins, in contention to be the first pick in the upcoming draft.
At least three of the Kentucky starters are certain locks to become NBA lottery picks.
Defenders of the status quo characterize the system as allowing players to mature, arguing that 18-year-olds aren't physically or mentally ready for the rigors of the NBA. Some of the players almost certainly aren't ready to make that jump. But it is incredibly condescending to assert that players and their families can't make these decisions for themselves. Major League Baseball doesn't impose such an arbitrary rule. Tennis players can join the pro circuit at any age.
And consider an analogy from the white-collar work world. In what universe would Apple or Google tell a high school programming prodigy that he or she had to attend a year of college before joining their team?
Moreover, professional athletes have a short shelf life. Virtually no one plays at an elite level in any sport past 40. Injury can claim a career at any time. Last year, Kentucky's Nerlens Noel tore his ACL in a game against Florida. The injury likely cost him a shot at being the No. 1 draft pick. He was drafted sixth, and it now appears that he will miss his entire rookie season while rehabbing from the injury.
In a landmark recent decision to allow Northwestern University football players to unionize, a federal judge determined that the players are employees of the university. It's possible that the decision will eventually lead to elite college athletes in all sports to collectively bargain for pay.
But that day, if it comes, is still far off.
For now, the new NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, is pushing for the league to increase the minimum age requirement to 20, depriving elite players of yet another year's salary.
Calipari has said he would support that decision. He has millions of reasons to do so.