The University of Kentucky could make history tonight. If it wins the national championship, it will become the first team in NCAA's Men's Division I Basketball history to do so while starting five freshmen.
There has been a raging debate about the "one-and-done" players -- the group of basketball players that attends college for a single year, essentially biding their time until they become eligible for the NBA draft. Many critics have said it hurts the college game, undermines the educational mission of the universities and provides insufficient preparation for the pros. Kentucky coach John Calipari has become synonymous with the phenomenon. In 2012, his freshmen dominated team won the national championship. In that June's NBA draft, the top two players chosen -- Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist -- were his two star players, both freshmen. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, like his predecessor, David Stern, want to require players to wait an additional year before they can enter the NBA. A growing chorus of supporters of college basketball agree.
Those on the other side of the debate -- myself included -- have argued that there is no systematic evidence to substantiate the claim that a lack of significant college experience hurts the NBA, or that more time in college improves one's professional prospects. Quite the contrary. Furthermore, supporters of requiring more time in college generally fail to acknowledge that there some pretty basic labor rights issues at stake in the debate.
Regardless of where you stand, though, let me assure you of one thing -- the sky will not fall if Kentucky wins tonight. From time immemorial, those who have reached adulthood have complained about the kids -- their lack of respect for established norms, their diminishing work ethic, their selfishness, and so forth. The sports world has tended to embrace this line of complaint with particular gusto. For decades now, scribes, retired players and those old enough to refer to others as "son," have lamented the passing of the great spirit of teamwork, selflessness, "respect for the game" and dues paying that the kids in every generation are said no longer appreciate. Bill Joyce, a retired ballplayer, recently complained loudly about how the ballplayers of today only thought about hitting home runs, rather than doing all of the little things necessary to help a team win.
Did I say "recently"? Oops. I meant "about a century ago," in 1916. Yep. That's right, in a year in which the leading home run total in the Major Leagues was 12, we had an ex-ballplayer complain that it's all players thought about. Former players and tribunes of tradition made the same complaints in the 1940s, the 1960s, the 1980s and so on.
Likewise, lots of people complain about the fact that, nowadays, every kid gets a trophy. This is supposed to teach the wrong lessons about incentive, effort and consequences. Well, guess what? My bowling team "won" a 23rd place trophy in 1981. Did we pat ourselves on the back, convinced that we were just as good as every other bowling team in our league that year, as we prepared for a lifetime of slothfulness because everyone gets a trophy regardless? Hardly. We sucked. And we knew it.
When the Fab Five took the basketball world by storm in 1992-93, many decried their baggy shorts, their "attitude" and, let's be honest, their blackness. For many, they were a detriment to the game -- a hideous reflection of the new youth and everything wrong with contemporary American culture. Where are they twenty years later? Jalen Rose is one of the highest profile analysts in American sports. Juwan Howard is a highly respected retired player and assistant coach. Chris Webber has also been a studio analyst and color commentator for years. Jimmy King is a successful businessman. So is Ray Jackson. College basketball, amazingly enough, survived and, rumor has it, has remained pretty popular and lucrative since then.
In fairness, these Kentucky freshmen have not had their characters repeatedly maligned in anything like the way that the original Fab Five did. In some respects, times have changed and it's a different group of kids. But there remains much hand-wringing about the peril both college and pro sports face because of the kids. The reason that so many support the age minimum and even increasing it despite, as I said, almost no evidence to substantiate the claims underlying support for it, reflects an age-old anxiety -- that kids today are not what they used to be, and society is under siege as a result. Raising the NBA age limit to 20, sad to say, isn't going to change appreciably any social trend of any significance, inside or outside of sports. And neither will Kentucky winning it all tonight.
So relax, enjoy the game and don't worry about the world spinning off its axis if Mr. One and Done takes home another title.
Check out my musings on ESPN and other sports media here.