Kentucky coach John Calipari didn't want to continue UK's longstanding rivalry with Indiana as a home-and-home series. Indiana coach Tom Crean didn't want to play on a neutral floor. Turns out, fans of both teams, and fans of college basketball in general, aren't the only ones incensed with the turn of events.
The Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics -- a group of 59 faculty senate members from Football Bowl Subdivision schools, whose mission is to "provide a national faculty voice on intercollegiate sports issues" and which supports the traditional student-athlete model -- is none too pleased, either. This week, the COIA released a scathing statement on Calipari's justification of his new scheduling strategy, saying Kentucky's refusal to play on campus sites marks "the type of warning sign we would expect to see on the path toward a full professional model." An excerpt:
Consistent with COIA policy, the Coalition Steering Committee calls for strong opposition to such policy changes from the NCAA leadership, conference commissioners, and Division-I schools, and we urge NCAA member schools to refrain from signing contracts with Kentucky on such terms. [...]
Now Kentucky is taking its professional model to the next level. By demanding as a matter of policy that non-conference games be moved to neutral sites that emulate professional conditions it is breaking the connection between campus and school sports and insisting that contracted opponents do likewise. Programs designed with the balanced goals of the collegiate model cannot compete with this approach, and UK’s actions will place schools under enormous pressure to follow suit.
We call on all those who support the collegiate model of athletics to speak out against this further move to professionalize college sports, and -- most importantly -- to decline to participate in such a separation of competitions from campuses. Even a “non-traditional” sports program needs opponents to play.
It's a shot across the bow, but there are a few things in the statement worth disputing. For one, the idea of moving more nonconference games to neutral sites is not a new one. It has been happening in one form or another -- whether through exempt tournaments or events like the Crossroads Classic -- for decades. Nor is it specifically speaking about "emulating professional conditions." It's more about emulating end-of-season conference and NCAA tournament conditions. Calipari is hardly the first coach to take the idea so seriously. (See: Krzyzewski, Mike.) Plus, Indiana-Kentucky was played for more than a decade at neutral sites in Indianapolis and Louisville. This is not a new thing.
Indeed, this ship has long since sailed in football and men's basketball, where off-campus events are nearly as common as games on campus during the nonconference portion of the season. It is difficult to see the logical jump required here: How do off-campus events undermine the student-athlete model, exactly?
Michael G. Bowen, a South Florida professor and co-chair of the COIA Steering Committee, was quick to point out that Calipari's move is merely an example of a larger issue endemic to collegiate athletics.
"It's not Kentucky or Calipari specifically," Bowen said via phone Wednesday. "It's a larger problem of professionalization in college athletics. This is taking things in the wrong direction. It's sort of defeating the purpose of what a university is about, or what an education at a university should be about."
If you disagree with the current collegiate model in the first place -- and many people wonder why college athletes can't be paid at least something for the money they generate for their universities, conferences and TV partners -- then you would have to reject the COIA's premise. If you think professionalization of revenue sports is a good thing, or at least in Kentucky's case, an understandably pragmatic approach, then you will wonder exactly what all the fuss is about.
Which is why, in the end, this is probably not the best argument against the end of the Indiana-Kentucky rivalry.
For my money, the best argument is still the simplest one: Ending a traditional regional blueblood rivalry that has been played continuously since 1969 because you're only willing to play at neutral sites is, for lack of a better phrase, weak. It robs the fans of a game they deserve, in an atmosphere they control. It sterilizes or even destroys the things that make college basketball great: tradition, passion, the roar of the home crowd.
I'm less concerned about a move toward professionalization than a move toward isolation: Where each elite school becomes an island unto itself, worried only about doing what's best for its RPI and bottom line on a yearly basis, its coaches are devoid of concern for the greater good of the sport that allows them to make millions of dollars and wield such power in the first place. Instead of playing anybody anywhere, or even playing teams fans would rightfully expect to play, coaches follow Calipari's lead, justifying it with an us against the world approach.
Calipari is far from the only one guilty of this. He's only the most extreme recent example.
"Professionalization" or no, the sport and its fans deserve better. To me, that's still the real gripe here.