What UConn’s Victory Says About 'Slave Catchers'

Connecticut Huskies Shabazz Napier
Connecticut Huskies guard Ryan Boatright, left, and guard Shabazz Napier, right, celebrate their victory Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

It was, to paraphrase Jim Nantz, a sedition unlike any other.

Minutes after the University of Connecticut had defeated the University of Kentucky to claim the NCAA men’s basketball championship in a stadium that was constructed primarily for professional football, the Huskies senior point guard was being feted on a hastily erected stage by the CBS announcer.

Here was Nantz, a polished professional, a middle-aged white millionaire who seems more aptly suited to the fairways of Augusta National, where he will call The Masters later this week, a man who penned a book titled Always By My Side – A Father’s Grace and a Sports Journey Unlike Any Other. And here was Shabazz Napier, also a polished professional, a young black student-athlete raised by a single mother in the impoverished town of Roxbury, Mass.

Here were two men for whom the term “gated community” has vastly different meanings, meeting at the crossroads of American culture.

This was a wonderful moment, one might even refer to it as a shining moment, as Nantz reminded Napier, or more pointedly, reminded a television audience numbering more than 14 million people, that Napier had bookended a brilliant collegiate career by winning national championships as both a freshman and a senior.

The stage was Napier’s. The next 30 seconds would define him. He would never again have a forum this large, an audience this rapt.

“Honestly, I want to get everyone’s attention right quick,” said Napier, seemingly weighing whether or not he was going to follow through with his intentions. It was an amusing, even charming moment, Napier beseeching the 10,000 remaining fans in AT&T Stadium to listen to him, seemingly oblivious to the fact that possibly 10 million were watching him on television.

Richard Sherman, he is not.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you are looking at the hungry Huskies,” said Napier, his voice gaining in confidence. “This is what happens when you ban us! Last year, two years. We worked so hard for it.”

“This is what happens when you ban us” instantly eclipsed Aaron Harrison’s game-winning three-pointer for Kentucky in the national semi-final two nights earlier as the most memorable shot of the weekend. How many points it scored is still being assessed. Let’s examine a few of them. RTR3KCCN Connecticut Huskies guard Shabazz Napier shoots the ball. Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

The APR Illusion

The ban to which Napier was referring happened last season. The Huskies achieved a dubious distinction by becoming the first program from a major conference to record such abysmal scores on their Academic Progress Report (APR) that they were prohibited from participating in the tournament.

The NCAA mandates that teams maintain a baseline level of academic integrity, although why they do so depends on your perspective. If they do it for the benefit of the student-athletes, then why did the Huskies spend the previous five weekends in Dallas, New York City, Buffalo, Memphis and Louisville?

How many of the 10 starters in last night’s game were obsessing about past-due homework assignments, research papers or presentations as they played in front of 79,000 fans, two of whom were former United States presidents, who spent $75 (for parking) and who knows how much more for seats?

If you place 10 virgins in a whorehouse filled with johns, that doesn’t make it a convent.

For every purist who insists that student-athletes must be academically responsible, the reply among many would be, Why do you think I’m here? Kentucky started five freshmen last night and at least three of them, if not all five, are headed straight out of Lexington and to NBA pre-draft camps. How many of them will ever sit in another classroom?

As Wildcat John Calipari quipped after the game, “They surrendered… for our team and our program and our school. Season’s over. Now it’s about them.” Shabazz Napier Connecticut Huskies guard Shabazz Napier celebrate after defeating the Kentucky Wildcats 60-54 Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Who’s using whom?

You cannot beat the NCAA’s model. The organization is in the fourth year of a 14-year, $10.8 billion contract with CBS and Turner and that’s just for broadcast rights to the NCAA men’s tournament, a.k.a. “March Madness.” The approximately 1,000 players on the 68 teams who participate are not compensated in cash but rather with scholarships, room and board and sports apparel.

It’s an arrangement that leads provocative ESPN columnist Jason Whitlock to refer to the NCAA as “slave catchers.”

So of course players, um, student-athletes want to be paid. At least most of them do. This, however, is also an exercise in Business 101. The only reason the NCAA is permitted to continue this practice is that every year every blue-chip high school basketball player accepts a scholarship and we fans, many of us who rail against the NCAA’s exploitation of these athletes, continue to attend the games or watch them on TV and purchase the gear.  

We are all, fans and scholarship athletes alike, enablers of the system.

If we refused to buy tickets to the events or watch them on television…if the student-athletes –less than five percent of whom will ever play in the NBA, anyway— organized themselves in a strike, they might be able to foment change. Until then, they have no leverage.

It all reminds me of a scene from Risky Business, as an extremely naïve Joel Goodson (Tom Cruise) warns Lana, the prostitute whom he is allowing to crash in his parents’ tony home, not to burgle anything as he departs for another day of high school. “Oh, Joel,” Lana replies dismissively, “go to school. Go learn something.”

Leverage is everything in business. Fair is nothing.

Meanwhile, Napier is a senior. The NBA’s system of forbidding players to enter the draft until one year after high school graduation is not only unfair, but it should be struck down as unconstitutional. Still, that rule does not apply to the Napier who was so defiant last night.

So why did he remain at UConn? Perhaps because he knows that his NBA draft placement would be enhanced by a stellar senior season as opposed to shooting hoops back home in Roxbury. This NCAA tournament was his best possible showcase and it likely earned him millions. For that, as much as he and his peers would be loathe to admit it, he is indebted to the NCAA.

The Deeper Question

Given a stage and a national forum, here is what Napier did not say: that he was grateful for the opportunity, that he was humbled by the moment, that he appreciated the support from the University of Connecticut students and community. That he was, to echo the title of a current hit song that was played during a television timeout in the stadium last night, “Happy.”

And if any of those sentiments would have hit false notes, then of course Napier should not have uttered them.

What Napier did express was defiance toward the NCAA; resentment toward a rule that he probably finds so far beyond the point; and unity with his teammates, if no one else.

The deeper question is to ask if all of these attitudes pre-date Napier’s matriculation at Connecticut. To ask why an older generation looks at these athletes as “entitled,” while the younger generation sees itself as “exploited.”

And to wonder if both sides are not at least a little bit right.

Meanwhile, Jim Nantz will head to Augusta National, a private golf club that only two years ago, and only after years of pressure, lifted its ban on female members. It could be a few decades, or centuries, before a woman is congratulated for winning the Masters.