Last week, as superstar high school basketball guard Marquis Teague was about to make his college decision, rumors exploded across the web, fueled by the Twitterati, that Lebron James had called Teague to seal the deal for Coach Calipari.
Of course, there were more rumors of money changing hands, back door deals and several other scenarios as Teague's announcement hour approached.
This rumor of James' alleged phone call was later denied by Teague's father, but the reason the rumor had such vicious legs is that many college basketball fans see a disturbing repeated trend, real or not, where NBA players and the associated 'runners' of high school basketball have too much input and influence in the college game.
But let's examine the opposing forces at work here to create such a furor every time a player suddenly commits to a different program than expected, or chooses a school where one of his relatives is hired, and so on. Let me be clear, this has nothing to do with Marquis Teague, he's just the latest player to fuel the rumor mill and finger pointing. There will be another player after Teague, then another, and another. There is no evidence beyond the rumors, and this isn't about him.
For the vast majority of sports fans, playing the game to win is the only motive. We root for our favorite local team or whomever we latch onto as 'our' team, and we want the team to gain the accolades and trophies that only victories will bring.
But that's not why top players choose their college choices. They choose their college choices based on how those colleges will position them to get paid to play in the pros.
Winning games is not why agents try to get their hooks into players as early as possible. It's because when those players ink big deals in the pros, the agents get a cut.
And there's the rub. Winning in college basketball is the bread and butter of the NCAA cash cow. In college basketball, if you don't have a winning team, you don't have a money making team. Colleges like North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky are huge, massive enterprises, but only because they have fan bases larger than most NBA teams.
In the pros, you can make money from a team as long as there is one player that fans enjoy watching. You can make money just by being in the league because of the television contracts, even if your team misses the playoffs or gets bounced quickly from the playoffs.
In the NBA, owners can buy a team, own it for five years of losing, and then still sell it for more money than they paid for it.
In other words, winning isn't the sole reason for profit in the NBA, and that is the No. 1 difference between the college game and the pros. The very concept that winning isn't necessarily number one is why there's so much money to be made by people who are hangers-on, agents and 'inside' people for players. There's a lot of money in the business of bringing in talent.
And as long as people like Derrick Rose, John Wall, or Michael Beasley are worth so much to NBA owners, there will be the specter of back door dealings and payments floating around.
This goes exactly opposite of what works for the NCAA. The NCAA needs players to commit to college, play well in the team environment, stick around as long as possible, win a lot of games before sailing off into the sunset of the pro game. The NCAA suffers with players like Lance Stephenson, who barely spend any time at the college level, never really improve their games, never become household names beyond recruit-niks and bolt for the pro paycheck.
It's not to blame Stephenson, because the pro game is where the real money for the player is.
If the NCAA wanted to send a warning shot across the bow of the NBA, all it would have to do is start paying players a stipend, or at least a living wage.
Forget all that silly talk about getting a college degree, even on it's face, that argument is simply the NCAA hoping no one understands mathematics, because even non-athletes are often aware that a college education is not always worth the cost.
Some people walk out of college with $60K, $80K, or $150K of student debt to get a job paying $40K a year. Now, imagine if those same students were bringing in millions of dollars in revenue for the college and you can see why the argument is a weak one. Colleges love the idea of 'comping' a player's tuition in exchange for millions in profit.
The NCAA makes this argument because they want free labor, and paying would cut into their multi-billion dollar bottom line. But it also puts them at odds with all those pro connections who want to ride the player's paychecks into the pro game, and so we have a constant chess match.
Players pick high profile schools; some players care enough to improve and try to win; some players try and just do their time until they can get drafted.
Two opposing desires. The NBA needs big money talent to sell to it's markets, and the NCAA needs free talent to win games.