In a decision that speaks to the worst impulses of a proud magazine, Sports Illustrated has chosen the two active legends of College Basketball coaching, Mike Krzyzewski and Pat Summitt, as their Sportspersons of the Year.
It’s impossible to quibble with the choice of Tennessee’s Summitt, the all-time winningest coach in NCAA hoops history, after 38 seasons and eight championships leading the Lady Vols.
The tough-as-leather coach who insists her players refer to her as “Pat” was diagnosed earlier this year with Alzheimer’s disease. She has insisted on coaching as long as her body will allow while also starting a foundation to fight the crippling illness. Coach Summitt is without question an absolute inspiration in how one can use sports to leverage the greater good.
The choice of Krzyzewski speaks to a far different impulse. Certainly his accomplishments speak for themselves. He recently set the all-time record for men's coaching wins, but that is only part of the majesty of Coach K's recent history.
As Sports Illustrated's Alexander Wolff put it succinctly, "No other coach has ever won the Olympics, the NCAAs and the Worlds—and Coach K did so in a span of 26 months."
But Wolff and company could not have picked a worse time in our sports history to burnish the legend of Coach K. I don’t object to the choice of Krzyzewski because I dislike, as so many do, the elitist trappings of Duke University. I don’t object because, for all his pretensions of sportsmanship, Coach K swears at players and refs in a manner that would make his mentor, Bob Knight, blush. I don’t even object because I’m a proud fan of the University of Maryland.
I object because of the unspoken reason he is receiving this honor. It's because at no time in the history of amateur sports has the NCAA been so mired in crisis, crippled under the weight of its own culture of corruption.
Sports Illustrated is not merely honoring Coach K, but giving reassurance to a rotten system.
In 2011, we all learned just how low the NCAA and its member schools would go to defend their bottom lines. We learned how people in power at Penn State University would put the lives of children at risk, if it meant preserving the lucrative legend of coach Joe Paterno. We learned what Syracuse University and the surrounding community would be willing to cover up—and how many children they would endanger—to protect their own Hall of Fame Coach Jim Boeheim and the $19 million annual cash-cow of Syracuse hoops. We saw Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel resign after a series of scandals that now look quaint, and we witnessed the University of Miami Athletic Department reel under the weight of the gutter economy of exchange between criminal boosters and the school’s President Donna Shalala.
This was also the year that Dr. Martin Luther King’s Pulitzer Prize winning biographer, Taylor Branch, published The Cartel: The Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA, which exposes just how corrupt and ugly the amateur industry is. As Branch writes, “College athletes are not slaves. Yet to survey the scene…is to catch the whiff of the plantation.”
Coach K has acquired power by inhaling deeply this “whiff of the plantation." His salary at Duke now stands at over $5 million a year. Nike also pays him seven figures so his players can advertise the Swoosh as they run up and down the court. He defended his income last year by saying, “If you’re at a program for a long time, if you’re at a school for a long time, you become much more than just a basketball coach at the school. You become an ambassador for the school.”
As an ambassador, that’s still one hell of a paycheck.
If we really need to honor an NCAA coach, I’d go with South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier. Not because his Gamecocks are particularly good, but because earlier this year he called for his fellow NCAA coaches to pay players out of their own salaries.
As Spurrier said, "We make all the money. We need to get more to our players...they bring in the money. They're the performers."
Or SI could have chosen Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini, who had the guts to say following Nebraska’s visit to Penn State just four days after Joe Paterno was fired, that the “game shouldn’t have been played...It’s about doing what's right in society. It’s about doing what’s right and wrong…It is a lot bigger than football, the NCAA, the Big Ten and anything else.”
Choosing Spurrier or Pelini—or even Taylor Branch—as Sportsperson of the Year would have been a powerful statement from SI that "business as usual" in the NCAA has to come to an end.
The choice of Coach K is a choice that says: “Have no fear, villagers. We must keep faith in our all-powerful and benevolent Coach-God Rulers.”
It’s an awful choice, serving a collegiate status quo currently residing in a moral abyss. Sports Illustrated should be leading the charge to democratize college sports, not burnishing the legend of our last Sun King, Mike Krzyzewski.
Originally published in The Nation.
Dave Zirin is the author of The John Carlos Story (Haymarket) and just made the new documentary Not Just a Game. Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.