I made my first trip to Lawrence, KS, in February. Traveling to the land of Rock Chalk Jayhawk was actually less of a “trip” than a pilgrimage. It is part of the Mt. Rushmore of college basketball’s history along with North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA (sorry, Duke). Yet for all the championships at all the other schools, Kansas really does stand alone when it comes to its contribution to the history of hoops.
The school’s first men’s coach was Dr. James Naismith, their current coach is Bill Self and they have only had six coaches in between, including Phog Allen, Larry Brown and Roy Williams. (Want a great bar trivia question? Of the eight coaches who helmed the men’s team over the last century, Dr. Naismith is the only one with a losing record.) This is also the school of Wilt Chamberlain, the most dominant pro player to ever live; Lynnette Woodard, whose galactic play was under the leadership of legendary coach Marian Washington; and Danny Manning, who, for my money, ranks behind only Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton as the greatest male collegians to ever take the court.
Kansas is at the root of another Hall of Fame tree: It was where Dean Smith was born, played and then worked as an assistant to Allen. Hell, the town of Halstead, KS, is the birthplace of Adolph Rupp. Given the state’s population, what this institution has given us is almost surreal.
Yet there is something else about Kansas—which I witnessed firsthand. In touring the facilities and speaking at both a class on race and sports as well as a sports symposium, I saw something I have never seen at other big state basketball schools: utter engagement of the athletes with the academic world and campus life. I am cynical about college sports and this cynicism is well earned. Amateur athletics in this country is a cesspool of exploitation and the NCAA lords over this flaming trash heap like an old man with a sawed-off shotgun in a rocking chair. That man in the rocking chair, its $2-million-a-year President Mark Emmert, runs this multi-billion dollar cartel with no sense of morality or higher purpose. Far too many schools reflect this absence of a sense of moral mission beyond winning games and securing ever more lucrative contracts for their coaches. I’ve seen and heard too many stories of so-called student-athletes on a conveyer belt, with no one having any kind of interest in their future beyond what they can do to put the rock in the hole come March Madness.
But then I saw Kansas. The class I witnessed had basketball and football players fully engaged with the rest of the students, their books as dog-eared as anyone else’s. The evening keynote address was from 6-8 p.m. Practice ended at 6 p.m. and every member of the team was in their seats along with 500 other people by 6:15. Keep in mind, at the time of this writing the Jayhawks were the No. 2 basketball team in the country, getting ready for March Madness. Professors told me stories matter-of-factly about the academic work of several Jayhawks now in the NBA. I know schools where the NBA-caliber players don’t know their teachers and the teachers could not care less about the students who they are passing on to the next grade. But here, I was able to walk through the athletic academic center and saw serious engagement across the board.
I also met several former players, like former Big 12 Player of the Year and NBA first-round draft pick Wayne Simien (pictured above), who have returned to Lawrence to live.
Professors with whom I spoke—even the “burn the NCAA to the ground and pay the damn players like the employees that they are” professors—were proud of what their school has been able to do: have an ethical direction in an amoral landscape. They should be proud. But, with all respect, that’s also not enough. As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility, and Kansas has a responsibility to not only feel content about what they are doing in Lawrence but to challenge the NCAA to fundamentally reform. They are one of only a few places with the history and the cultural capital to push the needle on that kind of change. In the name of James Naismith, Dean Smith and Danny Manning, they need to lead a rebellion to get so-called student-athletes a seat at the table so the system can be fixed so everyone benefits: not just for the risible cartel known as the NCAA. That’s real leadership, and other than at Kansas, I’d be hard pressed to think of a major institution that is fit to lead.
Image via Getty