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UK Wildcats Basketball: Back to the USSR

Of all the statements John Calipari makes in his new book, Players First: Coaching from the Inside Out, none of them have received quite the attention as his comment comparing the NCAA to the Soviet Union.

From the Wall Street Journal:

“The situation reminds me a little of the Soviet Union in its last years. It was still powerful. It could still hurt you. But you could see it crumbling, and it was just a matter of time before it either changed or ceased to exist.”

In the numerous interviews he has done this week to promote the book, Calipari has since [somewhat] apologized for the passage.

Ironically, Calipari is right about the NCAA, but not in the way he presents the argument in his book. Calipari presents the argument that the NCAA must change or it will disappear; by linking it to the Soviet Union, he implies this, too, was the choice that ultimately confronted the Communist Party in Moscow: change or die out.

The reality, however, is different. It isn’t that the Soviet Union refused to change, it’s that they waited too long to change. Gorbachev’s reform efforts—in particular, glasnost and perestroika—weren’t enacted until 1987, seven years after the Solidarity Movement emerged in Poland and two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. By the time reforms were passed in the Soviet Union, democracy and free market movements were well underway throughout Eastern Europe. It was only a matter of time.

Similarly, the NCAA isn’t faced with an either/or scenario today—change your model or fade away—it’s that there exists the very real possibility that any reforms the NCAA might enact over the next few years will simply be too late.

I have long believed that it is only a matter of time before there exists four 16-team superconferences, driven to existence by college football and the large sums of money the sport commands. As it stands, the ACC has expanded to 15 schools while the SEC counts 14 schools as member institutions. Beginning next season, the Big Ten will expand to 14 schools, with the inclusion of Rutgers and Maryland. Out west, the Pac-12 is comprised of 12 institutions. Only the Big XII and the AAC will have fewer than 12 member schools next year.

[As a point of clarification only 14 schools compete in football in the ACC. Notre Dame retains its “Independent” status in football.]

Once the four 16-team superconferences come into existence, those conferences will be able to exert their influence in ways they only can hope to do so now. And once they begin to do so, they can—and I believe they will—fundamentally alter the model of college athletics, forever. These 4 conferences, thanks to the significant dollars brought in by television deals and the creation of conference-specific television networks, will be in a position to leave the NCAA and ultimately enact many of the reforms the NCAA refuses to do so now.

And just as in Europe, once the Eastern European nations broke away from the Soviet Union, ultimately forcing the Soviet Union to embrace democracy and the free market, the NCAA, too, will have to embrace the altered college athletic model. But it will be too late.

What remains? There are 340 Division I institutions; the 64 schools that would comprise the 4 superconferences represent less than a fifth of all Division I schools. And there are, of course, schools at the Division II and III level who might be largely unaffected by wholesale changes at the top. So the NCAA isn’t going to go away. It will be, just as is Russia today, less powerful and less influentia,l with a diminished sphere of influence.

John Calipari, like most athletic coaches, can be prone to hyperbole. But on this, he was absolutely right.

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