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Tubby Smith Was Not Born in A Barn: Requiem

First, a correction. In my last post, I stated that former Gopher forward Courtney James had encountered some legal trouble stemming from his choice to hit his girlfriend with a phone. Balls! reader Tom quite rightly pointed out that James’ weapon of choice was actually a phone book and, furthermore, that this should not come as a surprise considering that us Minnesotans are a literate bunch. Right you are, Tom; I stand corrected.

Welcome, Again, to The Terrordome

Last week I talked a bit about the undue power that men’s football and basketball coaches wield on major university campuses. And specifically, about Gopher hoops coach Tubby Smith’s probably correct assumption that because he is probably the highest paid employee of the University, he can dictate institutional policy. One of the chief rebuttals to such criticism is the fact that football and basketball are probably (especially when alumni giving is factored in) the two biggest moneymakers at major universities. This, the argument goes, justifies their special status on campus. But if you make this argument, then you are acknowledging that the kids who participate on those teams are essentially professional athletes. That they earn their place at the University by making money for the University. This, dudes, is a big problem since, as you are probably aware, they are not actually paid for their efforts. A few weeks ago, Moneyball author Michael Lewis posted a pretty great op-ed in the Times about just this problem (his arguments related to football, but I’m pretty sure almost everything he says can be extrapolated to college basketball). Lewis’ basic argument is this: 1) given graduation rates, lack of preparation and lack of institutional support for most big time college athletes, thinking of them as students is patently ridiculous, 2) Considering the amount of money they earn for their schools and the amount of time and work they are expected to commit, they are basically professionals, 3) Division I football players should be paid. Mostly, I think, I agree.

Now, as I’ve intimated before, I love the atmosphere of college basketball. I love the energy of the games and I love watching drunk college kids go bonkers supporting their school. And I really like the idea that the kids who provide all of that enjoyment should have access to a free education. But even given that, it’s pretty hard to deny that our little system of attaching big time athletics to academic institutions is a mutually corrupting sham. There is no such thing, really, as a totally “clean” program, one that actually wins and is also able to nurture the majority of its athletes toward graduation—especially the many academically unprepared and under-qualified kids that it’s bound to have on it’s roster. Way too many universities (like the U of M, as I outlined last time) have had their academic missions gravely compromised by the imperative to win games. And way, way too many kids who have never been dissuaded from the idea that the NBA is a realistic expectation, who have spent most of their lives having their bodies fetishised by manipulative adults and commodified by the media, end up four years later with absolutely nothing to show for it. Except, maybe, some awesome memories.

What Happens in Vegas...Is Usually Terrifying

Speaking of memories, the Gophers took part in the completely un-televised “Duel in the Desert” round robin tournament in Las Vegas this weekend. In their first two games, they handily defeated patsies Kennesaw St. and Nicholls St. Then, on Saturday, they were, from the looks of things, completely taken apart by UNLV, losing 81-64. Now, a huge disclaimer: I have not been in Las Vegas in a few years. The last time I was there I did watch some college basketball on TV, but it was in the context of getting drunk and losing my last nickels at the slots, while waiting for my Greyhound to leave. Bottom line: I didn’t watch any of these games. But I feel like I can make some provisional observations. Dan Coleman and Blake Hoffarber were the only Gophers who, on paper at least, turned in solid performances in each game. Much as they did against Florida State, primary ballhandlers Al Nolen and Lawrence McKenzie shot a low percentage and turned the ball over seven times between them. Now, UNLV and Florida State are both fine teams. But the Gophers will encounter a different beast this Saturday on the road against Michigan St. and, for that matter, against the rest of the Big Ten’s upper tier. If their guards can’t play better against good teams, the Gophers will be in for some very long nights.

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