Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Ethan Miller / Getty Images North America
George King wanted to do a solid favor for an old friend.
This old friend, proud of a recently completed Colorado basketball career that landed King among the Buffaloes’ top 20 all-time leaders in points and rebounds, wanted to commemorate King’s accomplishments with his own replica Colorado Buffaloes No. 24 basketball jersey.
No problem, King figured. He trudged over to the gift shop at the University Memorial Center, and even though King had a good idea of what he was going to find, the punch to the gut struck far deeper than mere sticker shock.
Seventy-five dollars. Seventy-five dollars (plus tax) for a replica of the jersey he had worn for 127 games while amassing 1,294 points and 681 rebounds for the school emblazoned across the jersey’s chest.
King took part in an interesting discussion Thursday night in the Petry Auditorium of CU’s Champions Center, joining a panel assembled by professor Roger Pielke, Jr. The open forum orbited around the question, “Are big-time college athletics compatible with academics?”
I was in attendance Thursday night, as I was a month ago when Pac-12 Conference commissioner Larry Scott offered his preliminary thoughts regarding the efforts of the league’s basketball task force, which was constructed last fall to help rally the cause for change in the game in the wake of the revelation of an FBI investigation into college basketball recruiting fraud and corruption. Two of those arrested by the FBI were assistant coaches in the Pac-12 — Arizona’s Emmanuel “Book” Richardson and USC’s Tony Bland.
What was striking about how much more enlightening and encouraging Thursday’s panel was than Scott’s predictable rhetoric a month ago was the forward-thinking nature of the ideas. To take nothing from a Pac-12 commission comprised of bright minds and genuine passion for the game, including Colorado’s own Ceal Barry, but the task force nonetheless remained a group commissioned from within.
The NCAA in general, and college basketball in particular, needs to think outside the box.
Sitting alongside King Thursday night was CU head coach Tad Boyle; CU associate athletic director for student services Kris Livingston; CU faculty athletic representative Joe Jupille; Victoria Jackson, a professor at Arizona State who won an NCAA championship as a distance runner at North Carolina; and North Carolina professor Jay Smith, who bucked his own administration by co-authoring a book on the UNC academic fraud scandal, “Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports.”
Where the Pac-12 task force offered ideas that attempted to address matters the NCAA ultimately cannot regulate — access to AAU tournaments and ending the NBA’s one-and-done rule, as two examples — the debate that unfolded Thursday highlighted less-orthodox yet far more intriguing remedies to some of athletics’ myriad afflictions. Pielke noted the ridiculousness of being unable to offer meaningful, life lesson-type courses aimed specifically for athletes, such as money management instruction, because the NCAA would view it as an impermissible benefit. Boyle, having witnessed what big-time collegiate baseball players endure during his time as an assistant at Wichita State, offered the idea that course schedules could be shaped in tune with athletic schedules, meaning lighter loads for football players in the fall or baseball players in the spring.
Jackson, from the unique perspective of an academic with a background as an elite Division I athlete, shared perhaps the most intriguing idea to better mold the academic experience with the demands of big-time athletics. If broadening horizons and introducing new experiences are among the goals of higher education, leagues such as the Pac-12 could offer a sort of “roaming” class and curriculum, allowing athletes that travel to other league schools regularly, such as basketball players, to sit in on classes at other schools. Instead of plodding through a study session in a hotel conference room, athletes away from home still can be engaged in a classroom.
Whatever form the change takes that was promised by NCAA president Mark Emmert during last week’s Final Four, it likely won’t resemble any of the ideas offered during Thursday’s panel.
That promised change, of course, won’t help King, who is looking forward to next month’s graduation while preparing for a possible professional career. Due to the landmark case brought against the NCAA by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, that No. 24 jersey King purchased does not bear his name. In theory, it is supposed to be a generic No. 24 jersey, one representative of either a men’s or women’s basketball player.
The distinction is comical. No offense to Aubrey Knight, the owner of No. 24 on the CU women’s team, but universities like CU don’t routinely market $75 replica jerseys of a freshman who scored 3.6 points per game during her first year in town. Add to the illusion a display that placed that No. 24 on a robust mannequin the 6-foot-6 King described as “hulking,” and it’s easy to understand why King believed the cashier was almost apologetic when he forked over his money.
On Thursday King also recalled a moment of mixed emotions a year ago for his friends on the CU women’s lacrosse team, whose first berth in the NCAA Tournament meant the Buffs’ seniors would miss their commencement ceremony. It is a moment King noted is the culmination of the academic experience, when the tossing of those graduation caps serves as the culmination, and vindication, of all those study hours and lost sleep.
Instead, those lacrosse players had a replica ceremony at their hotel.