Friday notes

1) Pat Forde provides a depressing litany of recent improprieties involving major college athletic programs. His conclusion – cheating pays, certainly for the coaches whose programs have come under fire, given how low an ultimate price they’ve actually paid.

2) I was about to write something of a mea culpa about Russell Westbrook, since a number of people seem to be clicking lately on my piece from a year ago about Westbrook being overrated (to be clear, I never said he was bad. Just not as good as his scoring totals lead people to believe). The explosive guard is having a terrific season though, as is often the case, not for the reasons people think. His greatest strength as a player is his rebounding. He’s improved his shooting enough and his assist-to-turnover ratio, while not particularly good, has also gotten somewhat better. He is, however, an extraordinarily good rebounding guard, which gives him great value as a player.

Last night’s performance, however, is a nice illustration of how misunderstood his game is. On Mike and Mike this morning, Adnan Verk raved about how great Westbrook was, since he scored 38 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and 11 assists, for his league-leading fourth triple double of the season. As it happens, OKC lost in overtime to the Phoenix Suns. Westbrook’s counterpart, Suns’ point guard Eric Bledsoe, also put up big numbers – 28 points, 11 rebounds, and assists. Verk barely mentioned Bledsoe, presumably because 28<38 and, despite all the alleged advances in our understanding of basketball, scoring totals remain the coin the realm in evaluating individual player performance. That being the case, Verk also failed to mention one wee little flaw in Westbrook’s game – he went 12 for 38. I guarantee you if a QB throws for 350 yards and 4 TDs but also gets picked five times, no one will fail to note that. Bizarrely, though, when it comes to the NBA, missed shots (which are, believe it or not, bad for the team missing them) essentially don’t register.

Westbrook did, all in all, help his team last night, at least somewhat, because he did enough other things well (especially, again, the rebounding). He himself acknowledged after the game that he shot too much, which makes him a more astute analyst than a lot of folks covering him. Bledsoe, meanwhile, shot 11 for 16. In other words, Westbrook made exactly *one* more field goal than Bledsoe, and it took him 22 extra shots to do so. As a result, Bledsoe did much more to help his team than Westbrook.

It’s just weird how performance in the NBA is typically evaluated. Westbrook is having a terrific season. But last night was *not* – despite the gaudy counting stats – an especially good example of his improved play.

3) At Vice Sports, Kevin Trahan has been writing about the state of Michigan’s fast-tracked passage of legislation to ban college athletes from forming unions. In one recent piece, Trahan recounted a conversation he had with a co-sponsor of the legislation, Republican Al Pscholka.

Trahan tried to get Pscholka to explain how, in particular, this legislation actually benefits the athletes (among the claims the bill’s supporters made), particularly since, as Trahan put it,  “banning athletes from receiving any compensation or benefits for their hard work and initiative is both anti-American and anti-free market. Shouldn’t maker-versus-taker Republicans be eager to help athletes profit off of their abilities?”

“You make a political argument there,” Pscholka said. “I think they’re all amateur athletes.”

This is semantics: college athletes are “amateurs” because someone with more power says so. Still, amateurism has been Pscholka’s primary talking point since introducing his bill. He has argued that since only two percent of college athletes end up playing professional sports, they should be focusing on school while they’re on campus. I asked him why athletes shouldn’t at least get benefits while in school, and why they shouldn’t be able to make the most of their experience while still obtaining their degree.

His answer? Then they won’t want to take jobs, or something.

“We have a ton of [jobs] for accountants and engineers [in Michigan],” he said.

Okay, but let’s take former Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner. What about his educational experience would be compromised if he was able to bargain for additional safety provisions while in college? Why would he be less of a student if he could make money?

“You used a really lousy example,” he said. “Devin Gardner’s a graduate student. You’re absolutely missing the point. He’s getting a benefit that could mean millions of dollars over the course of a lifetime.”

By this point, Pscholka was yelling. Still, he hadn’t really answered my question: why should Gardner’s future degree preclude him from getting improved medical care or better compensation while in school, particularly if the free market thinks he deserves it?

One of the great myths in American political discourse is that Republican officeholders are, on the whole, devotees of “free markets.” Aside from the fact that the term itself has little meaning, there is a tendency to conflate support for wealthy, well-connected private interests on the one hand with principled support for minimal interference in exchange and contract between independent parties on the other. In a thousand ways, the GOP has shown itself to be a stalwart supporter of the former and a frequent and dogged opponent of the latter. Pscholka’s otherwise nonsensical views about college athletes as economic actors make perfect sense once you remember what his party really stands for (and against).

 

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