Former president Barack Obama added his voice to the chorus calling for fundamental change to college basketball’s order, saying the current NCAA-administered system is “not a sustainable way of doing business.”
The sport needs “to create a well-structured [developmental league], so that the NCAA is not serving as a farm system for the NBA, with a bunch of kids who are unpaid but are under enormous financial pressure,” Obama said during an appearance at last week’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston.
Obama’s off-the-record session at the annual event became public when Reason published audio of his remarks, which came during a question-and-answer session with Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey and Kraft Analytics Group CEO Jessica Gelman. During an hour-long discussion focused on business and leadership, Obama also described how basketball reveals character, declined to say where he would play if he were a free agent NBA superstar and discussed how sports can mold character. His most pointed remarks, though, came when asked what he would do if given the chance to run the NBA for a day. That’s when he took aim at the current NCAA model, which is back in the headlines due to the sport’s latest scandal.
“Everybody acts shocked that some kid from extraordinarily poor circumstances who’s got potentially 5 or 10 or 15 million dollars waiting for him is going to be circled by everybody, in a context in which people are making billions of dollars,” Obama said. “It’s not good. At minimum, one way of thinking about this would be what happens in baseball. If you’re Bryce Harper or Aaron Judge, then you make that jump [to the professional level]. Even if you’re not ready for the big leagues immediately, at least it’s clear that this is going to be your profession. You start getting paid, the professional organization is on the hook, there’s clarity. If you’re not Bryce Harper or Aaron Judge, then you go to college, but you’re signing up for a certain amount of time.
“That won’t solve all the problems,” Obama said, “but what it will do is reduce the hypocrisy, and the likelihood of people being like Claude Rains in ‘Casablanca’ walking in and saying, ‘I’m shocked that there’s gambling going on in here!’ And these kids who generally don’t have a lot of resources are able to help their families.”
Most of Obama’s sports-focused comments were less biting, as when he discussed the benefits of diversity, in both politics and sports.
“It’s common sense. It’s the same thing that happened in baseball. It’s really good if you get black players,” he said to laughter. “Or Dominican players. Or Japanese players. [It] turned out Bill Russell was a really good hire,” he said to more laughter. “Those organizations that did not hire Bill Russell got walloped for a long time.”
Obama said basketball can offer “good insight” into a person’s “self-awareness,” and then specifically described one person who had none of it.
“We used to have regular pickup games and we played one time with a well-known singer, well-known musical artist,” Obama said. “He was a brother. He came in — he had an entourage — he took off his stuff. Ballin’. [Laughter] And the guy was terrible. Terrible. His shot was broke. He’d be like dribblin’, and he took like 25 shots, made like four of ’em. And the game is to, like, 21, right? And there are only 30 shots to be had. Terrible! You could tell both that, A) This guy has no self-awareness; he does not know he’s terrible. He thinks he’s good. [And] he only surrounds himself with people who tell him he’s good even though he’s terrible!
“I don’t want to overgeneralize, but because basketball is a team sport, I think this would apply more broadly to a lot of team sports. … You can tell when somebody is putting team first,” Obama said. “You can tell when somebody is prioritizing the efforts of the group and [is] trying to fit their skills into the success of the group. I do think that’s a principle I pay attention to. One of the things I’m proudest of in my administration was the fact and — I think these things are connected — we didn’t have a scandal that embarrassed us. There were mistakes, we’d screw up, but there wasn’t anything venal during those eight years and that’s — I know that seems like a low bar,” he said, to laughter and applause, “but generally speaking, you didn’t hear about a lot of drama inside our White House. And that was also rare.”
Admitting that he was a “high school basketball player of limited talent,” partly because “I enjoyed myself too much in high school,” Obama said he “probably could have been a benchwarmer on a mediocre Division I [college] team, like a walk-on kind of guy. That was my level.”
But the sport, he said, still taught him a lifelong lesson.
“I did have a strong bias toward people who just wanted to get things right, to get things done, as opposed to people who were obsessed with ‘I want to be right, I want to be prominent, I want to have my name in the headlines,'” Obama said. “If you can create that culture, then you are more likely to be successful. It’s not the only answer … you need talent, ideas, all kinds of stuff. But if you give me a basketball team that has that, then I like our chances. I don’t care how much talent you have: If you don’t have that, then they’re going to underperform.”
Offered the chance to pick an NBA team if he were a free agent star, the former president declined.
“I’ve got to be careful, because there are a bunch of friends of mine who are owners and part-owners of teams [and] I don’t want to hurt their feelings,” he said. “Here’s what I think is a safe response. I think it’s fair to say that there are organizations in the NBA or NFL that may not win every year but have created the kind of culture I was referring to earlier. They’re smart, they’re well-run, they’re focused on team, they treat everybody in the organization with respect. That is the kind of organization I would like to be a part of.
“Over the last 15 years in basketball, San Antonio would be a great example of that. … It takes not just all-stars, but people you never saw coming.”
Obama went on to mention the Rockets, Warriors and Celtics as well-run NBA franchises. He also had a message about the climate in the culture at large, arguing that the country is divided into two sides that don’t listen to one another, instead choosing to cling to distinct sets of facts.
“If we don’t have at least a common baseline, then our democracy over time gets profoundly strained,” Obama said, before mentioning New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who was also part of the conference. “So when we reflect on why are we seeing so much gridlock, and venom and polarization in our politics, it’s partly because we don’t have a common baseline of facts and information — other than the Super Bowl, Mr. Kraft. That’s the only thing we watch together at the same time.”
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