To a room full of people concerned about arresting the ethical, if not moral, decay of big-money college sports, Kylia Carter recalled her upbringing in Mississippi with a grandmother who spent most of her life in a field picking cotton. Her mother, aunts and uncles experienced that life, too, Carter said, at least until basketball freed them.
Basketball freed her, too. Carter grew to be 6-foot-5. Her height combined with athleticism earned her a basketball scholarship to Ole Miss in the late ’80s. She married Wendell Carter, a basketball player at Delta State in Mississippi, and in 1999 gave birth to their son, Wendell Carter Jr. The son, now a 6-10 basketball star, last month opted out of Duke for the NBA draft following his freshman season.
It was a decision Kylia Carter told me Monday, after speaking before the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, that she and her husband and son made while the son was a junior in high school. He was touted then as good enough to earn a paycheck in the NBA. The Carters told college coaches, including Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, that if he accepted a scholarship, he would use it only his freshman year.
The Carters hadn’t reached that decision just because of their son’s prowess, earning promise or because a college education was secondary to them. They reached it in part, she explained to the commission, because they didn’t want him to be exploited by the college sports system.
“I cannot be here now and not say that when I pull back the layers, the problem I see is not with the student-athlete, it’s not with the coaches or the institutions of higher learning,” Carter told an audience that became rapt with her words by the heartfelt quiver in her voice, “but it’s with a system like the only system that I have ever seen, where the laborers are the only people that are not being compensated for the work that they do, while those in charge receive mighty compensation.
“The only two systems that I’ve known that to be in place,” she said, “is slavery, and the prison system. And now I see the NCAA as overseers of a system that is identical for that.”
To be sure, the NCAA investigated her son’s eligibility to play college basketball after his name surfaced among a list of players, or their families, that had a meal with Christian Dawkins, a sports agent who was arrested in September along with nine other agents, sneaker company executives and assistant college basketball coaches in connection with an FBI investigation into bribery in the game. The meal was for a little more than $100. The son at the time was a junior in high school.
There are many among us who get rankled at the comparison Kylia Carter made between college basketball — or college football — and slavery. But it isn’t the word that should be problematic. It is the definition and the fact that so many who lord over college sports, and even purport to want to fix them, ignore its application.
Even those on the Knight Commission who claim to hold the interest of college sports close to heart failed to act upon the truth as they intently listened to it in Carter’s passionate plea.
By the end of its annual convening in Washington on Monday, the Knight Commission, formed almost 30 years ago as an effort to reform college sports, issued recommendations such as coaches should not get shoe deals like the one on which fired Louisville coach Rick Pitino cashed in. On top of his multimillion-dollar salary, Pitino received 98 percent of a multimillion-dollar Adidas contract signed with the school. The Knight commissioners also suggested the NCAA include more independent directors. They said private schools should be penalized if they don’t disclose coaches’ incomes, and issued other ideas.
But they said nothing about more equitably compensating players who get tuition, room and board while those they work for get rich.
And this came just two weeks after a special NCAA committee chaired by Condoleezza Rice issued a report for reforming college basketball that also beat around the Godzilla in the locker room after what has been a particularly troublesome few years. There was the FBI investigation into bribery between college programs, shoe companies and high school recruits that resulted in arrests. Arizona Coach Sean Miller was said to be audiotaped arranging a $100,000 payment to a recruit.
There was Pitino being fired from Louisville after the school found itself ensnared in the FBI case, and Pitino’s program embarrassed the school after a woman revealed she provided young women for a price to strip dance and have sex with Louisville recruits.
But the Rice panel also didn’t wrestle with the idea of redistributing the revenue young men such as Carter’s son, the majority of whom are black, bring into the coffers of colleges that then go heavily to white college athletic officials such as Pitino. In fact, the Rice report underscored that so-called amateurism still was the way for college sports to go.
“It was a failing not to address the money in the game and not to address the commercialization in the game by NCAA members, then not to address the NCAA rules themselves,” ESPN college basketball analyst and former Duke star Jay Bilas said of the Rice report from a Knight Commission panel on which he sat Monday. “The answer to change behavior has always been more rules, more punishment, but also more money for everybody except for the athlete. Really, a double-down on what I would consider to be a failed concept, that of amateurism.”
Kylia Carter said she hadn’t constructed a financial model for college sports more equitable to sons like hers than the one that existed. But if there was to be a start, she said, it would be with sharing some of the salary that coaches earned off the blood and sweat of the players who toil on the court, something her grandmother, mother, aunts and uncles thought about while bleeding and sweating picking all that cotton for those far better-off farmers in Mississippi.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Post.
Kevin B. Blackistone
Kevin B. Blackistone