On Isaac Humphries and the real lesson from One & Done

Isaac Humphries | Credit: UK Athletics

In the wake of Ben Simmons’ documentary One & Done, we spent last week discussing Simmons’ right to speak out, the NBA’s ‘one and done’ rule and why Simmons was forced into the NCAA system. Today, we complete our critique of One & Done by looking at Isaac Humphries and why Australian basketball must to start paying attention to the broken NCAA system.

Isaac Humphries has just commenced his sophomore season at Kentucky University. Unlike Ben Simmons, fanfare surrounding the college career of this Australian is largely limited to basketball diehards and Wildcats fanatics. Humphries is not a ‘one and done’ athlete. He is a cog in the Kentucky basketball machine, not a revolutionary force needed to save a sputtering program.

Things are looking good for Humphries. He’s been the most improved player on the team, according to Wildcats coach John Calipari. Having said that, Humphries is averaging just 11 minutes a game for the Wildcats, and battling for minutes as Kentucky’s backup center.

In an interview with The Pick and Roll last week, Humphries stated that the NBA is his ultimate goal. “Whenever it happens, obviously the goal is the NBA,” Humphries noted. He is currently ranked as the 81st best NBA draft prospect with DraftExpress, making dreams of sustained NBA success a distant, if not unlikely goal at this point of time.

Humphries might get drafted into the NBA. If that doesn’t happen, he could enjoy a successful professional career in Europe, China or perhaps, back home in the NBL.

There is also a chance that Kentucky ends up being the high point of his basketball career. Despite the amateur tag, Kentucky basketball is big business; the Wildcats program is one of the planet’s premier basketball ecosystems.

For lack of a better term, the ‘Kentucky Experience’ goes beyond basketball and extends into a way of life. This is something that has overwhelmed the seven-foot Australian since he arrived in Lexington. “The fans are crazy, they’re the best fans in the country in terms of college basketball,” Humphries told The Pick and Roll. “They support us, they love us, they treat us like royalty, we can’t go anywhere without being loved by them. It’s obviously very overwhelming but it comes with being a Kentucky basketball player.”

Kentucky is a beacon for media attention. They are akin to Collingwood in the AFL, a blueblood organisation with fans who believe it is their birth right to dominate the sport; a prophesy which has returned since one of the most polarising names in college basketball took the reigns in 2009.

Head coach John Calipari has returned Kentucky to the peak of men’s college basketball. Since Calipari’s hire, the Wildcats have won 82% of their games, reached the Final Four four times and claimed the 2012 NCAA Championship. Calipari was the first to target ‘one and done’ college athletes and it gave him first mover advantage in a changing marketplace.

The talent passing through Rupp Arena since 2009 has been astonishing. 20 Wildcats have been drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft since 2010, with 17 leaving for the NBA after one season and falling into the category of ‘one and done’ collegiate athletes. The likes of John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony-Towns and Devin Booker all played one season under Calipari at Kentucky.

On the surface, the college system worked perfectly for elites like Ben Simmons, Anthony Davis and Karl Anthony-Towns. A year of playing in the NCAA helped solidify their standing as a number one overall draft pick. They all knew the easiest path to a life-changing payday was through the NCAA system, and each made the right decision to play by the industry’s rules. But they were the lucky ones.

In 2011, USA Today estimated that the average annual value of a men’s basketball scholarship at Kentucky was $140,467. Not bad for an 18-year-old, right? Six figure value and exposure to the NBA, it sounds like a good deal.

Calipari on the other hand, has a seven year contract that pays him over $7 million annually through 2021. Forbes estimates that Kentucky’s basketball program generated revenue of $36.7 million in 2015. The estimated net value of the basketball program is $29 million.

Here’s the kicker: Business Insider estimates the average annual value of a Kentucky men’s basketball player to be $930,417. BI further gauges the average Division I player to be worth $296,723 per year, with the average basketball program earning nearly $8 million in revenue annually. The discrepancy between the perceived value of a scholarship and these figures is nothing short of astounding.

The NCAA has a constant revenue stream from exploiting the likeness of its revolving door of ‘one and done’ stars, something the athletes can’t take advantage of themselves. Athletes can’t even accept gifts because of an out-dated, and impossible, quest for amateurism – another point raised by Simmons in One & Done.

Amateurism is thrown around as a catchall phrase by the NCAA, yet there are no amateurs – only young professionals who are forced into study for only one semester in many cases. That’s right, Simmons only had to attend class for one semester to be eligible for his entire freshman season at LSU. When he acted like a shrewd professional and ignored his classes, the tough talking institution slapped him with a lettuce leaf. The punishment for skipping class was a four minute benching!

For a system that prioritises academics over athletics, the punishment doesn’t seem proportionate to the values listed by the NCAA on their website. The official NCAA website states in the FAQ section: “The collegiate model of sports is centered on the fact that those who participate are students first and not professional athletes.” Statements like this are littered across the NCAA’s website and fly in the face of a reality the system has created.

As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out last week at The Ringer, an amateur is someone who is unpaid and operating in a universe in which payment is not possible or applicable. This is not the NCAA universe. There are riches to be doled out to those participating; those in charge have just decided to keep life-changing riches inside the association.

Or as Gladwell put it, in a manner that only he can, “the collegiate model of sports is centered on the fact that those who participate are unpaid, and we cannot pay them because then they would no longer be unpaid.”

The student athletes are not mistreated, but they are exploited. Athletes operating under the NCAA are ‘amateurs’ only because regulators chose not to pay them their market worth. This point was raised by Jay Bilas on J.J. Redick’s podcast in October. Colleges use athletes to make money and drive profits, while at the same time restricting their ability to profit themselves. There is a obvious disconnect.

This is likely why Simmons has sounded off at the NCAA. He was an athlete turned spokesperson for both LSU and the NCAA. Simmons had responsibilities on and off the court, he was a superstar whilst on the LSU campus and he worked for the school.

Simmons was a professional athlete at LSU. Humphries is currently acting like, and being treated like, a professional athlete while at Kentucky. An arbitrary label from an obsolete institution doesn’t change the underlying nature of their role.

“The NCAA is messed up,” Simmons said during One & Done. “I don’t have a voice. … I don’t get paid to do it. Don’t say I’m an amateur and make me take pictures and sign stuff and go make hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars off one person. … I’m going off on the NCAA. Just wait, just wait. I can be a voice for everybody in college. I’m here because I have to be here [at LSU]. … I can’t get a degree in two semesters, so it’s kind of pointless. I feel like I’m wasting time.”

The conversation locally needs to move from praising Australian teenagers playing NCAA basketball, to focusing on ensuring our next generation of athletic exports are not exploited.

Humphries suffered knee soreness last month; what if this proves to be a career threatening injury?

What if his best athletic years were given to a school that doesn’t pay him a salary? What if Humphries is at his most profitable now, a time where the NCAA doesn’t allow him to sell his signature or collect revenue by marketing himself as an Australian taking on the world? The free market says he could possibly be worth $930,417, is it fair that he doesn’t receive any compensation resembling this amount?

Millions of dollars are years away for Humphries, if not an impossible goal given his standing within the basketball universe. A similar train of thought applies for Jack White (Duke), Keanu Pinder (Arizona), Deng Adel and Mangok Mathiang (Loiusville), Jack McVeigh (Nebraska) and the 63 Australian men currently playing NCAA basketball. A college experience is potentially life changing, but it doesn’t guarantee life-altering wealth.

With Australian teenagers departing for America at record rates, the narratives swirling around amateurism and pay for play are now relevant more so than any other point in the history of Australian sport.

There are so many opposing forces at play, yet the interaction between the NCAA and NBA is what defines the current system. The NBA established a ‘one and done’ rule, while the NCAA is characterised by pure unadulterated greed.

That isn’t to excuse the NBA. Franchise owners have cultivated a system that benefits their own desires. The NBA sets the market for global basketball and, as with any industry leader, has the opportunity to set restrictions of entry.

At the same time, this doesn’t excuse the NCAA system. By doubling down to preserve the archaic vale of ‘amateurism’, the NCAA has cemented itself as one of the most egregious institutions in sport. America is the only nation that has irrefutably shackled athletics to academic, and made ‘student athletes’ the only class of adults unable to exploit their true market value.

The system will eventually change; the writing is on the wall. Lawsuits springing out of video games, labour agreements and concussion studies are just the beginning. With every passing year, the question is less if NCAA amateurism will erode, but when. The day where Australian teenagers can truly realise their market value in America is approaching. But for now, the restrictions that bothered Simmons remain.

Simmons is in the clear, with LSU basketball firmly in the rear view and life changing riches secured. This doesn’t disqualify him from speaking out. If Simmons feels confident critiquing the collegiate system and standing up for those who come next, he has every right to do so.

As his NBA debut approaches, Australia is predictably excited about what could be the greatest basketball career it has ever seen. But Simmons’ legacy could go beyond what happens on the court. One & Done presented Simmons with a forum, and he took advantage of it.

Simmons was lucky. He navigated the NCAA system and will never need the wealth LSU basketball withheld from him. One day soon, though, an Australian teenager could become the next Kevin Ware – a revisionist footnote in history who reached their athletic ceiling in a system that offers inadequate financial recognition. The next professional athlete to suffer life altering injures performing under the veil of amateurism, could very well be an unfortunate Australian.

Ben Simmons is right about the NCAA, and the uncertain futures faced by likes of Isaac Humphries prove his point. The system needs to change, and hopefully change before it’s too late.

3 Responses

  1. Gary Lambe says:

    Ben – I like your passion for the one and done issue and advocacy of young stars. However, please consider these points;
    Good US colleges are not exactly cheap options for students. Fees far exceed what Aussie tertiary students pay. College funding relies heavily on hefty fees, wealthy donors (usually alma maters) and perhaps (or perhaps not) some money from sports programs revenue (your beef). Aussie universities receive revenue from less onerous fees for our residents, heavy fees for OS students, negligible donations and large Government subsidies.
    For every NBA lottery pick, there are hundreds of kids getting sport scholarship entry into college. For many, this maybe their only chance to break the cycle of poverty by getting a good education. The US welfare system is not comparable to Australia’s.
    Paying students to play in the NCAA would invariably start bidding wars for players. Players that don’t even know how to box out, set a screen or defend the pick and roll could be getting a fortune. Millions of dollars could be wasted on very ordinary players. Heck, the NBA teams get it wrong with talent identification half the time. Who pays for all of this? Should we double the student fees and cut in half; the number of the classes and professors? Colleges are learning places after all!
    At the end of the day, if profitable programs become economically marginal and the marginal ones start losing big money, the athletics programs actual existence will be ultimately challenged. If you’re a believer in true Free Market Forces and therefore, Schumpeter’s economic model of Creative Destruction, maybe we’ll all be better off with the weaker programs dying off? Are we prepared for the law of unintended consequences of making these sort of changes you argue for?

    • Ben Mallis says:

      Hi Gary – thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. Appreciate the support. You make plenty of good points, many of which I don’t have answers for. Everything you say about US / AUS college system is spot on.

      Reading your last note about unintended consequences is especially striking. If a percentage of revenue was taken off the top, weaker / smaller programs would likely die off. Which, as you point out, would mean less scholarships and less education for kids who would otherwise go without. Not something I ever considered, and definitely not a good thing.

      All the same, some change is definitely needed. Simply relaxing the rules regarding athletes being able to market themselves (ie sign shoe deals, sell autographs) could be a first step. Would still cost the schools some money as their memorabilia etc would have greater competition, yet it would allow those like Ben Simmons to benefit from the infrastructure they help build.

      Not saying I have all the answers, smarter people than me need to help commit to change. It just seems there is a head in the sand mentality from NCAA, and anything that brings this discussion into the mainstream will ultimately help.

      Re payment, agree that an out and out bidding system with blank cheques isn’t desirable.

      What about putting ‘X’ percent of revenue from all schools into a trust or using this money to help implement a superannuation type system that pays the same to each scholarship athlete when they turn 30 (or pick what ever age). Standardise the output to players and let the bigger schools contribute more to the pool. Not perfect by any means (actually, would be like the AFL’s equalisation measures which bring additional questions to the table) but is it improved over the current one? Maybe.

      Or potentially look into the array of other ideas that are lingering out there. None of which may be desirable, but many appear better than the current set up.

  2. Colcon says:

    Ben,

    I’m in the same boat as Gary above – the last thing I would do is to change a system to benefit a couple of 100 elite, male, basketballers/ footballers/ baseballers/ hockey players at the expense of half a million other athletes who enjoy better sports facilities, coaching and the opportunity for tertiary education via the NCAA. I think Ben Simmons will do ok and not miss being paid for a year at college – and no-one forced him to go there in the first place.

    There are only 5 sports that generate a profit and 85 championships run at a loss (and are subsidized by the basketball and the 4 other profit making sports). Which sports do you think should be dropped so that Ben and his elite colleagues can kick-start their earnings a year earlier?

    Even most basketballers benefit greatly from the career exposure they get playing in College and from the funds returned to basketball from the NCAA for their scholarships, resources and facilities. OK the coaches are paid at professional rates but that means the students get professional coaches to benefit their athletic development.

    Good luck to Ben and the other 0.2% of NCAA basketballers who get drafted – they have exciting lives ahead of them and they go into the professional ranks knowing that they have contributed to the athletic opportunities of the other 99.8% of NCAA basketball players and 99.99% of other NCAA student-athletes.

    The NCAA sport system is fundamentally magnificent the way it integrates tertiary education with sport and provides an educational opportunity to 1000’s who would not otherwise get to university. To play elite level sport (eg AFL) and study for a degree at the same time in Australia is almost impossible – yes I know that AFL draftees at least get paid but when the pay stops for most of them in 3 or 4 years then they have no pay and no degree either.

    Be careful what you wish for!

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