A group representing college faculty across the country issued a statement Wednesday bluntly questioning the University of Kentucky basketball program's attachment to the school's academic mission.
UK basketball "is no longer designed to provide students pursuing a college education the opportunity to compete," said the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics. "It is designed to train professional basketball players."
The Coalition, which includes representatives from 59 Football Bowl Subdivision programs (including nine of the 12 Southeastern Conference schools but no schools from Kentucky), issued the statement in response to UK's well-chronicled insistence that the traditional series with Indiana be moved to neutral sites. In a posting on his blog, UK Coach John Calipari noted how the program would be unique in losing five or six players each year to the NBA Draft, thus implying that a game in Bloomington every other year might be too much for a freshman-oriented team.
"This is a players-first program," he said on the blog, "and you cannot put a young team into situations that are not fair to the players."
Plus, neutral sites off campus would better prepare UK players for the NCAA Tournament, Calipari said on the blog.
On its Web site, the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, formed in 2002, says its role is to provide a faculty voice in the national debate over the future of college sports.
John Nichols, a retired professor at Penn State and a co-chair of the Coalition, described a move to neutral sites as a geographic separation of entities which already can have a tenuous coexistence: athletic programs and the student body/campus community.
A logical, if unlikely, extension of playing games off campus would be teams playing barnstorming tours.
"How does that advance the purpose of universities?" Nichols asked.
Decrying an "alienation" of athletic and academic realms, Nichols called the idea of neutral sites a "symptom of a larger malady."
"We're concerned about the dilution and potential destruction of intercollegiate athletics," he said in a telephone interview. The Coalition seeks "not just another pro sports team, but a model rooted in the educational system, a model with true student-athletes."
Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart was out of town, and UK athletics had no comment, spokesman John Hayden said. UK President Eli Capilouto was in China and unavailable for comment, spokesman Jay Blanton said.
Robert Grossman, vice chairman of UK's University Senate, said he had heard much more discussion of the corporatization of UK than the professionalization of athletics.
"Your coach is taking a perfectly rational position," Nichols said. "Based on what the circumstances are, it's just one step forward on a negative path.
"It's not an irrational path. But it's not a position rooted in protecting the value of the college model. It's a route toward professionalization."