Why Do We Turn Some People Into Heroes And Others Into Villains In Sports?

Documentary filmmaker Jonathan Hock wants you to confront your love or hate for John Calipari

Listen closely to many day-to-day conversations about sports and you’ll hear something strange: They’re not really about sports. Yes, athletes, owners, and games are involved. But ESPN, Fox, and your local sports radio station devote a large chunk of their day to the morality plays immediately surrounding the games we love to watch, where questions of decorum and politics matter nearly as much as the X’s and O’s of the competitions themselves. Should players stand for the national anthem? Does the NFL do enough to combat domestic violence? Is college basketball a corrupt system?

For each side of these little plays, heroes and villains emerge. The white hats and the black hats embody these debates and get us heated enough to watch, listen, and click. In the argument over college basketball’s corruption, a villain to the old guard has emerged: University of Kentucky coach John Calipari. Is a he a soulless opportunist who breaks all norms in order to advance his own interests, or he a disruptive renegade who knowingly heightens the contradiction of college sports to bring down a corrupt system? Or is he both?

There’s no doubt that Calipari has been hugely successful. In the 1990s, he turned UMass’s lowly basketball program around, leading it to the Final Four. In the 2000s, he took an also-ran program at Memphis to within seconds of winning a National Championship. And this decade he won a title coaching at Kentucky. And though he’s still coaching, he’s already been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. But everywhere he goes, controversy follows.

Both UMass and Memphis were put on probation for NCAA violations after he left. And at Kentucky—the bluest of blue blood programs—he has embraced a strategy of recruiting players who have no plans of staying in college beyond one year, essentially subverting the idea that college sports are part of a university’s educational mission. Scandal seems to lurk around every corner with Cal. He makes for an easy villain.

In the documentary premiering tonight on ESPN, “One and Not Done,” filmmaker Jonathan Hock looks at Calipari’s world from the inside, following him as he coaches his team in the present day, while also flashing back to show us Cal’s tumultuous rise to the top of his profession. The film’s ostensible subject is John Calipari, but it’s also a character study that asks you to weigh someone’s good deeds versus their bad and decide what actually makes someone a hero or a villain in the world of sports. We sat down with Hock to discuss the contradiction at the heart of John Calipari, why he rubs so many people the wrong way, and what our reaction to him says about how we view sports.

Do we construct villains too easily in sports?

That’s part of the fun and entertainment of sports. It’s the continuum from Olympic wrestling on one end and WWE on the other end and everything else is somewhere in-between. But the morality and the sanctimony of some people is where it goes wrong. We take too seriously the idea that there’s a genuine morality in there about the way people behave in this business of college sports. The whole enterprise is so utterly corruptible because of how much money is involved.

Is Calipari a villain?

I don’t think he’s a villain. Is he train robber who’s robbing the train carrying the ill-gotten gains of some robber baron in a Jesse James kind of thing? Maybe. But I think he likes being portrayed as a villain, which is different from being a bad guy. He doesn’t like being thought of as a bad person, but he likes being thought of as a villain, as the one who is one riding against the establishment and the power structure.

But you think he likes wearing the black hat?

Cal loves it. He loves it in the sense that he’s very natural and comfortable when people are coming after him. It fuels him. He says he resents it, he says he hates it, but I think he doesn’t. I think he likes it. He likes when people put the black hat on him because it gives him permission to be who he is and do what he wants to do.

And you show he’s doing a lot of good along with the bad.

The thing about Cal is how complicated he is. There’s so much that’s likeable about him and at the same time there’s so much that’s dislikable about him. If you do Cal a favor, he’s going to do 10 favors for you, but if you do him dirty, he’s going to do you 10 times worse. It’s really interesting that these opposing forces are inhabiting this guy simultaneously.

So many sports villains arise because they don’t follow some rules of decorum. Is his willingness to break long-held sports norms what makes him so disliked?

He expresses a naked ambition. He’s unafraid to say this is a game where there are two of us wanting the same thing—a regular basketball game, a recruiting battle, it could be the job opening at the elite school when he was younger—there this one thing that two of us want and I’m going to fight you for it. I’m not going to give it up to you.

And that kind of naked ambition is very unusual in public figures. Usually there’s a facade of being humble and ‘Oh, you know, I’m not deserving or this other person is so much more deserving.’ You’re not going to get that from Cal, you’re going to get pure, unfiltered ambition.

Ultimately, do his critics hate him because he puts the lie to college sports?

That’s exactly it. It holds a mirror up to the rest of us and says “this is a billion-dollar industry that is built on the labor of these young men and the sanctimony of the people who say that these people should be coming to college for good of the game or the good of the university or for their own good. Well, that’s just false.”

When you’re a kid whose mom is working four jobs and not paying the light bill so that you can go to an AAU tournament, and you have an opportunity to take care of her and someone is going to tell you that’s wrong because of something sacred about this industry that’s making a lot of dudes rich, he holds the light up to that hypocrisy and that drives some people crazy. There are some opposing coaches that he drives crazy because they live in the sanctimony of that space. That’s their stock in trade that they’re “building character and building young men.” But, no you’re not. You’re shepherding a group of workers who are generating money in a billion-dollar industry for everybody but them. It puts lie to a billion-dollar enterprise. He forces them to face their own hypocrisy.

That’s certainly not everything that’s driving people crazy about Cal. Sometimes he is just really annoying.

Image via ESPN

But is he just presenting himself as fighting NCAA hypocrisy in order to justify all the norms he breaks along the way?

He recognizes reality in the world today, which is that what the best high school players want from college is to get out of there as quickly as possible and be ready for the NBA. These are not young men who might have chosen college before; they would have gone right to the NBA (before the league required them to wait a year until after high school to go to the NBA). We’re not talking about everybody, we’re talking about a handful of kids who have the potential to jump right to the NBA.

What Cal recognized is that for him to succeed as a college basketball coach and get himself a job at an elite school and win a national championship, then he’d have to cater to what these kids want—make that paradigm as advantageous to them as he could. Because what they’re doing is the most advantageous thing to me by coming to my school and playing for me.

He thinks, they’re working for no pay on my behalf, so I’m going to repay them in the best way I can, and that’s getting them their first job and making sure it’s as high paying a job as possible. So I don’t think he’s justifying any kind of philosophy. There are many changes he would like to have—that he has proposed—to the one-and-done paradigm. There are things he’s installed at Kentucky (for example, the lifetime scholarship). If you’re one-and-done at virtually every other school, if you decide to leave school that’s it, your relationship to the school is done. (At) Kentucky, if you leave school and go to the NBA, for the rest of your life, you can come back to the school and finish your degree if you’re so inclined. Even if they flame out and make no money in the NBA, they can still come back to Kentucky and get their education for free. I think he’s retrofitting the Kentucky program to fit the one-and-done reality. But I don’t think he’s justifying and creating a false rationale for doing what it takes to win.

Did following him all this time challenge your preconceived notions about Calipari?

Before I met Cal, I did not think he was for real. I thought he was as phony as anyone else. And I found after spending a lot of time with him and the people around him today and the people around him 30 years ago, and (they) tell the same kind of Calipari stories of personal loyalty and generosity and quietly helping people, not for headlines.

Jack Leaman, who was the coach at UMass years before Cal, he was sort of the previous generation’s coach when they had Julius Erving and Rick Pitino. Jack Leaman was a big supporter of Cal when he got to UMass and the team was terrible, and when Jack Leaman was sick and eventually passed away, it was Cal who—without drawing any attention to himself—got right on a plane up to Massachusetts to be with Jack Leaman’s widow and took care of the whole funeral and all the expenses and made sure she had everything that she needed.

It speaks really loudly in the film how genuinely devoted his former players are to him. It may confound the people who see him as a purely malevolent figure in sports.

Charlton Clarke was a nationally recruited guard out of New York in 1995, and he was a freshman on the team that went to the Final Four, which was Cal’s last year at UMass. Charlton Clarke broke his leg in the first game of the year and then Cal left for another job. Clarke is now an assistant principal at a high school in Brooklyn and he says that even though he only played half of one game for Cal in college, he and Cal still stay in touch, Cal still remembers all the details about his family, gives him encouragement, advice, and guidance. Clarke told me, “Every day I go out in front of my school and I greet every kid that I see coming into school, and I look them in the eye and I say good morning, and I learned that from Cal. I think about Cal every morning, about the times he gave me that look even when he knew I couldn’t play for him and give him what he brought me in to give him.” I think that’s the real Calipari.

via Collection of the New-York Historical Society / Wikimedia Commons

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