John Calipari has meticulously honed his reputation as a players’ coach.
A recruiting titan, he has rebuilt the blue-blood Kentucky basketball program in his own image, a haven for five-star talent to compete for championships and — more important — to develop as men and NBA prospects.
That’s the message Calipari sells every chance he gets, and every time there’s a camera around, which is on the regular.
He went dramatically off-message Wednesday while talking about a recent player protest of last week’s violence on Capitol Hill.
Kentucky’s player protest
In the aftermath of last week’s deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of supporters of President Donald Trump, Calipari’s players made a statement. They knelt during the national anthem before Saturday’s game against SEC rival Florida.
“It’s a lot of stuff that goes on every day that we knelt for,” forward Keion Brooks said. “The Capitol — that stuff —had a part to play in it, but there are some other things we don’t see that go on every day that are unacceptable, that we want to take a stand against.”
Calipari reluctantly joined them.
“I held my heart, but I did kneel with them because I support the guys,” Calipari explained.
Calipari on protest: ‘Probably not a real good time to do it’
On Wednesday amid mounting political pressure, the Kentucky coach distanced himself from the players' decision to kneel.
“I didn’t know about it until 90 minutes before the game,” Calipari told reporters in a news conference. “We’ve had a talk since then about — you don’t need to speak, you need to have action,” Calipari said. “How do you bring people together? How do you make a difference? Not just how do you make a statement? ...
“They’re 18 years old. They’re learning. These kids are good kids. They’ve got good hearts. This political time, probably not a real good time to do it.”
He went on to reiterate that his players thought it was the right time to protest and repeatedly stated that the protest wasn’t about the military. Which, of course it wasn’t. Even the NFL has long abandoned that facade meant to distract from the real issues at hand.
So when is a ‘good time to do it?’
Calipari’s stance raises numerous questions. None quite as obvious as: If not now, when exactly is the right time?
Change in this country is often sparked by people expressing their First Amendment right to free speech. Athletes across sports shifted the conversation around social justice and voting rights in 2020, a year that saw a national racial reckoning and the most consequential election of our lifetimes.
Standing up to — or kneeling — in the face of the white supremacy and right-wing extremism on display in Washington last Wednesday takes courage. Especially in a state that runs as politically red as Kentucky.
Kentucky’s group of mostly Black teenaged players put that courage on display on Saturday. Calipari — a 61-year-old white man — has cowered since in the face of political backlash.
Protest met with virulent backlash
The Kentucky basketball protest was met with resentment in some corners of the state.
A small-town sheriff named John Root who described Kentucky as “the Hillbilly State” took to social media to light Kentucky gear on fire and demand that the university “get a real man to lead the cats and a real team.”
Members of the Knox County Fiscal Court in southern Kentucky unanimously signed a resolution calling for Kentucky to defund UK.
“The University of Kentucky receives millions and millions of dollars every year of hardworking Kentucky taxpayers’ money,” Judge Executive Mike Mitchell told the Times-Tribune. “I think they need to be held accountable for their actions if they can’t manage it no better than that.”
UK brass backed players
UK administration, including school president Eli Capilouto and athletic director Mitch Barnhart, saw that backlash and wrote a formal statement supporting their players and their right to protest.
Calipari instead capitulated.
He responded by questioning the timing of his athletes’ actions. He asked why the young men who generate his nearly $9 million annual salary don’t “have action” or “bring people together.” As if bringing people together in the face of racism and violence is the purview of teenagers instead of people with real power.
Like no other major college basketball coach, Calipari has championed himself as a players’ coach who will give young men their best opportunities to succeed in basketball and beyond. He’s done so to the great benefit of almost all involved parties, producing 31 first-round NBA draft picks, a national title and an $86 million contract with UK.
On Wednesday he failed his players. He also failed himself.
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