Caleb Swanigan really wants to win a national title. We know this because his legal guardian, Roosevelt Barnes, said so Tuesday, confirming that the 6-foot-9 Swanigan will attend Purdue … to chase a title.
The announcement comes almost a month after Swanigan, a McDonald’s All-America, had called Tom Izzo to tell the MSU coach he would be playing for him.
Look, I’m not here to rip Swanigan, to question his decision, to insinuate that Barnes — a former Purdue football player who works as an NFL agent — acted as a sleazy puppeteer without Swanigan’s interest in mind.
I’m here to argue the opposite.
If anything, Barnes made it clear this spring that choosing a college was fundamentally about money. Not for him, but for his ward. Not for under-the-table cash, but on-the-table long-term contracts.
In other words, picking a college simply was about positioning Swanigan to maximize his earning potential.
“Sometimes kids don’t understand that this is a business decision,” Barnes told the Indianapolis Star. “Even high school can be a business now. So you don’t want to get caught up in the emotion of it.”
We may not like hearing that. Certainly don’t like thinking of that, especially, say, when we’re sitting courtside at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, and the lower bowl is jammed with all those screaming 20-year-olds who live and die with every basket.
That is college basketball, right?
Without emotion, what else is there?
Well, a business, for one. A profitable nonprofit in which schools “hire” kids to come play for them in exchange for billions of dollars in television and advertising revenue.
Also: a game, one that isn’t as pretty and fluid as it used to be, but that’s another topic, and we aren’t talking about the drudgery we’ve watched the past couple of winters. We’re talking about the couple dozen kids who come out of high school every year with a shot at making a very nice living playing professional basketball.
Hey, I get it, we’ve been conditioned to sit back — in our comfy, middle-to-upper-middle-class life — and question why a kid like Swanigan gets caught up in recruiting drama. To hint — not always so subtly — that there must be a money seeker pulling the strings somewhere.
Yeah, there is.
He’s called Coach.
But there are so many others, too, at all layers of universities, television companies, travel-basketball sweatshops.
We just assume they don’t have the kids’ interest first, because we think of college choice romantically … follow your heart and all that sentimental blather that has little to do with what college is for most kids in this country.
You’ve heard the complaints. I’ve heard them, too.
“Let him go where he wants.”
“I just hope this is about him.”
So what 18-year-old anywhere gets to make the decision about college without input from an adult with a different agenda? Heck, some 40% of our seniors don’t go to college, many because they don’t have the resources.
Of the kids who do go, all sorts of restrictions narrow their opportunities — grades, funds, test scores. And if you don’t think these are a product of home environment, of class privilege, then you aren’t living in 21st Century America.
Sure, it’s possible Barnes will benefit in some way now that Swanigan is going to Purdue.
Surely Purdue will benefit; already the buzz around the team has intensified. Expectations are back in West Lafayette, Ind.
Whether Swanigan turns out to be the sort of player worthy of the buzz is a fair question. Just as it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether he would’ve been better off — on the court — playing for Izzo and Michigan State. A month ago, it sure seemed like that’s where his heart was when he tweeted: “Once a Spartan. Always a Spartan.”
But kids change their minds. And adults help them change their minds, for thousands of reasons in millions of homes every spring.
Ultimately, Barnes thought Swanigan’s best shot at getting paid for his talent began with a stop at Purdue, a program that wouldn’t force him to play center — though he wasn’t going to play strictly center at MSU, either.
Maybe it’s a better fit. Maybe it’s not.
Either way, it was a business decision, like picking a college almost always is.