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Death to the NCAA

Jalen Johnson Broke Everybody’s Brains

Jalen Johnson
Andy Lyons/Getty

I was doing my regular check-in on Michigan transfer Colin Castleton (he’s good!) and watching Florida-Arkansas on Tuesday night when the announcing team of Karl Ravech and Jimmy Dykes got on the subject of ex-Duke forward Jalen Johnson. The conversation, unfortunately, went exactly how you’d expect.

Through a Duke news release on Monday, the Blue Devils freshman announced that he would be opting out of the rest of the college basketball season so he could make sure he was “100 percent healthy” ahead of the NBA draft, where he’s a projected first-rounder. Johnson specifically cited a foot injury he suffered earlier this year, which kept him out of games in December and January and has possibly contributed to his limited minutes in recent showings.

In the same release, head coach Mike Krzyzewski added, “We believe this decision is in his best interest.” But that polite endorsement was nowhere near enough to stop the sadly predictable flood of takes that broke loose in the wake of this news. A Duke Fansided blog called the decision “cowardly”; Jay Bilas concern-trolled about how this could affect his draft stock; and Jon Rothstein, the sport’s most psychotic cheerleader, labeled Johnson a quitter.

And then Jimmy Dykes, while I was attempting to enjoy a game between the second- and fourth-place teams in the SEC, kicked into this whole angry spiel in the first half that I think had to be pre-written, given how he ignored Ravech saying “checked out” and began his rant by railing against the term “opt out.”

Here’s a transcript of Dykes’s comments specifically, for those who might need it:

Well, to me he didn’t opt out, he quit his team. and we have done a terrific job in society to diminish the value of being on a team and being a great teammate. It’s hard to figure with a guy like that because this is not the first time he’s quit his team, he quit IMG last year about a month into the season, so there’s questions that he will have to answer and should have to answer going forward for the NBA.

[…]

Any freshman in college right now, they have people around them in their ear constantly, so you have to wonder how much of this was him. how much of it was his people, his managers around him. I just know this from talking to two different NBA guys who I have a ton of respect for in the last three or four hours, they have a lot of concern now for how that kid is wired: Is it about me or is it about my team? Because the last couple of years, you have seen some warning signs coming out of him that says, “I’m not sure this guy understands, this is about us.” It is disappointing for Duke. I will say this though, they played their best game on Saturday and that kid only had eight minutes, so expect Duke to fire back from this setback a little bit going forward.

If you don’t watch the video, though, you’ll miss one crucial part of this whole clown show: the transition to Dykes’s face being shown on camera, revealing that this is a middle-aged white dude in a cozy work-from-home setup impugning the character of an unpaid black teen whose not-a-job requires him to travel the country in the middle of a pandemic.

I keep mentioning how unsurprised I am to hear all this, because these are pretty standard takes that pop up whenever a college kid puts his future ahead of his present—perhaps augmented, in this case, by the unconventional timing of this choice and the fact that Johnson once transferred from his Wisconsin high school to a Florida basketball factory but quickly returned without playing a game for IMG. But this year, in this inferior excuse for a college basketball season, the undisguised lack of empathy is all the more striking.

As Shane Smith of the Duke Chronicle noted in his column on the controversy, Johnson is a 19-year-old who, in order to keep the games rolling, has been forced to isolate in the same hotel room for months now, without even a paycheck to show for it. He, along with thousands of other college athletes, have been stripped of all their human interactions that do not directly make the NCAA money, and Johnson’s been sacrificing that necessity so he can audition for the pros on a mediocre team in a building with no fans. It’s certainly not what he pictured when he decided to go to Duke, and if his foot injury could be even the slightest hindrance to millions of dollars in the very near future, he’d be a fool to risk anything just to show off his skills in some NIT qualifiers.