He wanted to stay.
Caleb Swanigan had decided to come to West Lafayette. It wasn’t the beautiful brick dispatched over campus. It wasn’t the excitement of seeing the curve of Mackey Arena’s roof appear in the distance or the amazing crowds, nor was it the new construction promised to the future student-athletes just up from there. It wasn’t the scenic trees or the appeal of the sharp point of the Armstrong building that spoke and pointed up towards that great infinity up and beyond where only a few men and women have gone but most of them were Boilermakers. In fact, I would wager he never saw any of those things. It’s hard to see the things on the ground in front of you when you’re too busy staring into a horizon that is vague to most pundits and analysts, but to him was crystal clear. Caleb Swanigan put on a Purdue uniform for one purpose - to fill up on the one year of eligibility he had to use before propelling himself to his NBA career.
It’s hard to blame him. A kid who grew up with nothing, saved by a Boiler legend, but not in time to keep him from the hardships, the memories, the scars of his homeless and broken life. While it’s easy to assume his desire was purely out of pride or achievement, it’s important to remember that he has siblings, a mother who could still use the kind of advantages a pro basketball life could afford him and them. Of course he wanted to make it. For them, for himself, for the very fact that this world could be cruel enough to culture such pain and suffering.
But the NBA disappointed Caleb. Despite his five stars and top-15 recruiting rankings, the NBA didn’t want him. So he returned to Purdue, a year older, and set himself on the path to redemption, to glory.
And what he did on the court was remarkable. The stats are hard to believe. His name now sits up with the greats - this isn’t hyperbole. His numbers, the combination of scoring and rebounds and passing have only been accomplished by true legends - Tim Duncan, Blake Griffin - who would ironically go on to be #1 picks in the draft.
But still, despite all this glory, Caleb was not a sure NBA prospect. At best, a late first round pick. And so he had to decide again. Only this time, he had taken in the view. Maybe it wasn’t the scenery - though Purdue has its aesthetic appeal - it was probably more about his teammates and the person he had become in his sophomore year. Caleb blossomed in every way. In a surprisingly tender and revealing reveal of his intentions on instagram, he talked of the love he now had for Purdue, for the Gold and Black, so much so that he inherited the hate for those down south. He was a Boilermaker, now, forever, always.
But not next year. Next year he will make his dream a reality. It still remains to be seen if he’ll be a first or a second round pick. But everyone that’s watched him the last two years knows he will make it. He might not be the brightest star in a league full of them, but there’s no denying his flame.
But he wanted to stay. This was a business decision. Sure, he had always wanted to be a pro, but he also wanted to come back. College is unlike any other experience in life. The relationships you build there, the transformations you undergo, they feel so substantial that the nostalgia starts before you ever leave. You can’t imagine being anywhere else. You are growing and maturing and becoming the person you always dreamed of. You are turning into all the things you’ve always threatened.
Caleb should be returning for his Junior year. He should be chasing the kind of team and individual glory that’s almost unheard of in the college ranks these days. It’s so unusual that someone with his kind of game, with his numbers, would even entertain the idea of coming back. That’s the world we live in now. That’s the collegiate sports ecosystem we’ve created.
‘Amateurism’ is sacred to us. The idea that these kids play for only an education - while saying, what do you mean ‘only’ an education? We don’t even want to entertain the idea of these kids - many who have nothing but their skills on a basketball court or on a football field when they go to college - making money off of themselves while wearing our school’s colors, while going to classes and going to practice and forsaking the free time or foolish behavior - for the most part - that we associate with our college experiences. They don’t have the time to get a job - probably couldn’t without fear of the distractions it would cause.
Instead, we let the NCAA reap the rewards of these kids. We let the coaches sign for millions and millions and millions of dollars while offering the assistants millions and millions more. We let schools and conferences spend outrageous amounts of money on nonsense so they can hold to their ‘non-profit’ status. Schools will go in the red, spending on recruiting and new jerseys and 9-figure training facilities, but we scoff at the idea of these players getting a stipend that could actually start setting up their futures.
Why? Why is this where we draw the line? Why is it okay for our youths to pay for those already prospering in their lives?
I don’t even think the answer is inherently evil. I don’t even think it’s that we don’t want the ‘student-athletes’ to capitalize on their own image as much as we just don’t know how. We don’t know in what way to do it without feeling like it’s all a sham, that these kids aren’t just younger professionals. We selfishly want that feeling of purity, of pride that these kids did these great things solely out of love for their school, for their devotion to the old gold and black or the cream and crimson.
Because that’s the narrative that makes college sports special. I don’t even think you’re wrong; we are wrong. Caleb Swanigan should be playing for the Purdue Boilermakers next year.
He shouldn’t have had to choose: another year of school or making money that matters. The fact is, sports is the last great market for television. There is a ton of money in it. Money that goes everywhere, from coaches to scouts to administrators and athletic departments.
But it doesn’t go to the players. The people providing the product, the blood, the sweat, and the rest of the cliches we love.
And because of that, real greatness, true glory is missed. What should be an unbelievable and story-book 4-year career will now just be a two-year blast of beautiful brightness, but we should use that light not as an excuse for blindness but as the illumination that pushes us from our indifference.
Student-athletes should get a cut of the profits they create because it’s the right thing to do and also because it might just keep the next Caleb Swanigan in school a year or two longer.
Just because it’s hard to decide how to cut the pie, doesn’t mean we should put down the knife.