Friday, October 14, 2011

The "student-athlete" delusion

Death, taxes, chaos in the Whole Foods parking lot and some daily delusional, idiotic statement by a Republican presidential contender are not, despite what you hear or may have been told, the only certainties in life. Autumnal change brings with it two sure-bets: the days do get shorter, and a legion of sports screamers and elite Op-Ed commentators masquerading as voices of populism and reason begin their annual drive on behalf of "student-athletes" in Big-Time, Division I programs to stop their "exploitation" by having the universities that already fund their education pay them for the work on the football field.

(Note to self -- before I continue, remember that the days do not get shorter or longer as the seasons change. They remain at 24 hours. Sunrise and sunset simply come at different times).

The argument to pay athletes who are already being paid to attend college to play, primarily football or basketball, the largest producer of revenue for college athletic programs, is that the universities that employ them -- and I choose the word "employ" deliberately -- make astronomical amounts of money off television contracts and, in recent years, an array of secondary sources, from equipment and apparel companies who pay universities a fee to become their official supplier to the licensing agreements that allow them, but not the players, to collect royalties from the sale of personalized jerseys, golf club covers, shot glasses and all the other sorts of oddities that the lunatics who never moved on from their undergraduate years buy to support "the program." Here is Michael Wilbon of ESPN:


I used to argue vehemently against paying college athletes. Tuition, room, board and books were compensation enough. And even if, increasingly, it wasn't enough and virtually every kid who accepted a scholarship was in the red before Christmas of his freshman year, the notion of pay-for-play was at best a logistical nightmare. Where exactly would the money come from? How could you pay college football players but not baseball players or members of the women's field hockey team? And how in the world would you pay men in a way that wouldn't violate Title IX?

So you know what caused me to do a 180 on the issue? That $11 billion deal -- OK, it's $10.8 billion to be exact -- between the NCAA and CBS/Turner Sports for March Madness between 2011 and 2024. We're talking $11 billion for three weekends of television per year. On top of that, there's a new four-year deal with ESPN that pays the BCS $500 million. So, if those two deals were worth, say, a combined $10 billion instead of $11.3 billion, would the games not be televised? Would the quality of the broadcasts or the coverage or the staging of the events be somehow diminished? What if people in the business of money took $1.3 billion off the top, invested it, sheltered it and made it available to provide a stipend to college athletes, how could anybody stand on principal and argue against paying the people who make the events possible in the first place?
But not to everyone.
Let me declare up front I wouldn't be the slightest bit interested in distributing the funds equitably or even paying every college athlete. I'm interested in seeing the people who produce the revenue share a teeny, tiny slice of it. That's right, football and men's basketball players get paid; lacrosse, field hockey, softball, baseball, soccer players get nothing. You know what that's called? Capitalism. Not everything is equal, not everything is fair. The most distinguished professor at the University of Alabama won't make $5.9 million in his entire tenure in Tuscaloosa; Nick Saban will make that this year. So I don't want to hear that it's "unfair" to pay the quarterback of Alabama more than all the sociology students in the undergraduate college.

No, Wilbon, that's not called capitalism. That's called corporatism, or facism -- take your pick. There is no "invisible hand" allocating income here. Rather, you have an organization acting as a titular government head, the NCAA, that is distributing the income based on the power that particular organized interest has to alter a "natural" outcome. The model Wilbon suggests is actually based on the American political system, which allocates goods and services based on the ability of a particular interest -- farmers, big banks, insurance companies and labor unions -- to influence the outcome of decision-making through money and power. Congress neglects to address important public interests all the time for no other reason than too many people have too much to lose by altering the status quo. No serious person can possibly argue that the reason that the United States is the only developed country in the world without a public health care system because we're on to something no else has quite figured out. Insurance companies, drug companies, pharmaceutical companies, doctors, hospitals and the lawyers who represent them all make too much money under the current system to even think about starting over from the ground up. That's what the United States needs to do; but the current arrangement, as amoral and corrupt as it is, benefits the people in power, and they are not about to give it up. Perhaps Wilbon can explain why we continue to legalize tobacco, a carcinogen that has more adverse consequences on public health (and health care costs) than any other substance on the market, but not asbestos.

College football and basketball players do not deserve to be paid any more than they already are. A scholarship player at Duke University is getting a $225,000 education for free. More than that, he is being admitted under a completely different set of standards than any other non-legacy, non-affirmative action applicant. A smart guy like Michael Wilbon cannot possibly believe that Alan Iverson got admitted to Georgetown after barely graduating high school and serving four months in jail because he was an academically promising student. Nor can he believe that most "student-athletes" in Big-Time Division 1 programs are academically qualified to attend the colleges they do. In my view, these athletes are taking resources from other students who have the ability but not the money to attend good schools. Really, what's a bigger rap on American society -- a college athlete at the University of Maryland already receiving a free education not getting paid an stipend of some sort or a kid admitted into Maryland who will have to attend community college because she can't afford the tuition, room and board? To me, it's not even close.

The problem with college athletics is not the exploitation of the athletes recruited to play the sports that produce all this money. The problem is a warped, immature American public that values competitive sports over the need to fund a college education at the appropriate level for anyone who wants one, a problem that begins when adults begin valuing their kids "careers" on the field, the court or the ice more than their intellectual development. I know plenty of parents who are not hesitant to drop whatever takes to get their little star athlete the individualized coaching they think he or she deserves and put them in grueling travel sports programs who are quite comfortable having their kids get their schoolwork done in the back of a car or bus on the way to some practice or game. Get a tutor for the kid struggling in Spanish or math? Not at the expense of some extra time in the batting cage or on the ice with a "certified" coach.

I stopped watching college sports around the time I graduated from college almost thirty years ago. There were many reasons, but chief among them was what I learned from my two weeks in a Division 1 college baseball program and my subsequent, misguided yet quite profitable time during my junior and senior years as a tutor for a Division 1 (different school) athletic program. In the early 1980s, I made $15 an hour to tutor football and basketball players, almost all of whom, including two who went on to play in the NFL and NBA, either wanted me to take the tests or get them, or write their papers for them. I was no stranger to the occasional dishonest dollar by that point in my life, but fraud was something I just wasn't willing to commit. I got caught cheating on my 10th grade math test, and that was enough to scare me straight. But I knew many other "tutors" who were all to happy to make even more money under the table, money that came from "boosters" and other "friends" of the athletic program. As I told a friend after my experience, an athletic tutor was the academic equivalent of a paid escort -- it sounds a lot more legitimate than it is.

Hell, yes, I love watching the sports I love, baseball and hockey, on television. I love going to as many games as I can. As I get older, I find myself screaming at my television or vacuuming my carpets even more than I did when I was younger. I spend more time calling pitches during games than I did 20 years ago and trying to out guess managers and coaches. But I only watch and keep up with pro sports. I do have many friends who continue to root for the colleges they attended and occasionally make a weekend out of going to a football or basketball game. I have friends who cannot understand why I don't go see Tennessee and Missouri football or basketball games, especially if they're playing nearby me. My answer, then and now, is pretty simple. I prefer to watch games played, managed and coached by people who I know are doing it for money rather than by people who keep pretending that they're not.

1 comment:

David Kaib said...

"The problem with college athletics is not the exploitation of the athletes recruited to play the sports that produce all this money. The problem is a warped, immature American public that values competitive sports over the need to fund a college education at the appropriate level for anyone who wants one, a problem that begins when adults begin valuing their kids "careers" on the field, the court or the ice more than their intellectual development. I know plenty of parents who are not hesitant to drop whatever takes to get their little star athlete the individualized coaching they think he or she deserves and put them in grueling travel sports programs who are quite comfortable having their kids get their schoolwork done in the back of a car or bus on the way to some practice or game. Get a tutor for the kid struggling in Spanish or math? Not at the expense of some extra time in the batting cage or on the ice with a "certified" coach."

While I agree that the values are warped, I'm not sure we can place the blame on the public. I'd be willing to bet that polls would show support for increased taxes if they went towards improving public higher education. Indeed, the big money of college sports is often defended as being good for education - because it (allegedly) brings in money that universities wouldn't otherwise have. Even if I'm wrong about public opinion, I think it rarely drives policy, especially in areas, like higher education policy, that are not exactly high profile.

I'd say the real issue is that the people with most of the money can make more money on college sports, and there is less loot to be had from improving education. Also, it's hard to make a big donor feel important by giving them front row seats to a science experiment or mock court.