Monday, January 02, 2012

One last day of college football …

Oh, I know, "BCS bowls" and a hypothetical "national championship" drag on for another week -- but I'm a traditionalist. New Years Day marks the end of the college season, whatever the TV networks and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) may be selling.

Before I go couch-potato myself in front of super-sized young men beating each other up gracefully, I wanted to share some of the many links I've collected this year about the "sport." (And no, none of them are about pedophilia hiding in the showers of prestigious institutions -- that's a "sick men meet self-satisfied institutions" problem, not a football problem.)

Historian Taylor Branch started the season off truthfully with "The Shame of College Sports" in The Atlantic. His charges against the system are explosive:

... after an inquiry that took me into locker rooms and ivory towers across the country, I have come to believe that sentiment blinds us to what’s before our eyes. Big-time college sports are fully commercialized. Billions of dollars flow through them each year. The NCAA makes money, and enables universities and corporations to make money, from the unpaid labor of young athletes.

Slavery analogies should be used carefully. College athletes are not slaves. Yet to survey the scene—corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as “student-athletes” deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution—is to catch an unmistakable whiff of the plantation. Perhaps a more apt metaphor is colonialism: college sports, as overseen by the NCAA, is a system imposed by well-meaning paternalists and rationalized with hoary sentiments about caring for the well-being of the colonized. But it is, nonetheless, unjust. The NCAA, in its zealous defense of bogus principles, sometimes destroys the dreams of innocent young athletes.

The NCAA today is in many ways a classic cartel. Efforts to reform it—most notably by the three Knight Commissions over the course of 20 years—have, while making changes around the edges, been largely fruitless. The time has come for a major overhaul. And whether the powers that be like it or not, big changes are coming. Threats loom on multiple fronts: in Congress, the courts, breakaway athletic conferences, student rebellion, and public disgust. Swaddled in gauzy clichés, the NCAA presides over a vast, teetering glory.

My emphasis. Read it all.

And yes, the system has a racial component that is obvious on every TV screen. Watching the other day, a friend commented "there are a lot more old white guy coaches in the colleges than in the pros, right?" I don't have the figures, but it sure looks that way. Professional teams have to at least interview Black coaches and sometimes hire them; colleges look to be led most often by professional "good old boys."

At the end of the season, in the New York Times, business columnist Joe Nocera tried to envision how college football could be organized more equitably.

There are five elements to my plan. The first is a modified free-market approach to recruiting college players. Instead of sweet-talking recruits, college coaches will instead offer athletes real contracts, just as professional teams do. …

The second element is a salary cap for every team, along with a minimum annual salary for every scholarship athlete. The salary caps I have in mind are pretty low, all things considered: $3 million for the salaries for the football team. …

Every player who stays in school for four years would also get an additional two-year scholarship, which he could use either to complete his bachelor’s or get a master’s degree. That’s the third element. …

The fourth: Each player would have lifetime health insurance.

And the fifth: An organization would be created to represent both current and former college athletes. It may well turn out to be that this body takes on the form of a players’ union, since a salary cap is illegal under antitrust law unless it is part of a collective-bargaining agreement.

That's right: college football players need an institutional voice of their own as well as (probably) legislation that limits the exploitation that institutions of "higher learning" may engage in.

I consider myself knowledgeable about the game and its structures, but until this year I'd suppressed consciousness of the central fact college athletes' lives: "scholarships" are granted in one-year increments. A dissatisfied coach can throw a kid out of college at any time, if, in the coach's opinion, he slacks off on training, or doesn't develop as expected, or even gets too absorbed in scholastics. Athletic scholarships are given to win prestige and money for the institutions, not to help athletes prepare for life. The system is more than a little disgusting.
Yet like so many, I love to watch college football. The athletes are capable of such amazing and graceful feats of controlled savagery; in the best games, they appear to care so much about winning and losing. It's grand spectacle. But pay the athletes!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's about time this happened. Also, end the bowl system. ;)

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