The Indentured Servitude of the Big-Time College Athlete
It is perhaps a little late in the day to be writing about this, given the amount of ink (both real and digital) that has already been spilled discussing it, but you should definitely read Taylor Branch’s devastating piece, “The Shame of College Sports”, over at the Atlantic. It is a thorough deconstruction of what the NCAA actually is and does, and how that differs from what it says it is and does. The testimonials of the people who have been through the profit-generating grist mill and experienced first-hand the ruthlessness with which the NCAA defends its economic position are heartbreaking and infuriating in equal measure.
I was asked to kick off a thread on this because it might be of interest to League readers and members, and I’m happy to oblige. This is a subject that’s pretty near and dear to my own heart, and I’ve gotten in countless argument with friends and family over the indentured servitude of the big-time college athlete. I have a perspective on this, and it agrees pretty strongly with Branch’s perspective, but the League seems like a good place to hash out arguments on both sides. I will start by laying out what I take to be the major fault lines, and I will try to be relatively fair to all sides. I am mostly going to limit my discussion to football, because I am on much stronger ground there, but the lessons probably apply to basketball as well.
The comparison case, or control group, here is clearly the NFL. Players there are, by and large, responsible for their own economic well-being. They have control over their identities, the ability to demand salaries commensurate with their value to their teams, and the freedom to move from team to team to secure a salary they consider fair. (Again, by and large; there are, of course lots of rules constraining these factors.)
What this does, ultimately, is make the NFL kind of a soulless endeavor and a complete slog to watch. I realize there will be (vehement) disagreements over this claim, but it does represent an objection made by a lot of people, especially people who are fans of college football, including me. The players are mercenaries, they are largely interchangeable, tactical philosophy is stagnant, and the incentives tend far more toward “don’t screw up” than “dare boldly”. It is, like any other large corporation in an established market, a fundamentally conservative venture. And it’s boring.
The college game is none of these things. It is defined by exciting players, tactical masterminds with headsets, crazy schemes, and a sense of esprit de corps. A team is a thing that is greater than the sum of its parts, not just some cobbled-together band of mercenaries who are looking to win a championship and then go their separate ways (unless we’re talking about Auburn, I guess). When college football fans look over at the NFL, they see the antithesis of this, and they see the payment of players as the fundamental corrosive agent. (They do not, of course, ever really see payment of coaches, journalists, and apparel manufacturers in quite the same light.)
On another hand, you have universities themselves. The cynical view is that universities are in this for profit, and designing institutions that maximize their surplus of the gains from trade are the whole point. The less-cynical view is the one the NCAA gives us in their surprisingly stirring ads: “There are more than 380,000 student-athletes, and most of them go pro in something other than sports.” It is undeniably true that college athletics, with the exception of football and the occasional basketball program, are not a profitable enterprise. Providing 380,000 scholarships isn’t cheap, and squeezing profits out of big-time athletes is how universities pay for those.
Against these forces, you have the players themselves. As Branch lays out in painstaking detail, these are young men (and women) who are denied recompense for injuries suffered during games, who are denied rights to their own images, and who are often buffeted about by the winds of niggling regulations that they have little chance of understanding or combating. In many cases, we comfort ourselves with the thought that they will probably end up rich anyway, so who cares? Cam Newton didn’t need $180,000 because he was going to be a multi-millionaire a few years later. What about other cases, though? What about the 370,000 or more student-athletes who won’t end up rich? For that matter, what about basic justice?
The thing that really crystallized this for me was a billboard I saw a few years ago outside of Comerica Park in Detroit (home of the AL Central-winning Tigers). It was an ad for Central Michigan University, which at the time had the best quarterback in the history of their program, a guy called Dan LeFevour. If you don’t know him, he was one of the early dual-threat guys, following Vince Young and presaging guys like Denard Robinson and Cam Newton. To my knowledge, he still holds the record for career touchdowns in college football. In any case, the ad had a picture of LeFevour, and it said under him: “Dan LeFevour, Quarterback” (see above). This, of course, is fairly minor – it might even seem trivial – but it was a stark indication to me of what is at stake here. This was a guy who wasn’t likely to be terribly rich – he was drafted, to my surprise, but he has never played at the professional level – and who was undoubtedly going to experience nearly all of his fame in college. He was a legitimate star for a basement-dwelling program like Central Michigan, and basically all of his star power accrued to the university instead of to him. It would have been illegal for him to put up a billboard ad with his name or appearance on it for anyone else, even though they’re his name and appearance. I can’t see how you make an argument for that that doesn’t just amount to “Dan LeFevour works for me”.
But Dan LeFevour doesn’t work for you. He isn’t a ward of Central Michigan University. He is a guy who brings in buckets of money without seeing even a fraction of it in return. And this is just Dan LeFevour, of course. By all accounts, people like Cam Newton and Vince Young are orders of magnitude more profitable to their schools. People like to point out that all of these guys got four-year scholarships, so it’s not like they were paid nothing, but how much does that amount to at a big state school? $100,000? Does anyone seriously believe that is anything like fair compensation for the profits they earned for their schools?
What’s worse is that these guys are pretty strictly prohibited from doing anything else for money. Obviously they can’t sign any licensing deals (although the NCAA is more than happy to sign licensing deals on their behalf, as long as their names don’t appear – consider the EA Sports video games or the jerseys sold on every campus), and they can’t accept gifts from anyone either. Maybe those don’t set you off, but they can’t have jobs either. They are pretty explicitly prohibited from getting money from anything other than their scholarships or their families. Given the socioeconomic backgrounds of a lot of major college athletes, this is not a trivial restriction. And, oddly enough, it isn’t a restriction that applies to anyone else. As Jay Bilas, hero of Twitter, reminds his followers near-constantly, people on academic scholarships certainly aren’t prohibited from having jobs. I had both of those things myself, in fact, and I was never dragged before a committee.
This is getting a little long, so I’m going to cut it off, but there are lots of wrinkles to all of this. I have barely touched on the labyrinthine efforts the NCAA uses to enforce their notion of the “student-athlete” – complicated rules, seemingly-arbitrary punishments, random meting-out of justice with little reference to relative severity of crimes – or the rampant disregard for and circumvention of rules. The system is deeply broken, and everyone knows it. The NCAA might be the least-respected-but-most-powerful institution outside of Congress, and that’s worth talking about too.
Okay, consider this the opening salvo. What say you?