A friend said this week that only in America, and particularly in the American South, can one speak justifiably and hear no condemnation, about spending the entirety of every minute of every fall weekend amassed in beer, tailgating food, and endless football games. This kind of attentive fanmanship constitutes an active weekend. It hasn’t always been this way, but its gloried institution in the living rooms of nearly every American family makes it seem like it is rule rather than ritual. Of course, there are big city NFL teams, but Saturdays belong to the NCAA, to big conferences like the SEC and the Big 10, to the history-steeped rivalries that are woven into the 12-game season, the team narratives that are more publicized than “serious” world issues on the front page. This isn’t just college football, this is college basketball, this is college athletics. This is life–this is what we do! These are the stories we tell about ourselves, the ones we embed ourselves in. (In 2009, my hometown Lexington newspaper, upon the hiring of John Calipari as head coach for the Kentucky Wildcats basketball team, spent weeks covering which trees his landscapers were deciding to cut down on his property.) This is a matter of loyalty of near bloodline proportions.
Many say it’s getting scary. In NCAA basketball in particular, laws and restrictions have had to come into play to respond to the growing fame-hunger of young athletes. High school phenoms are now required to spend at least one year in the college system before going out for the NBA. This has had implications on how coaches coach, how coaches recruit, the philosophy under which athletes perform. Some coaches now employ a “one-and-done” blue chip model, stocking each year’s teams with the best of the best, before they take off. Of course, there are still coaches that are still hoisting the old flag, instilling to the best of their ability the integrity of four-year athletic pursuits. The hunger in powerhouse college sports programs is to have a team consistently packed with powerhouse athletes, while the hunger for these powerhouse athletes is to match their incredible fame with an equally incredible paycheck, something that, until they’ve left school, will not happen.
Or will it?
How did things get this way? What “moral authorities” are at play here, and who’s in control? Why would someone that is writing an article defending the “student-athlete” model end up defending, by the end of his essay, the notion of paying said athletes before they leave their “alma mater”? Certainly there seems to be a power struggle at work here, and Taylor Branch in The Atlantic seems to be saying that, in this high-pressure world where big-money programs are trying any and everything to build their empire, archetypes of slavery are not far from truth. By naming a student-athlete an “amateur” he/she is still able to be bridled by the institution while money is made for their abilities. What follows in “The Shame of College Sports” examines a master-servant relationship that is inversely biblical, a relationship that is built on false definitions, improper moral justifications, all in the name of building a faithful following. It has worked, it will work, but at what cost?
“I’m not hiding,” Sonny Vaccaro told a closed hearing at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., in 2001. “We want to put our materials on the bodies of your athletes, and the best way to do that is buy your school. Or buy your coach.”
Vaccaro’s audience, the members of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, bristled. These were eminent reformers—among them the president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, two former heads of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and several university presidents and chancellors. The Knight Foundation, a nonprofit that takes an interest in college athletics as part of its concern with civic life, had tasked them with saving college sports from runaway commercialism as embodied by the likes of Vaccaro, who, since signing his pioneering shoe contract with Michael Jordan in 1984, had built sponsorship empires successively at Nike, Adidas, and Reebok. Not all the members could hide their scorn for the “sneaker pimp” of schoolyard hustle, who boasted of writing checks for millions to everybody in higher education.
“Why,” asked Bryce Jordan, the president emeritus of Penn State, “should a university be an advertising medium for your industry?”
Vaccaro did not blink. “They shouldn’t, sir,” he replied. “You sold your souls, and you’re going to continue selling them. You can be very moral and righteous in asking me that question, sir,” Vaccaro added with irrepressible good cheer, “but there’s not one of you in this room that’s going to turn down any of our money. You’re going to take it. I can only offer it.”
Today, much of the NCAA’s moral authority—indeed much of the justification for its existence—is vested in its claim to protect what it calls the “student-athlete.” The term is meant to conjure the nobility of amateurism, and the precedence of scholarship over athletic endeavor. But the origins of the “student-athlete” lie not in a disinterested ideal but in a sophistic formulation designed, as the sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has written, to help the NCAA in its “fight against workmen’s compensation insurance claims for injured football players.”
“We crafted the term student-athlete,” Walter Byers himself wrote, “and soon it was embedded in all NCAA rules and interpretations.” The term came into play in the 1950s, when the widow of Ray Dennison, who had died from a head injury received while playing football in Colorado for the Fort Lewis A&M Aggies, filed for workmen’s-compensation death benefits. Did his football scholarship make the fatal collision a “work-related” accident? Was he a school employee, like his peers who worked part-time as teaching assistants and bookstore cashiers? Or was he a fluke victim of extracurricular pursuits? Given the hundreds of incapacitating injuries to college athletes each year, the answers to these questions had enormous consequences. The Colorado Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the school’s contention that he was not eligible for benefits, since the college was “not in the football business.”
The term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous. College players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals). That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers; that they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies. Student-athlete became the NCAA’s signature term, repeated constantly in and out of courtrooms.
Using the “student-athlete” defense, colleges have compiled a string of victories in liability cases.
Some athletes have gone beyond talk. A series of lawsuits quietly making their way through the courts cast a harsh light on the absurdity of the system—and threaten to dislodge the foundations on which the NCAA rests. On July 21, 2009, lawyers for Ed O’Bannon filed a class-action antitrust suit against the NCAA at the U.S. District Court in San Francisco. “Once you leave your university,” says O’Bannon, who won the John Wooden Award for player of the year in 1995 on UCLA’s national-championship basketball team, “one would think your likeness belongs to you.” The NCAA and UCLA continue to collect money from the sales of videos of him playing. But by NCAA rules, O’Bannon, who today works at a Toyota dealership near Las Vegas, alleges he is still not allowed to share the revenue the NCAA generates from his own image as a college athlete. His suit quickly gathered co-plaintiffs from basketball and football, ex-players featured in NCAA videos and other products. “The NCAA does not license student-athlete likenesses,” NCAA spokesperson Erik Christianson told The New York Times in response to the suit, “or prevent former student-athletes from attempting to do so. Likewise, to claim the NCAA profits off student-athlete likenesses is also pure fiction.”
…Last year Sports Illustrated published “Confessions of an Agent,” a firsthand account of dealing with high-strung future pros whom the agent and his peers courted with flattery, cash, and tawdry favors. Nick Saban, Alabama’s head football coach, mobilized his peers to denounce agents as a public scourge. “I hate to say this,” he said, “but how are they any better than a pimp? I have no respect for people who do that to young people. None.”
Saban’s raw condescension contrasts sharply with the lonely penitence from Dale Brown, the retired longtime basketball coach at LSU. “Look at the money we make off predominantly poor black kids,” Brown once reflected. “We’re the whoremasters.”