Monday, January 02, 2012

Time for some second thoughts on college sports: giving up on college football and paying (football and basketball) athletes


It's time for some second thoughts on big-time college sports, including the sport that feeds the NBA and the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets.

In his year-end column for The Nation, 2011: The Year I Learned to Hate College Football, Dave Zirin wrote:
In a decade of sports writing, I’ve always used a very basic framework: don’t reject sports, reclaim it. In other words, no matter how greedy, hateful, or ugly sports become, you fight for it to change. No matter how many publicly funded stadiums or Redskin logos, or how much sexist doggerel is expectorated by the athletic industrial complex, you remember what you love about sports. You stand your ground and never forget the fun, fellowship and artistry these games have the potential to produce. That’s been my framework, until now.

...It’s not just because the bowl season has turned into an orgy of commercial branding that would shame a NASCAR event... It’s not the ugly use of football to sell the business of war...

This year I was broken by just how disgusting the institution of college football has become.
Zirin pointed to the scandals at Ohio State University and the University of Miami, where, as a result of the "hypocritical" system, athletes were slammed for extracting "modest compensation,"  then Penn State University "and the way the economic, social and cultural imperatives of big-time college football were put ahead of the safety and welfare of small children." Finally, Ohio State hired free agent head coach Urban Meyer for $24 million over six years.

Paying college football and basketball athletes

In a major article in yesterday's New York Times Magazine, Let’s Start Paying College Athletes, Joseph Nocera offered a radical reform:
The hypocrisy that permeates big-money college sports takes your breath away. College football and men’s basketball have become such huge commercial enterprises that together they generate more than $6 billion in annual revenue, more than the National Basketball Association. A top college coach can make as much or more than a professional coach... Powerful conferences like the S.E.C. and the Pac 12 have signed lucrative TV deals... Companies like Coors and Chick-fil-A eagerly toss millions in marketing dollars at college sports. Last year, Turner Broadcasting and CBS signed a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal for the television rights to the N.C.A.A.’s men’s basketball national championship tournament (a k a “March Madness”). And what does the labor force that makes it possible for coaches to earn millions, and causes marketers to spend billions, get? Nothing. The workers are supposed to be content with a scholarship that does not even cover the full cost of attending college. Any student athlete who accepts an unapproved, free hamburger from a coach, or even a fan, is in violation of N.C.A.A. rules.

This glaring, and increasingly untenable, discrepancy between what football and basketball players get and what everyone else in their food chain reaps has led to two things. First, it has bred a deep cynicism among the athletes themselves...

The new breed of reformers, whose perspective I share, believes that the only way the major sports schools can achieve any integrity is to end the hypocrisy and recognize that college football and men’s basketball are big businesses. Most of these new reformers love college sports — as do I. They realize that having universities in charge of a major form of American entertainment is far from ideal, but they are also realistic enough to know that scaling back big-time college sports is implausible, given the money at stake. Instead, the best approach is to openly acknowledge their commercialization — and pay the work force.
Easier said than done, of course, especially given inevitable Title IX issues about gender disparity. One reader commented:
Baseball and hockey have better systems; highly talented 18-year-olds can go pro or take a scholarship. College is the de facto minor league system for the NFL and NBA, and that is the core problem. (As others have noted, the all-male players that Mr. Nocera would put on salary are already paid, fairly well for a demanding but still part-time college job; but with no premium for stars.) I would like to see true small minor leagues in football and basketball, to make honest men out of those 18-year-olds who have the highest ratio of basketball or football potential to lack of desire for immediate higher education; maybe women too someday in basketball. As a practical matter that is extremely unlikely to happen, but so are Mr. Nocera's proposals.
But the system would not be successful, as these writers make clear, without widespread fan complicity. Just as consumers try not to notice how iPhones are made, they sure like their college sports.

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