I’m part of a corrupt system.
- The other week I spent a buck something on a fountain soda at a Turkey Hill Minit Market. The plastic cup I chose sported the Penn State Nittany Lion logo and the football team’s season schedule. From that purchase, a few cents went to Penn State University in the way of a licensing fee.
- Yesterday I watched the Penn State vs. Temple football game on ESPN 3, via XBox LIVE at my house and then on cable at a friend’s house. I watched most of the commercials. ESPN paid the NCAA big money for the right to broadcast that game. Corporations, in turn, paid big money to target me with those advertisements.
In the end, none of that money went to the people who actually earned it—the athletes on the field who make the very idea of Penn State football so exciting, and the event of a Penn State football game so much fun.
There is no doubt in my mind that Lancaster County residents easily put more than $1 million in the coffers of Penn State University and the NCAA each year. Factor in Pitt, Temple, Villanova, and the other Division 1 schools in Pennsylvania, and that number climbs. Factor in schools outside of Pennsylvania (there’s more than one Notre Dame fan in Lancaster County), and the number becomes absurd.
Stop for a second and take a guess—how much profit does Penn State football generate each year? Several hundred thousand? A couple million? Try tens of millions—“in between $40 million and $80 million in profits a year,” as reported in a scathing indictment of the NCAA and participating universities in the current issue of The Atlantic.
The article is compelling reading, long and full of detail and varying perspectives. It makes one conclusion abundantly clear, though: Given where college sports are today, the ideal of the amateur student-athlete is in many cases fairy tale mumbo-jumbo used to justify universities’ practice of treating adults (college students who are mostly black and mostly poor) as free labor to generate billions of dollars of revenue annually.
Here are several highlights from the article.
Three independent commissions have been assembled to review problems within the NCAA structure and make recommendations to the organization and its member schools. At one of the hearings, there was testimony from a man who has spent the last few decades negotiating hugely profitable deals between college athletics departments and multinational corporations. Here’s how part of the exchange went down:
“Why,” asked Bryce Jordan, the president emeritus of Penn State, “should a university be an advertising medium for your industry?”
[Sonny] 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.”
William Friday, a former president of North Carolina’s university system, still winces at the memory. “Boy, the silence that fell in that room,” he recalled recently. “I never will forget it.”
When we think of scandal in college athletics, we think of scandals involving the players (or their parents) taking payments that are against the rules. Consider this, though:
For all the outrage, the real scandal is not that students are getting illegally paid or recruited, it’s that two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence—“amateurism” and the “student-athlete”—are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes. The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not.
NCAA schools refuse to recognize their athletes as employees, but why do we let them fool us? Who makes more money for the universities—student workers in the library, or athletes on the field? Are the athletes volunteers? (Not in Division 1 schools, where scholarships are an expectation.) Do the athletes get to choose where and when to work, what to wear, and how to perform their tasks, as independent contractors do? (Of course not.) And yet by refusing to recognize athletes as employees, schools and the NCAA avoid workers comp claims when one of them is permanently injured on the field. Take an example:
Using the “student-athlete” defense, colleges have compiled a string of victories in liability cases. On the afternoon of October 26, 1974, the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs were playing the Alabama Crimson Tide in Birmingham, Alabama. Kent Waldrep, a TCU running back, carried the ball on a “Red Right 28” sweep toward the Crimson Tide’s sideline, where he was met by a swarm of tacklers. When Waldrep regained consciousness, Bear Bryant, the storied Crimson Tide coach, was standing over his hospital bed. “It was like talking to God, if you’re a young football player,” Waldrep recalled.
Waldrep was paralyzed: he had lost all movement and feeling below his neck. After nine months of paying his medical bills, Texas Christian refused to pay any more, so the Waldrep family coped for years on dwindling charity.
Through the 1990s, from his wheelchair, Waldrep pressed a lawsuit for workers’ compensation. (He also, through heroic rehabilitation efforts, recovered feeling in his arms, and eventually learned to drive a specially rigged van. “I can brush my teeth,” he told me last year, “but I still need help to bathe and dress.”) His attorneys haggled with TCU and the state worker-compensation fund over what constituted employment. Clearly, TCU had provided football players with equipment for the job, as a typical employer would—but did the university pay wages, withhold income taxes on his financial aid, or control work conditions and performance? The appeals court finally rejected Waldrep’s claim in June of 2000, ruling that he was not an employee because he had not paid taxes on financial aid that he could have kept even if he quit football. (Waldrep told me school officials “said they recruited me as a student, not an athlete,” which he says was absurd.)
It’s not just physical injuries we’re talking about. The very idea that athletic scholarships are a way for young adults to pay for college has only a flimsy basis in reality.
“When you dream about playing in college,” Joseph Agnew told me not long ago, “you don’t ever think about being in a lawsuit.” Agnew, a student at Rice University in Houston, had been cut from the football team and had his scholarship revoked by Rice before his senior year, meaning that he faced at least $35,000 in tuition and other bills if he wanted to complete his degree in sociology. … Agnew was struck by … scholarship data on players from top Division I basketball teams, which showed that 22 percent were not renewed from 2008 to 2009—the same fate he had suffered. … The NCAA contended that an athletic scholarship was a “merit award” that should be reviewed annually, presumably because the degree of “merit” could change. … The one-year rule effectively allows colleges to cut underperforming “student-athletes,” just as pro sports teams cut their players. “Plenty of them don’t stay in school,” said one of Agnew’s lawyers, Stuart Paynter. “They’re just gone. You might as well shoot them in the head.” … [Agnew’s story makes] a sham of the NCAA’s claim that its highest priority is protecting education.
Thankfully, there are students and alumni beginning to seriously stand up for themselves, and the NCAA is facing large threats in the courtroom and from its member schools.
Naturally, as they have become more of a profit center for the NCAA, some of the vaunted “student-athletes” have begun to clamor that they deserve a share of those profits. You “see everybody getting richer and richer,” Desmond Howard, who won the 1991 Heisman Trophy while playing for the Michigan Wolverines, told USA Today recently. “And you walk around and you can’t put gas in your car? You can’t even fly home to see your parents?”
When you look at the rules and how they are being applied, it’s ridiculous. Two examples:
At the start of the 2010 football season, A. J. Green, a wide receiver at Georgia, confessed that he’d sold his own jersey from the Independence Bowl the year before, to raise cash for a spring-break vacation. The NCAA sentenced Green to a four-game suspension for violating his amateur status with the illicit profit generated by selling the shirt off his own back. While he served the suspension, the Georgia Bulldogs store continued legally selling replicas of Green’s No. 8 jersey for $39.95 and up.
A different NCAA committee promulgated a rule banning symbols and messages in players’ eyeblack—reportedly aimed at Pryor’s controversial gesture of support for the pro quarterback Michael Vick, and at Bible verses inscribed in the eyeblack of the former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.
The moral logic is hard to fathom: the NCAA bans personal messages on the bodies of the players, and penalizes players for trading their celebrity status for discounted tattoos—but it codifies precisely how and where commercial insignia from multinational corporations can be displayed on college players, for the financial benefit of the colleges. Last season, while the NCAA investigated him and his father for the recruiting fees they’d allegedly sought, Cam Newton compliantly wore at least 15 corporate logos—one on his jersey, four on his helmet visor, one on each wristband, one on his pants, six on his shoes, and one on the headband he wears under his helmet—as part of Auburn’s $10.6 million deal with Under Armour.
Scandal, corruption, injustice… it’s all here. And warm-and-fuzzy sentiment hardens us to it.
Related reading: Your Study Guide To The Atlantic’s Massive, Withering Story About The Wretchedness Of The NCAA on Deadspin