This week brought us two seemingly separate stories from the world of college football that have everything to do with one another. First, the potential game-changer: the Chicago branch of the National Labor Relations Board found that the football players of Northwestern qualify as “employees” under the terms of the National Labor Relations Act, which clears a hurdle to their unionization, ushering in the specter of collective bargaining. The NCAA, over the unmistakable sound of Mark Emmert hyperventilating into a paper bag, immediately screeched its disapproval, insisting that college athletes are students rather than employees.
Unfortunately for the NCAA, its wailing was also insufficient to drown out the revelation of yet another academic scandal, this time (and once again) at the African and African-American Studies department of the University of North Carolina and its …err, cozy… relationship with the university’s football and basketball athletes. A Tar Heel’s admittedly coherent (though that’s not hard to achieve in a single paragraph) retelling of the Wikipedia entry for Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat apparently received an A- as a final examination. Not the best timing for that whole ‘players are students first’ argument. And if you think that this is a North Carolina problem and not an “almost every school in the NCAA” problem, I have a bridge to sell you.
We can set the “employee” designation aside for a bit, but can’t we now agree that this entire “amateur student-athlete” thing is an outright farce? Is there anyone in America who still can’t see this racket for what it is who isn’t also on the NCAA’s payroll?
When the most hated corporation in America walks into a courtroom and says with a straight face that the virtual University of Florida’s white quarterback, who wears number 15, stands 6’3, weighs 235 pounds, throws left-handed, and grew up in Florida is not in any way intended to represent the real University of Florida’s white quarterback Tim Tebow, who wore number 15, stands 6’3, weighs 235 pounds, throws left-handed, and grew up in Florida, is there even an inkling in your mind that it’s anything but an avalanche of nonsense?
Were you to have walked into the University of Oklahoma’s bookstore in 2006 and seen the clothing racks covered with #28 jerseys, is there a single person that would be persuaded for one second that the university, the NCAA, and its apparel providers weren’t exploiting Adrian Peterson’s likeness?
I can hear you now: “OK, so it’s laughably disingenuous. We all know that. But the players get free tuition, hero status around campus (and maybe the country), and that’s enough. So what?”
But if there is nothing wrong with that deception, then what’s the point in maintaining it? If what the NCAA, schools, TV networks, advertisers, and corporate partners are up to here isn’t immoral, then why do they take such great pains to insist they’re doing anything else? And why do we insist on collectively letting them shovel it down our throats? If you want to argue that all of this is morally defensible, be my guest, but at least have the huevos to acknowledge that this entire infrastructure is presented behind the most ridiculous façade imaginable, and acknowledge that by continuing to pretend it’s anything else we’re helping to perpetuate it. If we all know the truth, then who exactly are we humoring by agreeing to pretend otherwise?
Every time you watch some corporate-sponsored bowl game only to be forced to listen to the CEO of Soylent Corp. discuss how much he loves watching those nutritious youngsters play, don’t you wonder how much that sponsorship cost them? When you hear about the new quintillion dollar SEC TV deal, don’t you wonder where the money goes? Don’t you wonder what the hell Mark Emmert does that’s worth $1.7 million a year?
I played this game for two athletically-challenged, injury-filled seasons. That doesn’t exactly recommend me as the world’s foremost authority on college football, but it does mean that I know that the NCAA’s 20 hour a week limit is actually more like 60. I know that voluntary workouts aren’t voluntary. I know how well-intentioned tutors, advisors, and even professors can be starstruck (or, just as often, guilt-tripped) into greasing the academic wheels of the institution to keep guys eligible and on track (though I also know that many such people resent athletes and hold their status against them as well). But most of all I know how a bunch of great, talented kids who have been exploited their entire lives, many of whom can barely read or write, are being cheated by this charade, which we all tacitly agree to suspend our disbelief about.