[T]he Carnegie Foundation made headlines with a report, ‘American College Athletics,’ which concluded that the scramble for players had ‘reached the proportions of nationwide commerce.’ Of the 112 schools surveyed, 81 flouted NCAA recommendations with inducements to students ranging from open payrolls and disguised booster funds to no-show jobs at movie studios.By “continue,” I mean they’ve been going on for nearly a century. That Carnegie Foundation report came out in 1929. 10 years later, freshman players at Pitt went on strike . . . because they weren’t getting paid as much as their more senior teammates.
Those two tidbits are just a part of the fascinating, and depressing, history of the commercial side of college sports laid out in Taylor Branch’s new article in The Atlantic (via). Branch is arguing that college athletes should be paid, although I’m still not convinced (beyond the scholarships, academic assistance, etc.). What he does do is make a good case that NCAA invocation of “amateurism” and “student-athletes,” at least when it comes to the big money sports, is not only hollow, but pretty much always has been.
In fact, the term “student-athlete” first popped up in litigation:
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.’Equally fascinating is how the NCAA, which wasn’t organized with any real authority over the schools that made up its membership, leveraged the nascent TV coverage of college football (the schools thought TV would kill the sport!) in the 1950s to exert some control over the situation. That control slipped away in 1984, when the Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA couldn’t keep individual schools or conferences from seeking out their own TV deals. Ironically, what kept the NCAA from being crippled financially was college basketball, because only it could sell the TV rights to the men’s national championship tournament, aka March Madness. Starting to see why there’s no similar tournament for major college football?
Of course, it’s TV money that’s largely driving the latest round of conference shifting we’re seeing go on right now. The drive for the ACC, Big (sorta) 10 and the artist formerly known as the PAC-10 to grow big enough to justify a conference championship game was because of the extra revenue, mostly from TV, they generate. Likewise, WVU doesn’t want to be relegated to a crippled Big East and potentially cut out of the windfall that is the BCS sweepstakes.
As I said earlier, I’m still not sold on the idea of paying college athletes. However, Branch does a good job of showing how profoundly fucked up the current system is. It's not quite this bad . . .
But it's close. Maybe the best option is to blow it up and start from scratch. There’s no good reason for sports to enmesh with academics at all. Let the NFL, NBA, and what have you set up youth academies like the soccer clubs in Europe and elsewhere do and go from there. Or reduce the whole thing to the level of Division III, where those involved really are student-athletes.
Yeah, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. So this Saturday I’ll choke down my concerns, put on my bright yellow WVU shirt, and cheer as “we” beat up on LSU on national TV in primetime. Hopefully. ‘cause if we don’t, it’s only a game, right? At least I have the luxury of looking at it that way.
Same as it ever was, indeed.
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