Fuck the NCAA

As I write this, I am watching the UNC–Syracuse game in the NCAA men’s Final Four, thus breaking my vow not to watch any of the men’s basketball tournament this year. The spectacle of the game I find pretty repugnant, particularly the student sections who never fail to seize an opportunity to act like jackasses for the national television camera.

Public domain. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Collegiate_Athletic_Association#/media/File:NCAA_logo.svg

(Of course, I write this as someone who has never seen a school as an entity to have pride in or loyalty to. Even by my standards, it’s pretty cynical, but I’ve always felt that one of the great frauds perpetrated by colleges is their ability to convince students that having invested the substantial financial and personal resources necessary to complete a college education, those same former students thus owe the college some enduring loyalty. As far as I’m concerned, I paid, I worked my ass off, I have no remaining obligation to the frankly despicable places where I earned my undergrad and graduate degrees. But I digress.)

Anyhow, the Final Four, like all sporting events, is, among other things, an occasion to break out all the usual cliches about sports and the people who play them. How often do we need to be told about the determination and heart of the scrappy players who leave it all on the court simply for the love of the game? As if determination and heart are the basis on which sports championships are awarded, rather than the skill and hard work of the athletes. (We might call this the “Rudy Complex,” after the undersized player so determined to play football for Notre Dame, that he acted like  a completely self-centered asshole who managed to convince himself and others that he was actually qualified to play. It’s the American dream—keep saying something long enough and the truth doesn’t matter.)

We hear these stupid cliches with all sporting events, and they never get any truer for all of the repetition that sports announcers and commentators devote to them. But they take on a particularly sinister tone when they’re applied to the NCAA. Connected to the NCAA, the narrative of grit/determination/heart/spleen/whatever is not just another mindless repetition of sports stupidity. To the contrary, it is part of the coordinated and entirely sleazy effort by the NCAA and its corporate partners to devalue the very real time and labor invested by so-called “student athletes” to hone their crafts and present them on a highly commoditized national stage.

The narrative of the NCAA is this year as it always is. Student athletes who play for the love of the game, who work long hours to take classes and attend practices, who sacrifice endlessly even though most of them (as the Association’s advertising informs us) “will be going pro in something other than sports.”

This narrative is remarkably powerful: it allows us to suppress our guilt and outrage at the innumerable ways that the NCAA exploits and profits from the unpaid labor of student athletes.

By now, the system of exploitation has been so thoroughly researched and chronicled, it’s remarkable that we still need to have the same conversations over the ethics of the NCAA system of “student athletes.” College sports generates literally billions of dollars every year: broadcast contracts for sports events; endorsement deals for colleges, whose athletes are conspicuously adorned with the logos of athletics companies; advertising money attached to broadcasts; the large financial agreements that are the basis of athletic conferences;… (This piece by Dave Zirin, written for The Nation on the occasion of the 2013 March Madness tournament, is a good summary of the critique and its evidence.) As so, so many commentators have observed, it is absolutely unconscionable that the athletes receive none of that money. It becomes even more unconscionable when we take into account the extent to which the NCAA is profiting from black labor. (The football team at the University of Missouri realized the power they had, resulting in the successful ouster of University president Timothy Wolfe in November.)

It has become a core principle of liberals vis-a-vis sport that the NCAA needs to pay student athletes, to allow them to share in the profits that their labor generates. That’s never going to happen so long as the NCAA sticks to the totally illogical position that college athletes are absolutely not employees, and that they therefore have no right to be paid or otherwise treated as such. (Comprehensive health care and assurance of scholarships independent of athletic participation would also be a good start.) This idea about student athletes flies in the face of how all other students are treated—how many of us have or had jobs on campus?—but such is the utter illogic of the NCAA.

Here’s the thing, though: if we can agree that it’s absolutely, entirely unethical to not pay college athletes, I’m not convinced that simply starting to pay them is an ethical solution, either.

Yes, the NCAA generates unbelievable sums of money—but that does not at all mean that the money is evenly generated or distributed. Men’s basketball and football are overwhelmingly the largest cash cows. Does the general proposal to pay college athletes suggest that college sports should be a completely free-market system? If so, then the outcome is totally predictable: male basketball and football players will be paid very large sums, particularly at the powerhouse programs, while athletes in other sports are paid substantially less.

Why is this a problem? Two reasons I can think of.

First, the free-market system of paying college athletes will not only create a hierarchy between different sports, which generate different revenues. It will also exacerbate the existing gap in pay between male and female athletes. We’ve recently seen two very high profile cases of the pay gap in sports—the complaint brought by the United States Women’s Soccer team over substantial difference in pay compared with the men’s team; and the ignorant and insulting remarks by an executive of the Indian Wells tennis tournament, who suggested that women players get paid less because they “ride on the coattails of the men.”

Women’s college sports generate less money than men’s sports—the differences between men’s and women’s basketball programs is an excellent case in point—so one presumes that the free-market “pay the athletes” system would mean that female basketball players (say) get paid a lot less than their male counterparts. Such is the problem with the free market, though: Plenty of people (mostly pigheaded bros) like to make the argument that women’s sports are simply less popular, so they should get paid less; that’s how the market works.

But that’s a fallacious argument in general, and especially with regard to college sports. There’s the Title IX requirement that men and women must be afforded equal opportunities and protections by colleges, and the free-market solution to paying athletes would exacerbate, rather than mitigate, gendered discrepancies in opportunities. Along those lines, paying women less would reinforce the perception that male athletes—again, especially (but not only) basketball and football players—are above the rules of the college, and even above the law. (See, for example, the bed of lies on which Peyton Manning built his reputation.) It would be absolutely horrendous for the NCAA to use the “pay the athletes” campaign as a way to enhance gender inequality in sports and in society more broadly.

The second problem that I imagine might arise from paying athletes is part of a much broader issue: the ongoing transformation of American colleges and universities into shortsighted, narrow-minded trade schools, rather than institutions of broad intellectual inquiry. This is obviously not limited to the role of sports in the landscape of college activity; I see all the time, both in my job and from colleagues and other institutions, students who think of college as something to simply be gotten through, and administrators who unforgivably advance the view that college should be something with narrow goals and equally narrow methods.

The inevitable conclusion that I draw from the catch-22 of college sports is that the NCAA should simply be eliminated, and sports (at least as they are currently constituted) should be severed from colleges altogether. I cannot see a particularly ethical way to treat college athletes that doesn’t create substantial knock-on disadvantages. Not paying college athletes is exploitative; it is absurd that we’ve gotten to this point at all. Paying college athletes—at least as it is generally proposed—will create or exacerbate social inequalities, which should be precisely the opposite of what a college aims to do. So where do we go from here?

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