SLAVES OF BIG-TIME COLLEGE SPORTS.
MANY YOUTHS dream of playing football or basketball for a university with a big-time college sports program. They want to be part of the pageantry, glory, excitement of intense competition, shared sacrifice, commitment to excellence, and bonding with teammates, and to be the object of adoring fans. Not incidentally, they would also receive an all-expenses-paid college education, which, if a professional sports career does not work out, will open other lucrative career opportunities. Many observers of big-time college sports accept this idealized version, but just how glamorous is participation in athletics at this level? Are the athletes as privileged as it appears?
There is a dark side to big-time college sports. To show this, let me use the metaphor of big-time college sports as a plantation system. I admit at the outset that such a metaphor is overdrawn. Big-time college sports is not the same as the brutalizing, inhumane, degrading, and repressive institution of slavery found in the antebellum South. Nevertheless, there are significant parallels with slavery that highlight the serious problems plaguing collegiate athletics. Thus, the plantation/slavery metaphor is useful to understand the reality of the college sports world.
There is the organization--the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)--that preserves the plantation system, making and enforcing the rules to protect the interests, of the individual plantation owners. The plantations are the football and men's basketball factories within the universities with big-time programs. The overseers are the coaches who extract the labor from the workers. The workers are owned by the plantation and, much like the slaves of the antebellum South, produce riches for their masters while receiving a meager return on the plantation's profits.
Many observers of big-time college sports, most certainly the coaches and players, would argue vehemently with this assertion that the athletes are slaves in a plantation environment. After all, they not only choose to participate, they want desperately to be part of bigtime sports. Moreover, they have special privileges that separate them from other students (much like what house slaves received, when compared to the field slaves of the Old South) such as more and better food, special housing, favorable handling in registration for classes, and, sometimes, generous treatment by the criminal justice system when they cross the line. Also, the athletes, unlike slaves, can leave the program if they wish.
If participation is voluntary and the athletes want to be part of the system, what is the problem? My argument that these athletes are slaves in a plantation system, whether they realize it or not, involves several dimensions: The athletes (slaves) are exploited economically, making millions for their masters, but provided only with a subsistence wage of room, board, tuition, and books; they are controlled with restricted freedoms; they are subject to physical and mental abuse by overseers; and the master-slave relationship is accepted by the athletes as legitimate.
The governing body of big-time college sports, the NCAA, is caught in a huge contradiction--trying to reconcile a multibillion-dollar industry while claiming it is really an amateur activity. That it is a huge moneymaking industry is beyond dispute.
* The major conferences have an eight-year package (ending in 2006) worth $930,000,000 with ABC to televise the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) at the conclusion of the regular football season. Each team playing in a BCS game currently receives about $13,000,000 and, under the terms of the new contract, will receive around $17,000,000 in the final years of the agreement. Since the teams share these monies with their conference members, the 62 schools involved will divide approximately $116,000,000 in payouts annually.
* The NCAA has signed a $6,200,000,000, 11-year deal giving CBS the rights to televise its men's basketball championship. (That's $545,000,000 a year, up from the $216,000,000 annually with the current arrangement that expires after the 2002 tournament.) The NCAA also makes money from advertising and gate receipts for this tournament. To enhance gate receipts, the finals are always scheduled in huge arenas with seating capacities of at least 30,000, rather than normal basketball-sized venues.
* Universities sell sponsorships to various enterprises for advertising. The athletic department of the University of Colorado, for example, has 50 corporate sponsors. The major one is Coors Brewing Co., which has a $300,000 advertising package for scoreboard, radio, and TV advertising, plus a sign on the mascot's trailer. The school also named its basketball arena the Coors Event Center in return for a $5,000,000 donation.
* Nine football coaches will be paid at least $1,000,000 in overall compensation in 2000 (base salary, television and radio, shoe company stipends), with Steve Spurrier of the University of Florida the highest paid at about $2,000,000 annually. Similarly, star basketball coaches are paid handsomely. When University of Kentucky coach Rick Pitino was being sought by the pros in 1996, he was offered a $3,000,000-a-year deal to stay (three times more than any other college basketball coach at the time). He turned the offer down, and his replacement, Tubby Smith, signed a contract worth $1,200,000 annually. After Michigan State University won the 2000 NCAA basketball championship, coach Tom Izzo received a seven-year contract worth $1,100,000 a year as his reward, an increase from his previous compensation of $725,000 annually.
* An estimated $2,500,000,000 a year in college merchandise is sold under license, generating about $100,000,000 to the schools in royalties. The University of Michigan receives the most income from this source--about $6,000,000 annually.
* The dominant schools have lucrative deals with shoe companies (Nike, Reebok, Adidas) worth about $1,000,000 a year to each institution in shoes, apparel, and cash.
* The top programs have athletic budgets in excess of $30,000,000 a year, with Ohio State University having the largest budget in 1999 at $64,900,000. The leading college basketball teams generate more than $5,000,000 annually in revenues, and the leading football teams generate over $20,000,000 to the athletic department budgets of their schools.
Obviously, big-time athletic programs are commercial enterprises. The irony is that, while sports events generate millions for each school, the workers are not paid. Economist Andrew Zimbalist has written that "Big-time intercollegiate athletics is a unique industry. No other industry in the United States manages not to pay its principal producers a wage or a salary." The universities and the NCAA claim their athletes in big-time sports programs are amateurs and, despite the money generated, the NCAA and its member schools are amateur organizations promoting an educational mission. This amateur status is vitally important to the plantation owners in two regards. First, by not paying the athletes what they are worth, the schools' expenses are minimized, thus making the enterprises more profitable. Second, since athletic departments and the NCAA are considered part of the educational mission, they do not pay taxes on their millions from television, sponsorships, licensing, the sale of sky boxes and season tickets, and gate receipts. Moreover, contributions by individuals and corporations to athletic departments are tax-deductible.
The injustice of amateurism
To keep big-time college sports "amateur," the NCAA has devised a number of roles that eliminate all economic benefits to the athletes: They may receive only educational benefits (i.e., room, board, tuition, fees, and books); cannot sign with an agent and retain eligibility; cannot do commercials; cannot receive meals, clothing, transportation, or other gifts by individuals other than family members; and their relatives cannot receive gifts of travel to attend games or other forms of remuneration.
These rules reek with injustice. Athletes can make money for others, but not for themselves. Their coaches have agents, as may students engaged in other extracurricular activities, but the athletes cannot. Athletes are forbidden to engage in advertising, but their coaches are permitted to endorse products for generous compensation. Corporate advertisements are displayed in the arenas where they play, but with no payoff to the athletes. The shoes and equipment worn by the athletes bear very visible corporate logos, for which the schools are compensated handsomely. The athletes make public appearances for their schools and their photographs are used to publicize the athletic department and sell tickets, but they cannot benefit. The schools sell memorabilia and paraphernalia that incorporate the athletes' likenesses, yet only the schools pocket the royalties. The athletes cannot receive gifts, but coaches and other athletic department personnel receive the free use of automobiles, country club memberships, housing subsidies, etc.
Most significantly, coaches receive huge deals from shoe companies (e.g., Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski has a 15-year shoe endorsement deal with Adidas, including a $1,000,000 bonus plus $375,000 annually), while the players are limited to wearing that corporation's shoes and apparel. An open market operates when it comes to revenue for coaches, resulting in huge pay packages for the top names, but not so for star players. When a coach is fired or resigns, he often receives a "golden parachute," which sometimes is in the multimillion-dollar category, while players who leave a program early receive nothing but vilification for being disloyal. When a team is invited to a bowl game, it means an extra month of practice for the athletes, while head coaches, depending on the bowl venue, receive generous bonuses. A university entourage of administrators and their spouses accompany the team to the bowl game with all expenses paid, while the parents and spouses of the athletes have to pay their own way.
As an extreme example, an analysis of the economic impact of basketball star Patrick Ewing to Georgetown University during his four years there in the early 1980s shows that he brought more than $12,000,000 to the school (a tripling of attendance, increased television revenues, and qualifying for the NCAA tournament each year). Meanwhile, the cost to Georgetown for Ewing's services totaled $48,600--providing a tidy profit of $11,951,400 for the university. A study by an economist almost a decade ago found that top-level college football players at that time generated a net gain (subtracting room, board, tuition, and books) of more than $2,000,000 over a four-year period.
What exactly are the wages of average college athletes in the major sports? The answer is a bit complicated since those who do not graduate have not taken advantage of their tuition, so they have played only for their room and board. Moreover, there is a significant difference in tuition costs between state and private universities. Economist Richard G. Sheehan has calculated the hourly wage of big-time college players taking these considerations into account and assuming a workload of 1,000 hours per year. The best pay received, he found, occurred at private schools with high graduation rates for the athletes; the lowest, at state schools with low graduation rates. Duke, for instance, paid an equivalent of $20.37 an hour for its football players, compared to the University of Texas-El Paso's $3.51. The median wage at all big-time schools was $6.82 an hour for basketball players and $7.69 an hour for football players.
Compare these wages with coaches, assuming they also work 1,000 hours annually. A coach with a $1,000,000 package makes $1,000 an hour; one with a $250,000 package, $250 an hour. The executive director of the NCAA, Cedric Dempsey, whose salary was $647,000 in 1997, made $647 an hour. Meanwhile, the workers--whose health is jeopardized by participation in hazardous sports--make a relative pittance and even then not in the form of money, but in "free" room, board, and tuition. Thus, the work of the big-time college athletes, just like the slaves on the antebellum plantations, allows the masters to accumulate wealth at their expense.
Slaves, by definition, are not free. The slaves of the antebellum era did not have the right to assemble or petition. They did not have the right to speak out or freedom of movement. Those conditions characterize today's college athletes as well. The NCAA, schools, and coaches restrict the freedom of the athletes in many ways. By NCAA fiat, once athletes sign a contract to play for a school, they are bound to that institution. They make a four-year commitment to that college, yet the school makes only a one-year commitment to them. If an athlete wishes to play for another big-time school, he is ineligible for one year (two years if his former coach refuses to release the athlete from his contract). Yet, if a coach wants to get rid of an athlete, the school is merely bound to provide the scholarship for the remainder of that academic year. Coaches, on the other hand, can break their contracts, and immediately coach another school. Richard Sheehan, author of Keeping Score: The Economics of Big-Time Sports, illustrates how unfair this role is for athletes, when they are compared with nonathlete students: "Suppose you accept a scholarship from Harvard to study under a Nobel laureate who then takes a position at Yale. Are you under any obligation to attend Harvard and not attempt to matriculate at Yale? This NCAA regulation, like many others, gives schools options and gives athletes nothing."
The right to privacy is invaded routinely when it comes to college athletes. They--but not their coaches, teachers, administrators, or other students--are subject to mandatory drag testing. Personnel from the athletic department watch athletes in their dorms and locker rooms, either in person or on closed-circuit television, for "deviant behaviors." Bed checks are not uncommon. Sometimes, there are "spies" who watch and report on the behaviors of athletes in local bars and other places of amusement.
Freedom of choice is violated when athletes are red-shirted (held from play for a year) without their consent. Athletes may have little or no choice in what position they play. They may be told to gain or lose weight, with penalties for noncompliance. Coaches may demand mandatory study halls and determine what courses the athletes will take and their majors. Robert Smith, now a running back for the Minnesota Vikings, was a pre-med student and star athlete at Ohio State University. To meet his pre-med requirements, Smith needed a laboratory course that conflicted with football practices twice a week. The coaches insisted that football take precedence and that he must drop the course. To Smith's credit, he took the course and did not play football that year.
A number of coaches insist that their athletes avoid political protest. Some paternalistic coaches prohibit their athletes from associating with individuals or groups that they feel will have a negative influence on their players. Certain coaches demand dress codes and may even organize leisure-time activities that everyone must attend. University of Colorado basketball coach Ricardo Patton, for example, has included among his mandatory team activities touring a prison, attending church services, sleeping together on cots in the gym for a week, and practicing at six in the morning. During slavery, the masters imposed their religious beliefs on their slaves. In today's sports world, team chaplains, chapel services, bible study, and team prayers are commonplace.
Patton concludes each practice with the players holding hands in a circle while Patton or an athlete he calls upon leads the team in prayer. He claims that participation is voluntary. Sportswriter Mike Littwin of the Denver Rocky Mountain News argues that the practice is anything but voluntary: "According to the argument, players, whose playing time and scholarship are dependent upon the coach's whim, are free to pray or not to pray with him. Here's what I believe: Anyone who thinks that when the coach says it's time to pray that it's somehow voluntary ought to pray for more wisdom. It is inherently coercive. It's about as voluntary as when the coach tells you to run laps. You're not the coach for 60 minutes of practice and then not the coach once you kneel on the floor."
Although by no means a universal trait of coaches, instances of physical and mental cruelty towards players occur all too frequently. University of South Carolina football coach Lou Holtz, for example, has used intimidation, humiliation, and even physical aggression on his teams. When Holtz was at Notre Dame University, one of his players, Chet Lacheta, made several mistakes in practice. In Lacheta's words: "[Holtz] started yelling at me. He said that I was a coward. He said that I should find a different sport to play and that I shouldn't come back in the fall. He was pretty rough.... First he grabbed my face mask and shook it. Then he spit on me."
Bob Knight, the highly successful basketball coach at Indiana University, has physically and verbally abused his players, even choking one during a practice. Despite this incident, which was videotaped, and other verified examples of abuse, Indiana University has retained Knight, though he was fined and placed on a zero-tolerance permanent probationary status. Just as the owners of slaves were allowed to brutalize their chattel, so, too, was this powerful coach immune from meaningful sanctions and accountability for decades.
In addition to verbal and physical abuse, coaches use various means to control their athletes, such as having midnight practices after the team returns from a disappointing loss. Knight schedules some holiday practices, without telling the players when to report for the next one. Consequently, they must wait by their phones to hear from the manager about the practice schedule. If not, they will incur the wrath of their autocratic boss. These acts of control are similar to those used by the military to train recruits.
As sociologist Philip Slater has observed: "Exposure to random punishment, stress, fatigue, personal degradation and abuse, irrational authority, and constant assertions of one's worthlessness as a human being [are] all tried-and-true techniques of `reeducation' used by totalitarian regimes.... "In effect, these are powerful means to create and maintain obedient slaves.
Historians George Fredrickson and Christopher Lasch have stated that the real horror of slavery was that many of the slaves "mentally identified with the system that bound and confined them." This is an especially troubling aspect of the plantation system that is big-time college sports. Jerry Farber's description of students in his classic 1960s critique of higher education, The Student as Nigger, aptly describes athletes as well: "They're pathetically eager to be pushed around. They're like those old greyheaded house niggers you can still find in the South who don't see what all the fuss is about because Mr. Charlie `treats us real good.'"
Sports sociologist George H. Sage provides some of the reasons why athletes rarely resist these authoritarian and unjust regimes: "A question may be raised about the lack of protest from intercollegiate athletes about the prevailing conditions under which they labor. In one way, it can be expected that the athletes would not find anything to question: they have been thoroughly conditioned by many years of organized sports involvement to obey athletic authorities. Indeed, most college athletes are faithful servants and spokespersons for the system of college sport. They tend to take the existing order for granted, not questioning the status quo because they are preoccupied with their own jobs or making the team and perhaps gaining national recognition. As a group, athletes tend to be politically passive and apathetic, resigned to domination from above because, at least partly, the institutional structure of athletics is essentially hostile to independence of mind. Hence, athletes are willing victims whose self-worth and self-esteem have largely become synonymous with their athletic prowess. Their main impulse is to mind their own business while striving to be successful as athletes."
Another reason for the docility and submissiveness of athletes is that they are politically disenfranchised. Those who challenge the athletic power structure risk losing their scholarships and eligibility. Athletes who have a grievance are on their own. They have no union and no arbitration board. The coaches, athletic directors, and, ultimately, the NCAA have the power over them as long as they are scholarship athletes. Their sole option is to leave the plantation. If they do quit, they are often viewed by others as the problem. After all, most accept the system. Those who quit are seen not as victims, but as losers. So powerful is the socialization of athletes, even those who quit are likely to rum their anger inward, regarding themselves as the problem.
Others may tolerate the oppressive system because they see it as the only vehicle to becoming a professional athlete. If they were to become professional athletes, the rewards are substantial. However, making it to the pros is just a dream except for the most-talented few. Of the thousands of players eligible for the National Football League draft each year, just 218 are selected and about 160 (including some nondrafted free agents) actually make a final roster. Fewer than one-half of one percent of all Division I players make it to the National Basketball Association.
Dismal graduation rates
Since most college athletes never play at the professional level, the attainment of a college degree is a crucial determinant for their upward mobility, and thus a rationale for tolerating the unjust plantation system. Yet, graduation from college, while not the long shot of becoming a professional athlete, is also a bad bet.
A 1999 report compiled by the NCAA examined Division I athletes who enrolled in 1992-93 to determine how many had graduated after six years. (Athletes who left school in good academic standing were not counted in the results.) The data show that, while the overall graduation rate for all male students was 54%, for football players it was 50% (60% for whites and 42% for blacks) and 41% for male basketball players (53% for whites and 33% for blacks). While some programs are exemplary (Duke graduated 92% of its football players and Stanford University graduated 100% of its men's basketball players over the six-year period), others are not. According to Emerge magazine, 38 Division I basketball teams did not graduate a single black player in 1998. From 1995 to 1999, Ohio State graduated 100% of its female basketball players, but just 31% of its male basketball players. The 1999 men's basketball NCAA Division I champion, the University of Connecticut, managed to graduate a mere 29% of its team members between 1994 and 1997.
There are several reasons for the relatively low graduation rates for big-time college athletes. Compared to nonathletes, they are less prepared for college. On average, they enter in the bottom quarter of the freshman class (based on SAT scores). Football and men's basketball players in big-time sports programs are more than six times as likely as other students to receive special treatment in the admissions process--that is, they are admitted below the standard requirements for their universities. Second, athletes spend 30-40 hours a week on their sport, which is demanding, as well as physically and mentally fatiguing. Third, an anti-intellectual atmosphere is common within the jock subculture. Finally, some athletes attend college not for the education, but because they believe it will lead to a professional career. In this regard, former Iowa State University football coach Jim Walden has said, "Not more than 20% of the football players go to college for an education."
Not only do typical athletes in big-time sports enter at an academic disadvantage, they often encounter a diluted educational experience while attending their schools. Coaches, under the intense pressure to win, tend to diminish the student side of their athletes by counseling them to take easy courses, choose easy majors, and enroll in courses given by faculty members friendly to the athletic department. Some of the more unscrupulous have altered transcripts, given athletes answers to exams, staged phantom courses, and hired surrogate test takers. In one well-publicized case of academic fraud, a tutor for the University of Minnesota athletic department wrote more than 400 papers for basketball players over five years. Even with that help, just 23% of the players recruited since 1986 to play basketball at that university have graduated, the worst rate of any Big Ten basketball team during that period.
Some ill-prepared and/or unmotivated athletes manage to stay eligible without being educated. Former all-pro defensive lineman Dexter Manley, for example, testified before a Senate committee that he had played four years at Oklahoma State University, only to leave illiterate. As Cynthia Tucker, editor of the Atlanta Constitution editorial page, writing about exploited basketball players, but applicable to football players as well, said, "So those college basketball players you're watching on the court desperately need to earn degrees. If they don't, they'll be left with little more than shattered `hoop dreams.' "When two out of three black basketball players do not leave college with a degree, something is drastically amiss. The uneducated have been exploited by their schools and, when their eligibility is used up, the schools turn to another crop to exploit. As columnist George Will has argued, "College football and basketball are, for many players, vocations, not avocations, and academics are unsubstantiated rumors."
Reexamining the plantation/slave metaphor, athletes voluntarily enter into an unjust arrangement. Nevertheless, there are important similarities that college sport shares with slavery. The plantation system, as represented by the NCAA and the individual schools, benefits handsomely from the work of the athletes. The athletes, meanwhile, like slaves, are bound to the plantation by the plantation's rules. They are dominated, managed, and controlled. They take orders. They do not receive a wage commensurate with their contribution to the economic return. They are sometimes mistreated physically and mentally by their overseers. They are denied the rights and freedoms of other citizens, and they have no real democratic recourse to right an unjust system.
Changing the system
The obvious starting point for changing the system is to pay athletes in the revenue-producing sports fair compensation for the revenues they generate. Athletes should receive a monthly stipend for living expenses, insurance coverage, and paid trips home during holidays and for family emergencies. Media basketball commentator Dick Vitale suggests a modest plan to make the system somewhat faker. He says that the NCAA should invest $1,000,000,000 of the $6,200,000,000 it will receive to broadcast the NCAA men's basketball tournament and pay the athletes $250 a month. Sports Illustrated writer E.M. Swift responded: "Is Vitale right on the money? You make the call. For now, as the NCAA continues to treat its athletes with supercilious contempt while reaping GNP-sized windfalls from their labor, you can at least say this for scholarship athletes: They're getting a free education in no-holds-barred capitalism."
The time has come to end the pretense that players in big-time college sports are amateurs. They are paid through a scholarship, far from a just or living wage in this world of big-time sports megabucks.
Second, maximize the probability that athletes receive a legitimate education and graduate. Ernest L. Boyer, former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, said: "I believe that the college sports system is one of the most corrupting and destructive influences on higher education. It is obscene, and there is no way to put an educational gloss on this enterprise." In short, as currently structured, big-time sports are not compatible with education.
To emphasize education and replace athlete-students with student-athletes, I suggest the following: Do not admit athletes who fail to meet the minimum entrance requirements for admission and retention. Eliminate freshman eligibility so that incoming students have time to adjust to the demanding and competitive academic environment. Provide remedial classes and tutoring as needed to assure athletes a genuine education. Reduce the time demands on athletes by eliminating spring football practice, starting the basketball season at the beginning of the second semester, and restricting the weekly time devoted to sports to 20 hours. Include among the criteria for evaluating coaches the humane treatment Of players and, most critically, the proportion of their athletes who graduate in six years.
Third, establish a comprehensive athletes' bill of rights to ensure a nonexploitive context. At a minimum, it should include:
* The right to transfer schools. Athletes who do should be eligible to play the next school year, not be governed by the current stipulation that they must wait a year with no athletic scholarship aid.
* The right to a four-year scholarship, not the one-year renewable scholarship at the option of the coach, as is the current NCAA policy. Those athletes who compete for three years should be given an open-ended scholarship guaranteeing that they will receive aid as long as it takes to graduate.
* The rights that other college athletes have, such as freedom of speech, protections from the physical and mental abuse of authorities, privacy rights, and the fair redress of grievances. There should be an impartial committee on each college campus, separate from the athletic department, that monitors the behavior of coaches and the rules imposed by them on athletes to ensure that individual rights are guaranteed.
* The right to consult with agents concerning sports career choices.
* The right to make money from endorsements, speeches, etc. Walter Byers, former executive director of the NCAA, under whose reign many of these abuses abounded, has stated that athletes should have the same financial opportunities as other students, arguing that "The athlete may access the marketplace just as other students exploit their own special talents, whether they are musicians playing on weekends, journalism students working piecemeal for newspapers, or announcers for the college radio station filing reports for CNN radio."
Big-time college sports presents us with a fundamental dilemma. We like the festival atmosphere, pageantry, exuberance, excitement, and excellence, but are we then willing to accept the hypocrisy, scandal, and exploitation that goes with them? To date, the plantation system is not being challenged as college presidents and various NCAA committees and membership make timid and tepid cosmetic changes. As a beginning to the real reform of the oppressive system, we need to understand who benefits and who is exploited. The plantation/slave metaphor illuminates the injustices of the system in stark reality. Seeing it in this way should create an urgency among educators to make real changes. The time is ripe for bold action to transform big-time college athletics so that it can be part of the educational vision of the university without the shame and the sham that characterize it now.
D. Stanley Eitzen is professor emeritus of sociology, Colorado State University, Fort Collins; former president of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport; a sports ethics fellow of the Institute for International Sport; and the author of Fair and Foul: Beyond the Myths and Paradoxes of Sport.
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|Title Annotation:||collgeg athletes|
|Author:||EITZEN, D. STANLEY|
|Publication:||USA Today (Magazine)|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2000|
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