Thursday, September 22, 2011

Colleges as the Minor Leagues

Reading the Observer this morning about how the University of North Carolina is taking a fresh look at its academic offerings, especially those preferred by its “student-athletes” brings me to a sense of sadness and wonder—wonder that we can go on playing this game of “Let’s Pretend” regarding athletics and money in this country.

I began thinking about this subject a long time ago. When I attended university, we used to refer to one of the schools in our conference as a “football factory”.  The term was intended to denigrate their academic program, which we thought had lost out to their athletic programs.  Then, over time, the Olympics started to come into focus, especially the notion that the games were somehow pure, i.e., the athletes had not yet been tainted by money—they were all “amateur athletes.”  The more I paid attention, the clearer it became that Olympic athletes were really “amateur” in name only. Most were sponsored by some group or another and the ones that weren’t had commercial sponsors who paid them one way or another. When professional basketball invaded the Olympics, I conceded that the amateur athletics notion had just been buried for good.

 Then over time, one college after another got stung by its own stupidity and greed. Money began to dominate college athletics.  The TV rights to games alone made the “amateur” notion of collegiate competition a joke.  So, why would we continue to play “Let’s Pretend”?  Well, apparently nobody is willing to stand up and state the obvious—college “student-athletes’ are paid minor league athletic employees. Unlike baseball, where the major league teams own their own minor league franchises to train their upcoming athletes, in football and basketball (the so-called “revenue sports”) colleges provide the minor leagues.  A recent controversy regarding the true nature of college athletes (are they paid employees?)  has been brought into the daylight via an article in the Atlantic by Taylor Branch—“The Shame of College Sports” –The Atlantic, October 2011.  The true controversy is whether we should consider college athletes as paid employees of the university, in which case they would be entitled to workmen’s compensation when they become injured.  Apparently, the powers that be do not want that, because it would leave them liable. The NCAA “Let’s Pretend” they’re just student-athletes allows everyone to escape such liability.

But the potential damage even goes beyond that done to the athletes themselves. The college academic programs are also damaged, as when we used to refer to that “football factory”.  Real students who graduate from the “football factories” of the country are not treated as seriously as they should. See, even “football factories” have serious academic study programs and real students. If the “student-athletes” manage to trash their school’s academic standing because they are joke students, many real students are thereby potentially damaged.
So, why not just admit the truth—college football and basketball NCAA conferences are the true minor leagues of the NBA and the NFL. The participating athletes are minor league professional athletes—paid employees. Whether they go to classes is largely irrelevant. Maybe we even need to go the extra mile and declare that these athletes don’t actually have to attend academic classes, since they are not real students.
Now the problem with such an approach is that it may punish the real student-athletes, i.e., the students who happen to be both gifted academics and gifted athletes.  Surely we are clever enough to manage such a reality so as to not harm the real student-athletes.
And while we are on the subject of truth in athletics, why don’t we deal with the taboo subject of “performance-enhancing drugs”? Talk about “Let’s Pretend”.  We demand that athletes meet higher and higher performance standards, and then we wonder and are “shocked . . . shocked” when we find that high performing athletes actually cheat by injecting themselves with various Illegal substances in order to become better at their game.  But in the end, who really cares if Lance Armstrong used illegal drugs to gain his mastery over the field of bikers?  If professional athletes wish to screw up their bodies in exchange for gaining mastery (and a great deal of money) why not let them? Nobody is forcing them to choose that path to glory.
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