Monday, July 26, 2010

Amateurism, Jason Whitlock, and Twitter arguments

Sometime last week, Ace of The Wolverine Blog and I got into a lengthy Twitter debate--as lengthy as Twitter debates can be anyway--on Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock's latest article on Reggie Bush, amateurism, and the broken NCAA system. Ace, while taking exception to some of the rhetoric Whitlock uses, agrees with his general sentiment, while I, as I'm wont to do re: Jason Whitlock, went into a mild tantrum because someone actually pays Jason Whitlock to write about sports*.

The crux of Whitlock's argument is such:

The NCAA rule book is not the United States Constitution.

If anything, the rule book supporting the bogus concept of “amateur athletics” is akin to the laws that supported Jim Crow, denied women suffrage and upheld slavery.

No joke. This is how he starts his column. This is how you draw traffic to a website, not create a reasonable argument about the trappings of the current NCAA system in regards to amateurism and agents. He never goes all the way to completing the idea that he hints at here--that college football is an enterprises that gets old white men rich on the backs of stereotyped young black males (because black males are the only ones playing college football)--but it's blatantly obvious, enough to submarine any rational thought on the topic he might have therein. Not to mention, that if Reggie Bush was white, you can be assured there would be a different lede to this story.

A note before I go further: I am not against the idea of paying college athletes and abolishing the idea of amateurism as might be implied by this column or the aforementioned Tweeting. My main objection is to Whitlock's argument and the various problems his thinking presents.

*Full disclosure, I loathe Jason Whitlock. He's the kind of writer who, when discussing the Tiger Woods scandal would refer to Tiger's indiscretions as "Pussy Galore" and other half-baked catch phrases that, if you said were catering to the lowest common denominator, would actually be insulting to mathematics and Joe Sixpack alike. He writes for a hit count, not for full-fledged ideas.

College athletics is not slavery
Contrary to what Whitlock may have you believe, college athletics is not slavery. Having to enumerate on this fact that to anyone other than Whitlock seems like a fruitless affair, but seeing as we're using him as a base, we'll debunk the idea.

You can see what Whitlock is trying to say here: college athletes don't get paid but their respective universities see serious dollars because of their performance. He goes on to say,

The athletes are being compensated in a currency (a shot at a compromised education in their spare time) many of them don’t respect and haven’t been properly prepared to use.

The fallacy and complications in this sentence alone are numerous. First of all, Whitlock acknowledges that the athletes are being compensated, handsomely so (upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars). And like magic, he ignores this part of the deal by passing it off as a) "a compromised education" and b) something that "many of them don't respect". Both of these statements are wildly presumptuous and in many cases, probably wrong. For example, Myron Rolle was a Rhodes Scholar in his time as a productive safety at Florida State. Not every college player is Myron Rolle, but to claim that students are given a compromised education is flatly false; they are given every opportunity and it's their decision whether or not to fully and seriously pursue that angle of their college life. And to say that "many" college athletes don't respect their education is downright offensive.

What Whitlock fails to understand here, is that highly talented young athletes are not unlike other young adults that go to college: go to school, specialize in something, get a job. For a lucky few students, "getting a job" means playing on Sundays under the bright NFL lights. To value football above a traditional education is not something that should be passed off as irresponsible for the select group of students who have a realistic opportunity to do so. The idea of "majoring" in your sport of choice should not be a dismissed option. What sets these students up for a better life and a better future? English classes or weight training and being in the film room?

Say what you will about the ethics of it all and whether or not you think these students should leave college with a "real-world" degree, but it's nearly impossible to make the argument that these students are not being fairly compensated, whether it be through training them for a career in the major leagues or giving them a free education--if they choose to seriously pursue it--that hundreds of thousand of similar students could only wish to receive let alone afford.

To people who aren't the worst sports writer on the planet
Ace at The Wolverine Blog adds to Whitlock's argument saying that football in particular is a dangerous sport that carries inherent risk--risk that may make a football education null and void on any given play; allow student athletes to cash in while they can--and the restrictions on student athlete jobs is unfair.

To the latter (because it's easier to answer): student loans exist for a reason. That college athletes shouldn't leave college without having to pay back loans is silly. We're conditioned to think that a full scholarship means that everything is paid for, but there are very real things--food, rent, etc.--that college athletes have to pay for out of pocket. To which I say, student loans exist for a reason.

Football is indeed a violent sport, and one in which your career (and possibly life) can be ended on a single freak play. But if you were to ask any college football player whether or not they were aware of this, 100 out of 100 would tell you they are. They've been aware of it since they were 5 years old and watching SportsCenter and saw that terrifying Joe Theismann video. There's also a lot of reward that comes with a professional career in football. Using the game's violent nature or the difficulty to actually cash in on the career (such a small percentage of college football players ever see a legitimate NFL career) without talking to the players themselves is a straw house. I realize I'm making similar assumptions, but college football players are well aware of the risks and rewards of playing the game. Paying them because of those risks (while also paying for their education and ability to get the highest level of athletic training) is redundant.

But what about Bill Martin's yacht?
OK, so Bill Martin has a yacht that he sails on--or at least a really big sailboat--that we were all made of aware of when he took a noted leave of absence during the coaching search. The yacht was paid for by his salary which came from the school/athletic department, which gets its money from football revenue, which comes from on-field play by the student athletes in question and OH MY GOD SLAVERY. (Remember, Jason Whitlock was compensated, probably well, for extrapolating this revelation into 1,000 words and calling Reggie Bush Kunta Kinte.)

You can't deny the benefit that the university sees from the students that have chosen to attend their institution free of charge and with some of the most advanced, prominent training anyone on the planet can receive. People like Jason Whitlock will contend that this is slavery and these students are being used. But let's look at this hypothetically: Let's say every football ticket, jersey, and piece of athletic clothing were free to fans and the university made no money on sports. How does that in any way change the student athletes' decision to go to a university in an attempt to follow their dream of playing professional sports if they're still given free tuition and training?

More importantly, it's not like Mary Sue Coleman is going Scrooge McDuck money-pit-diving in athletic department money. A lot of that revenue goes to new facilities, paying for coaches salaries, etc., the kinds of things that directly benefit the players. The fact that football revenue doesn't go into the players' pockets doesn't harm the players, but rather it benefits the university. And isn't that why they have the team in the first place? The school has a team to make money. Students come to play for that school because it will give them a shot at the career/life they want. The school can give them that opportunity because they make money and can pay for the best training. It's a cycle.

This is too long
I guess the ultimate point here is that a) college football isn't slavery and b) Jason Whitlock gets paid money. I'm not advocating not paying players--though I am advocating not paying Jason Whitlock--but these are students who have purposefully bought into a system that has very rigid rules about "amateurism" and must abide by them. The rules are not nearly as arcane as "progressives" like Whitlock contend (he goes so far as to chastise journalists for falling in line behind the NCAA, in the process, commending himself for being such a visionary), but they're also not perfect.

Most importantly, college football is not slavery.


Wm Wilson said...

You resort to hyperbole which undermines your presentation. E.g., " it's nearly impossible to make the argument that these students are not being fairly compensated.." -- That's pretty wild - I can MAKE the argument in a heartbeat: Nick Saban salary = $4 million; college athlete salary = 0. College athletes are "employees" by almost any statutory definition: NLRB, Workers' Comp; IRS; Unemployment. I can MAKE plenty of arguments. But finally, I think I win them: college athletes are young entertainers, many with HUGE market value - just like Alicia Keys, Michael Jackson, Shirley Temple, whoever. Let them reap their true market value remuneration while they have that value for a short period in their lives -- instead of having that market value (read: MAMMOTH TV revenue) flow solely to the university's coffers.

Chris Gaerig said...

The problem is that in any argument you construct about players not being compensated you either have to completely ignore the tens, and possibly hundreds, of thousands of dollars in free tuition/board that students are being afforded (as you did here) or try and minimize that compensation's value (as Whitlock does).

There is no way to make a reasonable argument that these students are not being compensated.

Chris Gaerig said...

Not to mention this article which comes directly from the NCAA's website:

"Critics argue that student-athletes generate large amounts of money for the institution and therefore should be compensated. That argument ignores the fact that intercollegiate athletics programs are necessarily composed of many sports, many of which generate significant expenses over revenues. Only about two dozen programs nationally, all of them large Division I programs, actually yield revenues over expenses after the bills are paid. The remainder rely to varying degrees on institutional financial support.

Some pay-for-play advocates suggest eliminating nonrevenue sports and paying football and men’s basketball players because of the perceived profitability of those sports. In fact, however, only 30 percent of Division I football and 26 percent of Division I men’s basketball programs post revenues over expenses."

This not only points out that revenue is not necessarily going into the pockets of the athletic department big wigs, but also that most programs don't make enough money to pay players. If the practice of openly paying players was put into place, you'd see a bigger talent gap than already exists.

Again, I'm not necessarily against paying the players (I think after writing all of this, I come down on the side of "don't"), but I don't think it's quite as explicitly corrupt as Whitlock says or as simple as, "well they make money for the school so we should pay them".

DJB said...

"a) college football isn't slavery and b) Jason Whitlock gets paid money." That's all I got from this.

MaizeSombrero said...

I guarantee you that Bill Martin's yacht was not paid for by his Michigan AD salary. Bill Martin is preposterously rich from his prior business dealings, primarily with First Martin Corp. He wasn't get paid enough to buy a yacht. He already had that money.

Just trying to make you argument stronger.

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