The NCAA is a Cruel, Exploitative Joke

I was trying to think what, exactly, I would do if a grown man offered me hundreds of dollars for some token possession of mine. Say, if a stranger wanted to fork over $1000 for the watch I got from the National Spelling Bee (this reference isn’t for show, I promise. You’ll see why.) I might decide to keep it for sentiment’s sake, but a thousand bucks is a lot of cash for a few bits of leather and metal that I’ve never worn. So, I take the stranger’s currency and he gives me what I consider an exorbitant amount of legal tender in exchange. Leaving debates of exchange value versus trade value aside, the transaction was by all accounts a success, and the two consenting adults go on our merry way, each of us thinking himself a bit richer in some way, tangible or otherwise.

In short, I was awarded a token for my participation in a relatively exclusive event and, finding no use for this trinket, sold it to an individual who found it appealing. One man’s trash, and all that. No one would bat an eye; in fact, few people would probably even know that this (admittedly odd) business deal even occurred.

Now, let’s warp from the site of this deal in my college town, to a far more famous and bustling college town: Columbus, OH. After selling my watch, I had heard that some football players in Columbus had decided to sell some trinkets of their own, so I was curious to see what price some Buckeyes memorabilia might fetch on the (scarlet and) gray market. The kids reportedly exchanged or sold jerseys, shoes, pins, rings, and autographs to fans in the town who are notoriously hungry for Buckeye gear, and can never be satiated. I think to myself that this seems like a pretty neat idea. Despite widespread reports of agent meddling and financial misdeed, student athletes are frequently cash-poor, even if their tuition and lodging is paid for. I figure that $1000 for a tiny gold pin shaped like a pair of pants seems a bit ridiculous, but if someone is willing to pay such a price then who am I to protest? Just as my foreign feelings of good will mixed with sticker shock are reaching their zenith in response to this entrepreneurial initiative, the seller’s future prospects and athletic careers are suddenly mangled by a swift and capricious hammer-blow from those American Royal and Ancients: the NCAA.

At What Cost, Football?

Everyone has to admit that the NCAA, public and private universities, television networks, and video game manufacturers all make incredible amounts of money from the production and playing of college football. Two arguments that the NCAA perpetually makes in defense of its questionable practices are:

1.) They provide opportunities and/or experience for college athletes in the from of sports, and provide some with a free education and lodging.
2.) The rules state that college athletes are student-athletes, that they may not profit from their activities, and the rules regarding pay-for-play cannot be changes so as to preserve the “integrity” of the organization.

Now, think about this. When NCAA 11 creates its player rosters, though it can’t use the name of college athletes, it can use their rough likeness, physical attributes, estimated skills in the from of player ratings, and even their number. When big “QB #5” lined up behind center on the video grid-iron, it was not only assumed to be Tim Tebow, it was supposed to look and seem like Tim Tebow. While EA Sports was busy snorting cash in $60 lines off of the backs of virtual college athletes, not only were these athletes told that they were not allowed to profit from their status, team affiliation, or likeness, they were told that other people could and, in fact, this setup was actually beneficial for the student-athletes. Go back and read that sentence out loud to yourself, emphases included. Even if you are a rules-hawk, you should see that the rules are not only completely unfair, but unabashedly exploitative. I mean, EA Sports is never ashamed to publish NCAA 11, they run commercials with simulated student-athletes featured prominently in the ads. The NCAA itself has no concern for appearances; the Rose Bowl has almost as much pageantry–and invested capital–as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I would say “How do they sleep at night?” but we all know that the answer is “well” and “in piles of money.”

So let’s go back to the Ohio State players who have been suspended–and their future careers jeopardized–and explicitly state what it is that they did. The Buckeyes players took items that they own, mainly memorabilia, and either traded it for tattoos, or sold it for cash. Reportedly, the highest profit was made–unsurprisingly–by quarterback Terrell Pryor, whose “gold pants” pin (an award received by Buckeyes who beat rival Michigan) fetched $2500. Every player was ordered to pay back what they made, and some were forced to perform “charity work” for their “misdeed.” (I’m running out of sarcastic quotes and italics). You should note that Pryor’s profits are equivalent to the income EA Sports makes from selling 42 of its games.

This is what the NCAA is saying, with no hyperbole: “It is acceptable, even ethical, for us to profit from the work, talent, likeness, and popularity of student athletes. We also consider it acceptable for other entities like video game companies, sports apparel manufacturers, and memorabilia collectors to profit form the work, talent, likeness and popularity of student athletes. If, however, the student athletes attempt to profit from their own work, talent, likeness, or popularity for themselves, not only do we prohibit this, we will punish them by suspending them from the activity that garnered them attention–and us money–in the first place.”


Two hallmarks of authoritarian rule are:

1.) Those in power provide for the common welfare and expect respect, adulation, and obedience in return.
2.) Rules made by those in power are convoluted and unclear (either purposefully or out of stupidity) and the opaque regulations create a miasma of uncertainty and perpetual fear of running afoul of the regulations.

Does this sound familiar? Let me be clear that I would never compare the NCAA to a military junta. First it’s not even a close or fair comparison, and secondly it cheapens the suffering of those who have struggled under such government. But it is permissible to highlight certain aspects of a despised organization without invoking all of the negative qualities. It is not “cherry-picking,” and disallowing such comparisons is just as intellectually disingenuous as my referring to the NCAA as a junta would be (which, I most certainly am not). I thought I’d clear this up to avoid confusion and unjustified anger. Now, back to the show.

The nature of the relationship between universities and their student-athletes (especially those on scholarship) is, by definition, authoritarian. The “common welfare” argument closely mirrors the “education and opportunity” benefits espoused by the NCAA. Yes, they are technically paying athletes in the form of schooling and housing, but think about it this way: If you divided all the profits that the NCAA allowed themselves and others to gain from student-athletes, and dispersed the money among the athletes themselves, you can guarantee that they could pay for their own educations many times over. Just like unpaid internships are relatively unethical (and often technically illegal) explaining that you are paying someone with “experience and opportunity” is a weak argument that reeks of self-aggrandizing solipsism. There is no legitimate equivalent to the NCAA in terms of a player’s ability to turn professional, so this argument is also notable for its almost perfect circularity. It goes something like this:

Rough representation of most NCAA executives, probably.

NCAA: “Wanna play pro ball? Come to University “X” and be paid nothing!
Athlete: “That seems unfair given your ludicrous profit margins.”
NCAA: “Why not sign on with another, competing organization?”
Athlete: “Well, there isn’t one. The NFL doesn’t exactly place a lot of emphasis on drafting from the UFL or the Arena League. You guys have quite the monopoly.”
NCAA: “Monopoly you say? No, no, no, my boy. We just offer a humble service.”
Athlete: “But I have no other option than to use your service if I want to pursue this career. And even if I know I can’t go pro, you will be making money from my participation on your school’s team.”
NCAA: “Well, you might as well come to University “X”! At least you’ll get experience!”
Athlete: “Where else would I get ‘experience?'”
NCAA: “Exactly!”

The second point I made above, regarding arbitrary and capricious rules, barely warrants an explanation. The news is filled with stories of “student-athlete indiscretions”; agents offering kids cash to go to a certain school, a booster giving a kid some extra spending money, the list goes on and on. You will notice that, almost without exception, the infraction involves and adult giving money to a kid. The one who inevitable ends up in trouble, however, is almost always the kid. So what if the booster is fired? Their career isn’t jeopardized. And what kind of sanctions can the NCAA really put on an exploitative agent or coach. The NCAA is just now considering taking away USC’s 2004 National Championship for violations by Reggie Bush and, ostensibly, Pete Carroll. Both of those guys are sitting fat and happy with lucrative jobs and generally positive public opinion. The general format of this tired old play consists of three acts: Adult offers Kid money, Kid takes Money, Kid is Punished. The sad part is that we all keep paying for admission.

As an aside, before Pete Carroll slithers into his bathtub full of gold bullion every night, I wonder if he mockingly waves his dong in the general of the NCAA’s Indianapolis headquarters with that stupid, shit-eating grin plastered on his face. I think it’s reasonable to assume that this is the case.

I can even dispatch the protests to these statements before I hear them, because the pabulum that Boss Hogg the NCAA jams down the public’s throat is so profoundly inept and shockingly stale that rebuttals are quite elementary. It might be said that the NCAA offers the chance for students to become professional athletes. This is true. However, about 1% of Division I athletes become paid professionals in their sport, so this argument applies to an extremely small minority of student athletes, and this “opportunity,” as noted in the imaginary exchange above, is afforded exclusively by the NCAA. This in one of the most blatantly monopolistic ventures since Rockefeller bled money out the ground for decades while building a monument to himself in the form of Standard Oil.

It is often said that paying athletes would “tarnish the integrity” of the game. Excuse me? I think the acrimony generated from the perennial parade of income-less student-athletes and profiteering old men has stripped the gild from this ugly old NCAA lily on its own quite well. This non-argument is just the old guard’s febrile attempt at maintaining the status quo. It is a non-argument, and should be treated as such. I understand that paying college athletes poses its own problems. Do D-I athletes get more than D-II or D-III? What about more popular players? How about merchandising contracts? Surely, the NCAA would have to consider these questions. But just because this is difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted. Lots of people profit from college athletes, but college athletes are not permitted to profit for themselves. That’s what all the arguments boil down to, and to deny this is simply to deny reality. Semantic wizardry does nothing to address this core issue. Simply saying “Well those are the rules” is a non-argument because unfair rules, like unfair laws, should be changed.

Thomas Paine said that a “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” The NCAA’s shameless exploitation of athletes has gone unchecked for so long that most people tend not to consider what such restrictions actually entail. Once you think about it, and describe the events verbally, out loud, it’s easy to see how immoral such a paradigm really is. Ignoring the unethical nature of the NCAA’ treatment of student athletes requires the donning of very thick rose-tinted glasses and industrial-strength blinders. Above all else, keep in mind that through all of this, we are talking about kids. Kids with parents, kids with girlfriends and boyfriends, kids who just want to make some extra spending money, and kids whose talents are siphoned and mutated into a product that creates a lot of very wealthy people. We have to admit that the marching bands, the cheerleaders and banners, and the spirited crowds are forever sullied by the dishonorable machinations of filthy hands.


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