As the sporting world turns its eyes to London in anticipation of the 2012 Olympic Games, I find myself thinking about some of the wonderful moments in Olympic history. Whether it was Usain Bolt’s shattering the 100 and 200-meter world records, Michael Phelps’ winning 8 gold medals, or the 1992 “Dream Team” making it look as if their opponents had never heard of the word basketball before, Olympians have always captivated us with their amazing talents.
And then I started thinking about other lasting Olympic memories; such as the 1968 summer games in Mexico City. Following their 1st and 3rd place finishes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the podium while the National Anthem rang in the background. The gesture was in support of the Black Power movement, as well as an act of solidarity for all African Americans suffering through the racism of the civil rights era.
What’s so fascinating about the example of Smith and Carlos is that the moment on the podium has become more meaningful than their race. They chose to use their performance as a platform to challenge the way African Americans were being treated in the United States. They could have just as easily stood on that podium in silence as they received their medals – but they didn’t. A similar stand against racial injustice took place not too long ago – in the 2000 Sydney Games in Australia. Cathy Freeman was one of only 11 Aboriginal natives out of 628 athletes on the Australian team. She was “the human symbol of a country's hope of creating new racial harmony.” After lighting the torch to begin the games, Freeman went on to win the gold in the 400 meters. After the race was over, she took a victory lap while carrying both the Australian, and Aboriginal flags. I respect and honor these athletes not just for their athletic achievement, but also for their willingness to make their performance mean something more to their communities. Which, oddly enough, got me thinking about professional golfers. Every year, the best male golfers around the world gather in Augusta, Georgia to play in the Masters – one of the most important tournaments of the year. I stress the word “male” because no women are allowed to be members at Augusta National, the golf course that plays host to the Masters. Despite this blatant display of discrimination, no professional golfer, past or present, has yet to speak up about the issue. It is never really paid attention to, and the only reason that it has come up recently is because of a tradition where the sponsoring companies CEO are extended membership at Augusta National. IBM is a large sponsor of the Masters, and it just so happens that this past year they named Ginni Rometty as its CEO. Due to the policy, she was not extended an invitation to become a member.
I realize that comparing Tommy Smith and John Carlos speaking out about racism in the United States with golfers unwilling to speak out about gender discrimination at a private golf course may be a bit petty. The two issues are not on the same level. That’s not to say that women being excluded from the Masters isn’t an important issue. In fact, it is such an obvious and blatant display of injustice that it makes you shake your head and wonder how something like that is even allowed to go on.
But, it still leaves me questioning the lack of professional golfers who will stand up and speak out against the policy. Have they done something wrong? Do they have a responsibility to speak out? Should they be held accountable for remaining quiet? These questions don’t have easy answers. In your gut you feel like their silence is wrong and they should be held accountable for. But, then I start thinking about what that implies about an athlete’s behavior. There are countless injustices in the world. Do athlete’s need to speak out against all of them? Do they need to take a stand on some issue? Is their continued silence or lack of voice a moral failing? I don’t feel comfortable saying yes to any of those questions because I don’t see how we can reasonably expect that of an athlete. That’s a personal decision, and some people, be they athletes or not, choose to keep personal feelings private and I respect that.
And I return again to Smith and Carlos and I find what they did to be honorable and praiseworthy. They acted virtuously, and provided a strong moral example. Ultimately, what they did was right. But somehow, if they hadn’t done it, it would not have been wrong.
And then the ultimate question that I realized needed answering revealed itself: Can doing something be the right thing to do, without it being the necessary thing to do? Basically, if Carlos and Smith hadn’t demonstrated in those summer games, would we consider that to be a moral failure?
That's when I was introduced to an idea by Dr. David DeCosse in the Ethics Center that helped me reconcile my thinking on this issue of the ethical responsibility of athletes. He told me about supererogation. It is a theory of Catholic moral theology that suggests certain actions are praiseworthy, but that not doing those same actions is also not blameworthy. It is an interesting description of ethics, but I think it describes the athlete’s situation well.
Ultimately, sports are a profession, and athletes are workers. We don’t demand employees at work, no matter how well known they are, to speak out about social issues or ethics. Granted, athletes are considerably more famous than your average worker. That’s because our society privileges its athletes. We take pride in their success and their failures. Most of all, we respect and honor their greatness. For the most part, that greatness is displayed on the field. But, sometimes an athlete does something to elevate their athletic achievement.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos broadened the focus of that Olympic race. They used their athletic performance to speak to a larger social issue. They acted selflessly, deflecting the attention from their success and on to the bigger picture of racial intolerance. They, and Cathy Freeman are virtuous, and courageous athletes. Our world would be far better off with more like them.
The recent tragic death of former Charger’s linebacker Junior Seau should cause those who scoff at the idea of a “student-athlete” to pause and consider that a person’s development off the field in terms of their interests and passions is just as important to a player’s development on the field. There is still a lot of speculation surrounding Seau’s alleged suicide, but those close to him have made it clear that Seau was not happy. It has been suggested that the cause of his unhappiness was the result of head trauma endured throughout his playing career, coupled with the reality of having to face life after football, a game that meant everything to Seau. While the NFL and others discuss the safety issues in football that may have contributed to Seau’s death, I am more interested in a man who was facing an existential crisis at the end of his career, and feeling lost as to what to do next.
This is where college athletics comes into play. The current culture at many big name universities suggests that the only value a college athlete has is in his or her athletic achievement. Boosters don’t give money to teams that record high G.P.A.’s; they donate money to teams that win national championships. Universities lower academic standards for their high profile athletes, and grade inflation in order to keep athletes eligible continues to be a problem. In the discussion of whether or not college athletes should be paid, full-ride scholarships are being devalued and criticized as not being adequate compensation for the revenue generated by an athlete’s performance on the field. These all serve to reinforce a culture which tells young men and women who play sports to nurture their athletic talents, and an education comes second, if at all.
I do not want to suggest that Junior Seau did not receive a strong education at USC, and that the lack of such an education in someway contributed to his alleged suicide. That sort of speculation is unwarranted and unjustified without proper evidence. But what Seau’s death does remind us of is that despite the strength and resilience athletes display in the game, at the end of the day they are human, and there is one opponent that none of them can defeat – time.
So, when it does come time for a player to hang ’em up, it is helpful in transitioning from athletics to “normal life” if the person has some skill, talent, or passion outside of the game they played. This is where the responsibility of colleges, universities, and even high schools come in. These institutions are obligated to provide the skills for athletes to achieve success both on and off the field, and to maintain the same expectations of success that these institutions have has for all of their other students. It is an ethical responsibility that involves a concern for the whole person, which just so happens to be a cornerstone of the Jesuit mission.
This more holistic view should not diminish the value or importance of sports in the life of an athlete. But what it does is characterize athletics as a mode of self expression, rather than self definition. Meaning, that when an athlete is encouraged to look beyond the arena of sports in order to define him or herself, that athlete is not also being encouraged to abandon their athletic goals. Instead, he or she is being encouraged to recognize that being an athlete is an aspect of who they are as a person, but it is not the only aspect. Sports may play a more prominent role at times in an athlete’s life, especially a professional one. But, at the end of the day, they have to know that they mean more as individuals than just what they could do on the field, and we owe it to them to be sure that they know this.
A couple weeks ago, I, and others, had the privilege of hearing current FOX NFL rules analyst and former head of NFL officiating Mike Pereira speak about a culture change taking place within professional football. After reminiscing about his experience as a student-athlete at Santa Clara, Mr. Pereira shared his thoughts on the growing concern about player health and safety in professional football, an issue that has become even more pressing in light of the Saints and their now infamous bounty system.
What happened in New Orleans was an indication to me that despite the NFL’s efforts to reign in the violence of football by instituting rules regulating the kinds of hits defensive players make on their defenseless opponents, the issue of player safety was not being taken seriously by teams inside their locker rooms. There seemed to be a disconnect between the rules, and the way in which players and coaches approach the game philosophically, and the rules were doing nothing to influence this larger culture of violence and a “win at all costs” mentality.
So, I was delighted when I heard the title of Mike’s talk, “Have the Rules Caught Up with the Game? Reflections on Football, Concussions, and Character.” I thought to myself, finally, an answer to my questions! And, his answer was one I was hoping for. From what he has seen, player’s on-field behavior has changed. Guys are not leading with their helmets as much; they are not tackling their opponents with quite as much force and violence as before, which are clear indications that football is moving in the right direction when it comes to matters of safety. The trouble I had was that it was all built on a system of financial deterrence through the imposition of fines. There was an economic deterrent to this violent behavior in professional football, but not an ethical one. Since this is a blog about ethics, this is a point that I thought needed to be addressed.
Ethics is not just a moral code that defines right and wrong. Ethical reasoning requires understanding why something is right or wrong by critically evaluating the impact our actions have on others. Ultimately, ethics is all about responsibility, and responsibility implies that actions have consequences, and since we don’t live in an isolated vacuum, those consequences affect other people. Ethics requires removing oneself from the foreground in order to see the bigger picture. This can be difficult in sports because as competitors, athletes are made to view the team or individual they are playing against as an enemy. As Gregg Williams did with the Saints, coaches often use war analogies to motivate and inspire their athletes. And it works, especially in sports that are physically combative like football. Where Williams went wrong was when he began naming specific players, and specific body parts to go after in order to hurt them severely. It may be an extreme example, but in a sport as violent as football, it’s not difficult to see this sort of behavior manifest itself within the culture of the sport.
With this sort of a mindset being instilled within athletes, it’s difficult to incorporate ethical reasoning into athletic competition. But, there is still tremendous opportunity to integrate levels of compassion and empathy into sports without sacrificing the intense competition, which is what makes SPORTS so attractive. It begins with changing our understanding of the nature competition.
Founder and Executive Director of the Positive Coaching Alliance Jim Thompson wrote an article addressing the SAINTS' situation and how it might makes us think about competition differently. He referred to a book written by David Shields with Brenda Bredemeir titled True Competition, and the book is critical of the competitive attitude surrounding contemporary athletics. The focus, they say, is too much on dominating your opponent with a win at all costs mentality, when really competition can be much richer, and thought of as more ethically meaningful.
Competition comes from the Latin word competere, meaning to strive together. That word, together, implies an inclusive element to sports that opens the door for the kind of ethical thinking that I’m trying to argue for. Thompson reminds us that an athlete depends on his or her opponent to be at their best in order to actualize their own potential. If it is easy to win, and an athlete really isn’t being challenged, there is no way of seeing how good that individual athlete seeking a challenge could be.
If sports teaches us anything, it’s that adversity makes you better. We like seeing Lebron James play Kobe Bryant because we know that in order to win, one of them is going to have to do something spectacular in order to beat the other. With this understanding of competition in mind, we begin to see that while the Saints’ rhetoric in their locker room appeared tough and hard, what they were saying was actually cowardly. By intentionally trying to sideline the best players on the opposing team, the Saints were admitting to being unable to beat them while their best players were on the field. Instead of meeting the challenge faithfully, and with integrity, they choose to lower the level of competition, thereby making it easier to win, which in the end is only doing harm to their development as athletes.
This idea of competition is built on a foundation of mutual respect between adversaries. That sense of respect includes a level of concern for the health and well being of the other, to ensure that they are capable of challenging you with their best effort. In a way, it’s a selfish altruism. I want you to do well, in order to help me do better. This is the defining paradox that a lot of professional sports, not just football, are dealing with. How do we preserve the competitive fire that makes our sport so exciting, while at the same time protecting the health and safety of our athletes? If we allow OUR understanding of the nature of competition to shift in the direction suggested by Jim Thompson, I think the solution to that problem becomes a bit more clear.
From pee wee's on up through high school, coaches and fans always comment on the importance of sport as a character building exercise. But, as you move up the competitive ladder into college and professional sports where there is tremendous wealth and money exchanging hands, importance of sport in terms of character seems to take a backseat to sports as an industry and business. Not to mention the competitive nature inherent to sport that places emphasis on winning at any cost. These influences are a threat to a more ideal picture of character building and sports, and so we are left to consider how sports influences an athlete's character? This is the question posed to a panel consisting of: Zoe Kranzler, Academic Support Manager for SCU student athletes and former collegiate field hockey player, Matt Savage, Hackworth Fellow and current cross country/track runner at SCU, and Christopher Kulp, Professor of philosophy at SCU and an world-class cross-fit athlete. The following is a video of that panel discussion. Check out what the panelists had to say and the subsequent discussion of whether sports builds character.
In American sports, female athletes tend to take a back seat to their male counterparts. It’s the reality of our society, and we can debate the issue of a male-dominated sports culture and all the underlying chauvinist implications that come with it until we’re blue in the face. Even conversations surrounding ethics in college sports focus on problems from the perspective of male athletes, something I have been guilty of in this blog. This is why I want to focus our discourse on the issue of body image among female athletes. This problem affects all athletes, but it is one that affects women athletes in particular.
The percentage of collegiate women athletes struggling with an eating disorder is somewhere around 60%. You would think a number that high would elicit some national attention leading to actions addressing the problem. Yet, it seems as if the issue has become a taboo subject in college athletics. Even mentioning the words “eating disorders” and “athletes” puts people on edge. I think part of the reason is that not much is being said about the underlying ethical problem of bodily integrity. Athletes have a unique relationship with their bodies. By constantly striving to improve in their respective sports, athletes are constantly confronted with their physical limitations. Of course, this struggle with physical limits is a rightful part of sports. But abuse can occur when athletes go to extremes to overcome those limitations, forgetting that their physical bodies constitute a large part of who they are as individuals. You can hurt your body so much that you break faith with yourself. Eating disorders are an example of such an extreme.
To be fair, most studies show female non-athletes are just as much at risk of developing an eating disorder as athletes. So, it is easy to dismiss the issue as having nothing to do with sports per se, and everything to do with the cultural standards of beauty that all women are subject to. However, certain unique pressures within women’s sports contribute to the problem, and it is these pressures that I would like to address.
First is the pressure to perform. In sports like cross country, gymnastics, or track and field, having a thin and lean frame allows athletes to maximize their performance. It is a simple matter of biology. Athletes can push themselves too far in an effort to achieve that body, which can lead to the development of eating disorders of various types and degrees. The tragedy of it all is that athletes who take their drive for success to an unhealthy level develop things like weaker bone density, making them more susceptible to injury, which is counterproductive to their initial goal. However, because athletes are so focused on their physical wellbeing as it relates to their performance, the line between what is healthy and unhealthy is not always clear. What most view as excessive exercise or dieting is actually what is required in order to compete at the highest levels of sport. You wouldn’t believe how many jaws I’ve seen drop when a long distance runner tells someone his or her weekly mileage. Not to mention, coaches praise athletes for putting in extra time outside of practice because they know that extra workouts are necessary in order to remain competitive.
In addition to wanting to compete at the highest levels, female athletes are also women, meaning they are not immune to the pressure to conform to the cultural standards of beauty within society. It’s no secret that the demand for women to be sexually appealing is high. Open any Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition and you will see the standard that the female form is held to. We may think that such aesthetic beauty does not apply to athletics, which appreciates the performance of the body, not necessarily the way it looks. But, considering the uniforms of sports like volleyball, gymnastics, tennis, track, and swimming, it’s clear that even in sports, women cannot escape the pressure to look a certain way. It’s hard to dismiss the stress on physical appearance when you’re running around in short skirts and spandex. I don’t mean to make uniform manufacturers out to be sexist pigs; a lot of the design that goes into uniforms is a matter of function (i.e. increasing range of motion, reducing perspiration, etc). However, we should be conscious that the desire to "look good in a uniform" can be a potential negative influence upon an athlete’s psyche.
Unfortunately addressing the issue of body image and eating disorders is not an easy task. As it turns out, speaking openly about these issues can actually exacerbate them further because women will hear how other women took drastic measures in order to lose weight, and if they were already predisposed to feeling uncomfortable with their body, they will go and try out the things that they heard. Such eating disorders are best deal with on an individual basis, with a psychologist or specialist. Unfortunately, most athletic departments lack the resources to carry such a person on staff, and so coaches are left to deal with the issue on their own, which is its own unique problem when over half of the coaches in women’s sports are male.
If anything is going to change about this issue, it is not going to be done by ignoring it or leaving it up to teams to deal with. Coaches have so much on their plates, and while the health and wellbeing of their athletes should be their Number 1 priority, they may find it difficult or uncomfortable to speak to an athlete who may have an eating disorder. Athletic departments should make it a priority to have resources and information available to coaches that they can use should a situation involving an athlete’s eating habits arise. Even though eating disorders are unique to the individual, it’s still possible to have a uniform policy and procedure in place. It can be something as simple as having one person that all coaches can refer to if a problem arises with someone on their team.
For this issue to really be dealt with, though, we athletes need to change the perspective we have of our bodies. An athlete’s body is his or her tool for success. We constantly push our physical limitations in order to reach the next plateau. While this is a necessary and healthy approach to fitness, athletes must also respect and recognize that our bodies are extensions of our persons, and that any effort to improve upon physical appearance must not damage our bodily integrity.
Before each season, college athletes are required to sign a seven-page document that, among other things, affirms their status as amateurs; gives permission to the NCAA, and other third parties acting on its behalf, to use an athlete’s image or likeness in promotion of NCAA sanctioned events; and prohibits student-athletes from using their own image for any commercial purposes. This prevents, for example, college athletes appearing in Gatorade, or Nike commercials, while allowing the NCAA to contract with corporations like Entertainment Arts to create videogames using athletes’ likenesses that make millions of dollars annually. What the NCAA has effectively created is a perpetual ownership of an athlete’s images. A student cannot participate in a sport unless they sign this document, and once signed the athlete has lost control of his or her image as well as any monetary value it might have in the market.
The required signing of this form raises a strong ethical concern over the exploitation of student athletes, as well as concerns over issues of fairness in trade and free market competition. To provide an athlete’s image to corporations like EA sports for commercial purposes, and not allow for direct compensation to the athlete, is an unfair treatment of the individual, and does a harm economically to society as well. These harms to society and to the individual are the key focal points of a current lawsuit being brought against the NCAA for its use of college athletes’ images by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, as well as other athletes like former Arizona State and Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller, and former NBA star Oscar Robertson.
The social harm created by this form lies in restraining student athletes’ ability to go out and market themselves commercially. Theoretically, if athletes were allowed to go out and negotiate their own licensing deals, more companies would be able to compete for those licenses, thus creating a competitive marketplace which lowers cost, and increases quality, ultimately benefiting consumers. The NCAA’s current method eliminates this competition, which undermines the success of the free market system by not allowing for the best product – videogames, apparel, posters, etc. -- to be made available to the consumer.
The more specific harm is done to the athlete whose images are used for these commercial purposes, and who sees no direct compensation for this use. Imagine if a company like Apple sold a product and did not compensate the people who made the product. . They refused to pay the iPod engineers, or those responsible for its aesthetic design. This would be a clear violation of ethical and legal principles. Yet, the same line of reasoning is not being applied in the case of college athletes and their images.
A large reason why videogames like NCAA March Madness, or NCAA Football are so popular is because of the ability of fans to vicariously assume the identity of their favorite athletes through playing the game. If it were just about identifying with a particular school, then these gaming companies wouldn’t go to such great lengths to create such obvious and detailed digital renderings of these players. So, because the players themselves are partially responsible for the success of the game, they should be entitled to a share of the revenue profits that it generates. They are just like any other popular social figure who has the ability to leverage his or her popularity for financial gain, and the equal protection of our Constitution should require that these individuals not be discriminated against simply because they are college athletes.
There is a concern over what this might do to the integrity of college sports. Athlete’s will become so consumed with making money, and it will further the vices of greed and vanity that are systemic within professional sports, and slowly creeping into the college game as well. Although these concerns are of strong moral weight, denying someone their liberty and freedom to do with their body what they chose, so long as it doesn’t cause harm, is a greater ethical violation. The NCAA is deciding how a person lives their lives. While we may hope that individuals within society grow to be people of strong moral character, there are limits to how far we can go in helping to develop that character. The effective way to build virtue is to be an example of virtue for others, not to dictate their choices for them.
My status as a college athlete should have no effect on what I do outside of the academic setting, because imposing such controls outside the academic setting is a huge infringement upon my liberty as an individual person. If an attractive college student goes to a modeling agency and appears in a catalogue, no one cries foul. Similarly, if a student athlete has the ability to go out and convince a company that they are a marketable person, then they should have the freedom to do so.
The allegations surrounding Penn State’s former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky are a tragedy that is as heartbreaking as it is shocking. They have brought a dark cloud over the University, its athletic department, and most notably coach Joe Paterno, who has been the face of that institution for over 40 years. The tragedy though, is really twofold. There is the alleged direct harm done by Sandusky, and then there is the inappropriate measures taken by the University and the athletic department once that alleged harm had been reported by then graduate assistant Mike McQueary. The second is separate from the first, and the harm caused by those inappropriate measures is indicative of what can happen when a college does not keep athletics in its proper perspective.
The action taken by University officials in response to McQueary’s report was to take away Sandusky’s key to the locker room shower, effectively preventing him from using it. This suggests that the University was less concerned with what may or may not have occurred in the locker room between Sandusky and this 10-year-old child, but more concerned with having any such actions occurring within Penn State facilities. Considering this was a prominent figure within the athletic department, and a former coach of the football team which is responsible for the national popularity of the school, the recourse taken was a PR move on the part of the University to protect the reputation of its athletic department, and more specifically its football team.
Penn State football and its significance to the University cannot be ignored in a situation like this. Before Joe Paterno, there was no Penn State as we know it today. He had brought so much prestige and recognition to the school through the football program, and rather than risk all of that by being associated with a child abuse scandal, the University did not take the report of McQueary seriously enough. The discrepancy over what actually took place in that shower is irrelevant. Sandusky has said himself that he was in a shower with a 10-year-old boy who was not his own, and that they were “horsing around.” Those facts alone demand a greater response than was taken. Had this been a professor within the history department, it would have been treated differently, but because it involved the Penn State football team, all of a sudden the potential harm that was done to this child became somehow less severe. The message being displayed is that athletics takes precedence over everything else, which is a message we as a society should reject.
Yet, the response of students who took to the streets and rioted in response to Joe Paterno’s firing over this situation reveals just how systemic a problem the over-valuing of athletics has become. Students set fires and turned over a television truck as they expressed their anger at the Board of Trustees for firing their head football coach. I sympathize with the passion that these students have for Joe Paterno. He was a great coach, and in a college football world wrought with scandal, he was a beacon of light in, for instance, his emphasis on his student-athletes actually graduating. However, athletic success and tradition cannot trump allegations of harm as severe as child sexual abuse. It is sad to see these few students rally behind a man who lost his job, rather than support victims who have lost their innocence, and it says even more about the infallible culture surrounding sports that is being created.
Someone said to me, “But they’re just college students getting riled up for the sake of causing havoc. They don’t really mean what they say. They’re just out there because that’s the thing to do.” This statement does nothing to absolve these students of their misguided ethical reasoning. In situations like this, you are responsible for your own views and for the views of the people with whom you associate. Part of growing up is assuming that responsibility and recognizing that your actions carry meaning, and that they portray a message. College is a place where that maturation and higher thinking are meant to occur, which was not the case for the students who took to the streets of Pennsylvania.
As tragic as this situation is, it is really a dark manifestation of a growing epidemic in college sports. Beyond the specifics of the situation, what has been exposed at Penn State is the danger in allowing the desire for athletic success to get out of control. This is not to denounce college sports as inherently evil. Sports play a huge and important and potentially positive part in shaping the culture of a University. As any athlete will tell you, winning is contagious, and a school with a successful sports program helps to foster a culture of excellence and success among its students. It becomes dangerous, however, whenever this success is given too high a priority, and the mantra becomes “Win at all costs.” As conversations about television contracts, huge revenues, and paying college athletes continue, the culture of many institutions in this country is trending in that direction. In light of what has taken place, we must pause and consider the dangerous implications that can have, and do what we can to make sure we do not allow it to happen.
Should College Athletes Be Paid: A Student Discussion at Santa Clara University
Listen to three Santa Clara student athlete's weighing in on the most pressing issue in college sports today: whether or not college athletes should be paid beyond a scholarship. The arguments are compelling on both sides, and the panel of student athletes does a good job explaining each position. Panel members include Jack Penner (Junior, Men's water polo), Kevin Oliver (Junior, Men's Cross Country), and Matt Savage (Senior, Men's Cross Country and Hackworth Fellow '11-'12).
Savage on Sports: College Athletes Should Not Be Paid
I remember first hearing last year that college athletes should be paid more than just a scholarship and thinking, “No way.” I cringed at the thought of undermining the purity of college sports, and I assumed the rest of the country felt the same way. Well, after looking into the issue, I still cringe. Nevertheless, it’s hard to ignore the arguments that perhaps paying these players a little extra isn’t a bad idea.
Many people are viewing the payment of revenue generating athletes as a plausible and necessary solution to a very real problem facing college sports. Namely, the exploitation of student athletes. This problem has garnered so much attention that it prompted leading civil-rights historian Taylor Branch to write a 27 page expose published in The Atlantic attacking the NCAA and its notions of “amateurism” and the “student-athlete” as “cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections, propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes.” As much as I hate to admit it, Mr. Branch has a point.
According to a USA Today article published in June of this year, there were 22 self-sufficient Division I college athletic programs in the country during the 09-10 academic year. This means that the revenue generated by the athletic department exceeds that department’s total expenses. Turns out, the median net surplus of those 22 schools was $7.4 million, with last years BCS title contender Oregon topping the list, raking in $41,853,109. Almost all of the generated money comes from lucrative television contracts that many of the major conferences are now signing, as well as ticket receipts and donations. Folks such as Taylor Branch take one look at numbers like these and instantly point to the fact that the very people responsible for generating such lucrative revenue for their respective institutions, i.e. the players, see only a tiny fraction of the immense value they create by simply playing their sport. The scholarships they do receive pail in comparison to these astronomical television revenues.
Additionally, the NCAA places restrictions on athletes that prohibit them from profiting in anyway from their athletic labor. For example, I run cross country at Santa Clara University, and someone comes up to me and says “Hey Matt, you ran a great race yesterday, let me buy you dinner.” If I accepted such a kind and generous offer, I would be subject to violations that could potentially cost me eligibility and, more importantly, my team wins. Meanwhile, the NCAA requires all student-athletes to sign a waiver that allows the organization and the University to use the images and likeness of athletes for marketing and distribution purposes. This allows the NCAA to sign a contract with EA sports, for example, providing images of well known athletes to use in video games that generate millions of dollars, while giving none to the athlete because he or she has effectively signed away any right they had to that image.
Apparently, the complaints haven’t fallen on deaf ears. There is currently legislation being pushed through the NCAA by its president, Mark Emmert, suggesting that colleges pay their full scholarship athletes additional stipends that cover the “cost of attendance.” That includes things beyond tuition, books, room, and board.
Still, despite all the evidence presented, something about paying college athletes just does not sit right with me. I acknowledge that there is a level of exploitation that is going on within college athletics. It’s unjust to prevent an individual from profiting from his or her own labor outside of the university while using that athlete’s talents and accomplishments to sell his replica jersey in their bookstore for $30 a pop. That being said, this issue cannot be looked at through a purely economic framework. Paying these students-and yes we are students-beyond a scholarship contradicts the goals of a university. College’s primary commitment to any student is to educate that individual to the best of its abilities. That education goes beyond just an academic degree – and beyond what happens on an athletic field.
Here at Santa Clara, we preach the three C’s of Competence, Conscience, and Compassion. The school and the athletic department emphasize cultivating a strong moral character within student-athletes so that we can have a positive impact in the community at large. Paying college athletes would serve only to corrupt and undermine that purpose. Think for a moment about the potential virtues sports build within a young person’s character. Courage, commitment, leadership, accountability, cooperation, dedication and humility come to mind as attributes we should admire and hope to instill in our athletes through competition. Paying athletes instead could potentially promote greed, vanity, pride, and selfishness, the very attributes we detest in many of our professional athletes today. We have to take some responsibility for the character that we instill in the young men and women of our society. People proposing to pay college athletes ignore the vital role of athletics plays in building that character.
Not to mention they write off a scholarship as if it carries no meaning whatsoever. To be able to graduate college with a degree as well as debt free is not something to be dismissed, especially when the potential for future earnings is exponentially greater with a college education. Moreover, most of the money generated by college athletics is reinvested back into the team in the form of updated facilities, uniforms, equipment, travel, and various other benefits. It is not as if students aren’t getting anything substantial in return for playing a sport.
People like Branch tend to ignore these claims, downplaying the importance of a free education and character as emotional, self-serving garbage. If that is the view that we are progressing towards, then our society is suffering a greater threat than figuring out whether or not a college football player should be paid.