Sports News Round Up

When I started this blog, I originally hoped to offer some commentary on current events and major stories in the sporting world. I’ve failed miserably at this goal. Instead of offering excuses, here are a few brief summaries of my take on some recent stories/issues.

Catfishing Manti Te’o

This story broke, quite appropriately, the same week I was reading Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. So, as you might expect, my initial reactions to this revelations of his fake girlfriend were tinted with notions of gender performativity. I wrote a brief reaction paper combining to the two for my Gender and Technology course, but much has changed since then. Initially I was skeptical of Te’o’s own role in the scandal. I wondered it if was a cover up for latent homosexuality, something that is frowned upon in the football world and both the Mormon and Catholic churches. The hoax would make sense in this light and within Butler’s description of gender, because he would have been using the Twitter girlfriend as “performance.” To be sure, there are still some interesting developments here with the hoaxer recently admitting he fell for Te’o and was questioning his own sexuality. And, I still haven’t fully bought into the explanations offered by both Te’o and Notre Dame.

However, beyond this concern there are a couple more interesting ways to approach and interpret the story. Returning to the issue of gender, the hoax can be seen as the objectification of women via technology to create a gender performance manipulated and used by males to craft a specific narrative. As Butler reminds us, gender is separate from the doer is perfectly illustrated. There does not have to be a doer for there to be agency, thus the fabrication subordinates and manipulates gender for dominant hegemonic purposes.

Beyond issues of gender, are what I think are prompts to fascinating conversations about journalism and digital literacy. Why weren’t sports journalists more thorough in their investigations? What role did Notre Dame and other media outlets play in perpetuating these narratives? If Te’o was he truly duped, how can we prevent further such situations and educate people about online cultures and environments. I was especially reminded of this when listening to the Notre Dame Athletic Director’s comments about the situation. Seemed clueless and in over his head at times. To me, this reinforces our need for digital literacy and competency as integral parts of educating people. Both in terms of social networks and mass media, but also in other areas. And within various digital cultures and sub-cultures, the concept of gender performativity, as well as other humanities theories, seems like especially useful tools look at and evaluate the use of technology and their social-cultural creations online.

How and why does Cheating matter?

I’ve been working on a stand-alone post about for several months. Each week it seems we learn something new. A new admission, twist, and layer of the story. Cheating has been in the news quite a bit lately. So frequently, in fact, that I’m beginning to wonder if it even matters. Why do we care? Does it really change the way view and think about professional sports? Where do we draw the line between seeking a competitive advantage and cheating?

Over the last decade the United States government has been obsessed with finding and prosecuting cheaters in professional sports. Congress has commissioned reports and held hearings. They’ve spent millions of dollars and countless hours trying to pin down evidence and catch people in lies. All for what? For a clean moral conscious? To guard against the ills of dishonesty? Most people agree that cheating is wrong. But rarely do we discuss how and why is it wrong.

Major League Baseball considers using “performance enhancing drug” cheating. They recently banned the San Francisco Giants Melky Cabrera, who was 2012 All Stag Game MVP, and the Oakland Athletics Bartolo Colon 50 games each for a positive drug tests. Yet, MLB’s assault on cheating is fairly new. Steroids were not banned in the league until 1991. It wasn’t until a decade later, in 2003, that they actually began testing players. Track and field has been out infront of the crowd in its vigilance about catching and prosecuting cheaters. Marion Jones gave up her gold medals and went to jail. Justin Gatlin was banned for several of his prime years after repeat offenses. Recently, Lance Armstrong finally admitted he is a “cheater,” albeit in a somewhat disingenuous way.

As a historian of sport, eventually I’ll have to address the cheating situation. I’m sure there will be some interesting studies 15 – 20 years from now contextualizing the likes of Bonds, Clemens, Armstrong, and Jones with the era of Enron, insider trading, and government bailouts. After all, capitalism is all about finding the most efficient ways to make profits. Unregulated capitalism often results in ‘corruption’ a.k.a. dishonesty and cheating. Are the actions of the players trying to more efficiently improves their skills/performance so they can earn more money in contracts and endorsements any different?

The more I think about it, context matters. Today we knowingly joke that all of the Eastern European countries were doping at the Olympic during the Cold War. In the not-so-distant future, I think we’ll also look at 1994-2003 as the ‘Steroid Era’ of baseball. We’ll see Lance Armstrong as the best of the cheaters (since many of his competitors have actually been found guilty).  I’m personally not a fan of asterisks or stripping medals and records because I think contexts and facts speak for themselves. To be sure, performance enhancing drugs changed the narratives, and we must talk about them, but we can’t go back and change or erase the facts, only explain them. Barry Bonds hit 762 home runs in his career, and 73 in one season. Nothing can change that. We can’t un-live those moments. You cannot erase history, no matter how uncomfortable it is. Lance Armstrong won seven Tour de France titles after nearly dying from cancer. He started an enormously successful charity to support cancer survivors (although it appears it offers little funding for scientific research). Did he use performance enhancing drugs? Yes. Is his story any less inspiring? I don’t think so.

I actually think the Bonds and Armstrong are more interesting people given their “cheating.” They’ve become contested figures within their sports and their eras. Armstrong was a giant dick. He ruined people’s lives with lawsuit when he knew he cheated. He developed a pseudo-shill organization to cover his ass. Offered money/donation type bribes to drug testing entities. These are fascinating stories.

The job of a historian is to look at how and why events happened. What caused the steroid era? Was the decision done by individual players, or were coaches and team owners involved? What were the goals of cheating? How did they cheat? Did they use existing drugs and methods or innovate? If they innovated, did these new experiments and tests contribute medicine or science beyond sports? What was the reaction of the media, fans, and their competitors? Did the cheating work? It’s also important to consider alternatives. What would have happened to Lance Armstrong if he didn’t cheat? Where would he be? What would he be doing? Would he have won? How would we view cycling and the Tour de France? Likewise, we must ask about the investigations. Why did Congress view cheating as a problem? Did their probes result in any real changes? Who’s job is it to define and legislate cheating rules? Is it a legal issue, a moral issue, a game/league specific issue? Are there parallels or cultural aspects of cheating in non-sports areas? Is cheating a pandemic in business, education, etc.?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but I think they are important to consider when thinking about “cheaters” and sports. They help us get beyond the assumptions we often make about cheating. Whether or not you care about cheating/performance enhancing drugs, these issues are relevant to broader society. Especially when you consider the haste given to the judgment of sports cheaters (most notably seen in the 2013 baseball hall of fame vote) compared to those in the 2008 financial collapse.

Violence in Football

President Obama recently said that  he’d “have to think long and hard” before letting his son play football, if he had a son. “I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence,” he continued.

Violence in football has been a major story most of the season. Junior Seau’s family has joined a suit against the NFL, NFL films, and various helmet manufacturers citing negligence and the encouragement of violent hits that cause brain and mental health issues. During this most recent NFL season, several pundits have questioned both the continual play and rest of players who have suffered hits. RGIII incited national debates about his durability. So did Alex Smith as his concussion and recovery time forced a quarterback controversy that resulted in him losing his job. Some questioned whether Smith would have benefited by hiding the concussion to retain his job. They used it as an example where following new safety procedures work against players. While the 49ers situation is an outlier, it is a serious concern.

I only played football during junior high. And even then I was too small to get much playing time. I am, however, a fan of the sport. I’m even considering a dissertation about the college game. My brother, on the other hand, was a terrific football player. He played middle linebacker in high school and earned the reputation of one of his teams hardest hitters. We often discuss the issues of concussions and injuries. He’s admitted that it is hard for him to watch the game now knowing the toll it takes on players bodies and the long term impact. Watching players actively shorten their lives on a weekly basis is just not appealing to him.

So what’s the deal with football? Almost 110 years after Teddy Roosevelt’s conference on college sports which spurred on the creation of the NCAA, we’re still seeing many of the same issues. Is the sport doomed or will another round of reform save it? This is a difficult question to ask. Direct deaths are hard to prove in the modern game. Likewise, it’s become close to a billion dollar industry. Will economics outweigh player safety, especially when the game is utilized as an uplifting tool for a large number of minority players? For me this is a fascinating story of history cycling back through old debates that were never settled. It brings up questions of labor and safety, welfare, science, medicine, race and economics, as well as media spin. Is violence in the NFL the end of the Strenuous Life? Or will Obama channel his progressive rhetoric to offer new remedies for the violent game that help maintain the glorification of American manhood?

Paying NCAA Athletes

This is perhaps one of the most contentious issues facing sports. The NCAA has finally admitted it needs reform. A major lawsuit is underway by former players saying they deserve to be compensated for selling their likeness to video games companies, their names to apparel manufacturers, and the use of their labor for media contracts and fundraising. Previous decisions about the ability of athletes to be considered as employees entitled to workman’s compensation for injury are starting to be reconsidered too. What’s fair? How do we share the wealth generated by ‘amateur’ athletes for big-time universities and their governing body? Scholarships aren’t enough for cost of living. The allegedly “free” education is no where near market value compared the money brought athletes in by the revenue sports.

Should athletes be paid? Should college sponsor athletic teams? What does/should reform look like? These questions have been a part of debates for a while, and are difficult to answer.

I’m personally in favor of a far less big-time system. But I admit that is fairly idyllic. While I hate the exploitation of college athletes in an indentured servant like system, the idea of paying athletes doesn’t make much sense to me either. The numbers just don’t add up when you take into account Title IX and the subsidies from universities to athletic departments. There are a lot of myths about college sports, and one of the biggest is that they make money.

I had a recent debate with a friend about this subject. He is a former NCAA D-1A football player and like many sports writers and pundits he thought sports made money for universities. He asked me a pretty straight forward question about the situation: How much money do you think each student-athlete makes for the universities (ie, having a team for which to sell tickets, merchandise, TV contracts, etc.) compared to tuition costs per student?

After a bit of research, I offered him my view. While I admitted that I’d never seen the exact numbers, and that they’d probably pretty difficult to quantify and measure given the differing level of revenue amongst NCAA FBS athletic programs, there have been a few studies that provide a general idea. According to USA Today in 2009-10, “22 of the 228 Division I public schools generated enough money from media rights contracts, ticket sales, donations and other sources (not including allocated revenue from institutional or government support or student fees) to cover their expenses.” So in general colleges most don’t even make money to cover their own expenses, let alone to contribute back to the university. A recent Inside Higher-Ed article noted that median subsidy for FBS schools from universities ranged from $7.7 million to $8.5 million. So based on those numbers alone, it suggests that most athletes via their athletic departments make no direct contribution to the university. Many, but not all, colleges use student fees to support athletic programs, however, as seen in the subsidy.

The point I think he was trying to get at, is whether sports team act as marketing tools themselves to attract students and more tuition dollars, as well as more donation money. While they very well could, I’ve never seen a definitive study to suggest that either way. To return to his original question, only 13% of students in college attend for-profit universities. This means that most colleges are not-for-profit entities and so at these schools tuition from non-athlete students is used entirely for educational expenses and operating costs. While the numbers vary, in the UC system, student tuition and fees are about 13% of the total operating budget, but 48% of their “core operation funds.” Of those “core operation funds,” 30% goes to academic salaries, 23% to staff salaries, 14% to employee & retirement benefits, 14% to financial aid, and 18% to equipment & utilities (this is based on 2010-11 budget). So, basically, at least in the UC system, students contribute nearly half the operating costs of the universities, while athletics contribute nothing. Obviously, this is difficult to generalize across all the Div 1 schools, but I think it’s a solid example of the problem of paying student-athletes when sports are already a drain on university funding.

This should not be read as me being anti-college sports. I’m far from it. I love college athletics, but I’m definitely in favor of self-sustaining athletic departments. If they can contribute money back to the university, even better. What I’m not in favor of is using student fees and tuition to suppor big-time sports. I think doing so is contrary to the mission of higher ed. I think it’s an entirely different argument if you want to talk about the “intangible” benefits that can’t be factored into the numbers, like marketing of schools and name recognition, community pride, etc. It’s hard to grasp those. But, I’ve seen some numbers linking sports teams to donations. The last ones I saw showed a slight decline in nonathletic donation, while sports donations increased 75%, which to the author of the study suggested in some cases sports donations increased at the expense of academic donations.

These are all interesting issues. And while I don’t have a clear solution, its something I like to monitor and study. I do think athletes need to be more fairly compensated, and the expansion/explosion of TV money can help fuel that. But paying athletes will only work, legally with Title IX, and financially with education remaining the central purpose of a university, if we focus on paying everyone through a self-sustaining athletic department. Paying only revenue athletes violates Title IX, and paying everyone without requiring self-sustaining sports programs only further diverts money away from academics (the reason universities exist) to sports.

I hope this brief Sports News Round Up has been interesting and provided some new perspectives and food for thought regarding major stories and issues currently being debated. I try to approach these issues with a bit of a historical perspective that takes into account a variety of issues and perspectives that aren’t always considered. Feel free to agree, disagree, or offer alternative opinions and viewpoints. One of the great things about sports and sports history are that they offer a lens to view and discuss important issues in American culture in a tangible and accessible way.

1 thought on “Sports News Round Up

  1. Pingback: The NCAA, Northwestern, and a Crack 30 Years in the Making | Andrew McGregor

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