Tag Archives: ncaa

The NCAA, Northwestern, and a Crack 30+ Years in the Making

Today was a big day for college sports. The National Labor Relations Board has declared Northwestern University football players employees (read the decision here). The potential ramifications of this decision are vast.  Northwestern and the NCAA have already lawyered up and are undoubtedly poised to fight the decision. As Dave Zirin of The Nation wrote earlier today “this decision marks the first real crack in the NCAA cartel in any of our lifetimes.”

Scholars and journalists have compared the current system of labor and compensation in big-time college athletics to indentured servitude. Akim Reinhardt at The Public Professor described it as a “plantation economy” where scores of millionaires “are profiting handsomely from of the labor of other adults, the most accomplished of whom must settle for being exploited because they’ve been temporarily iced out of their professional jobs.” This icing, however, is not the product of the NCAA, but of professional sports leagues. Both the NBA and the NFL have age restrictions that prevent players from entering their leagues, essentially forcing talented players into the exploitative collegiate system. Such barriers reflect the tacit support by these leagues of the NCAA and its policies.

The NCAA has cleverly weaseled its way into its current position as the supreme governing body of big-time college athletic through a variety of these tacit endorsements and its Progressive history linked to Theodore Roosevelt. The NCAA is not a governmental organization, but it often thinks and operates like it is. Its power is predominately derived from its positions and its near monopoly of college sports. College and universities have voluntarily subjected themselves to the NCAA’s oversight for over a century because of its role in restoring and preserving “sanity” in college athletics. This power enables it to write, rewrite, and enforce its rules as it sees fit.[1]

By the mid-1950s, the NCAA’s modern infrastructure and position of power was secured.[2] Rules and regulations regarding recruiting, scholarship, professionalism, and television were seized from universities and their various conferences to create a national standard. Much of this power grab was based on Progressive concerns about amateurism, safety, preventing the influences of evil vices such as gambling, and then later, awarding national championships. Indeed, the first national championship event sponsored by the NCAA wasn’t until 1921 (for track and field), 16 years after the organization was founded. The now famous NCAA basketball tournament began in 1939.

While Zirin suggests that today’s ruling is the first crack in the NCAA’s cartel, this is only partially true. There have been several instances where the NCAA has been challenged, rivaled, and a few cases defeated. The most notable of these events was the 1984 Supreme Court NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, which declared that the NCAA violated the Sherman and Clayton Anti Trust Acts by monopolizing and controlling each school’s television broadcasting rights. Prior to that the NCAA controlled all broadcasting rights and limited the number of games on TV each week — something unthinkable today. When the University of Pennsylvania challenged this authority, the NCAA solidified its cartel by prohibiting any member school from playing them. The feud lasted three years and essentially destroyed the UPenn program. The NCAA justified its actions by claiming it was looking out for small colleges by spreading the money around instead of letting them get slip into anonymity on the open market. Jeffrey Montez de Oca also suggests that established the cartel and restrictive TV policy to protect the youth and preserve college’s “overall athletic mission to fortify masculinity.”[3] This case revolutionized college sports by allowing universities and their athletic conferences to negotiate their own broadcasting contracts and reap the financial benefits.

The NCAA recovered from this setback, thanks in large part to the rising popularity of its basketball tournament. Since then, however, football has slowly drifted out of its control and back towards individual institutions and conferences. The recent conference realignments driven by the race for bigger and bigger television contracts, that are largely responsible for the influx of money into college sports, would have been impossible under the old system. That is not to say the old system was fair or just, by any means, but rather to suggest that the unraveling of the NCAA and the bubble of college athletics likely started then. The decision today, while critical and devastating for the NCAA, is a bit ironic because it pushes back against the neoliberal deregulatory aims of the 1984 Supreme Court Case — which the NCAA adamantly fought — but now seems to embrace.[4]

Unlike in 1984, it’s more difficult to see the NCAA surviving and adapting to a new economic climate created by the unionization of student-athletes. Within the current structure, most athletic departments operate in the red, though this is mostly an accounting trick. Most athletic departments take in plenty of money, but instead of spreading it around or giving it back to universities, they’ve artificially inflated the value of coaches and administrators. This trick gives the illusion that they are unable to share the wealth and pay players for their services in attracting billion dollar contracts.  Of course, in reality the trick perpetuates an unethical and exploitative system of greed that only benefits a few individuals.

Last year I wrote about many of the challenges in paying college athletes under the current system. I addressed many of the fiscal concerns with break-even athletic departments and Title IX without rethinking salaries. I concluded that athletes do 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.

While these remain real challenges to athletic reform, today’s ruling all but guarantees the current system cannot survive. As much as NCAA President Mark Emmert has said he’s open to the idea of paying players, simply paying them is a whole different scenario than the collective bargaining that a unionized workforce would demand. It’s difficult to imagine the results of such bargaining and how it would impact big-time college athletics as we know them. One thing is for certain though, should the NLRB’s decisions survive the onslaught of challenges, there is no going back.

[1]To be sure, there are other alternatives such as the National Association of Intercollegiate athletics which broke away when the NCAA stripped voting power from many of its small school in the late 1940s. Yet, organizations like the NAIA appeal to a different constituency: smaller schools that do not sponsor big-time sports. The NCAA did, however, try to reclaim many of these defectors when it split into divisions until 1973.
[2] For a good history of the NCAA see: Joseph N. Crowley, In the Arena: The NCAA’s First Century: (Indianapolis, IN: NCAA, 2006). http://www.ncaapublications.com/productdownloads/ePub_instructions.pdf
[3] Jeffrey Montez de Oca, Discpline and Indulgence: College Football, Media, and the American Way of Life during the Cold War, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013), 88-89.
[4] If viewed through this lens, today’s ruling can be seeing as the NCAA being caught in the pinch of neoliberalism. The deregulation of college football television contracts by the 1984 court case created a bubble in college athletics. The NCAA responded and even embraced the new climate after its defeat, as seen through the huge sums it receives for it basketball tournament. Indeed, for the past 30 years this neoliberal model has worked perfectly because they were able to keep their labor costs incredibly low by only sharing the wealth with administrators and coaches. Deregulation and the expansion of TV contracts in recent years, however, have increased the awareness and agitation of athletes demanding a piece of the pie. The NLRB ruling undermines this model and disrupts the exploitation of workers and free flow of capital to the NCAA and athletic administrators. It gives athletes not only a seat at the table but the power to bargain. Though it was likely greed that fueled the NCAA’s defense of their TV monopoly in 1984, one has to wonder what college sports would look like without the influx of deregulated TV money. Has the NCAA always been a ticking-time bomb? Or was it the neoliberal deregulation of the NCAA’s control over TV contracts that started the clock?

Sports News Round Up #2

I had plans to keep these pieces short, but after finishing writing I think they probably could have been individual posts. Either way, here’s my take on some recent sports news that I’m following.

Big Ten Says No to FCS

Members of the Big Ten athletic conference has to decided to no longer schedule football games against teams in the Football Championship subdivision (FCS, formerly D-IA). The news is obviously driven by self interest, as the league wants it’s teams to increase their strength of schedule to give them a better shot at competing for national championships in the BCS (and future playoff system). Lots of people are commending the league on the decision and hoping that others follow suit. The argument here is for strength of schedule, quality football games every week. No more cupcakes and blowouts in the first three weeks of the season. For fans of competitive football it makes sense and will make the sport more exciting.

At first sight, I like the decision too. But I’m curious what happens to the schools being left out? Most games against FCS school are ‘guarantee’ games where the hosting school (almost always the larger, major conference school) pays the opponents a certain amount of money to come play. These payments are usually in the neighborhood of a half-million dollars. For smaller FCS schools, that’s a lot of money that often makes up a significant amount of their athletic department budget. With decreased budgets those schools must trim the fat. This could be by eliminating sports, cutting back on support staff, etc. They could also ask for more support from students and colleges (after all, very few athletic departments are self-sustaining).

While I am in favor of reigning the in spending (and I think it might help trim budgets of the larger FBS programs), I’m also worried about the increasing disparity between athletic departments. The FCS division only exists for football, but this decision could have ripple effects that impact other sports, particularly women’s sports, but also men’s basketball. Division 1 Men’s basketball competes against everyone. While there are still power conferences, smaller schools (some who don’t even have football programs) frequently make deep tournament runs. Butler University is just one example.

As a football fan I definitely like the Big Ten’s decision, but this is a story I’m going to keep following because it has the potential to have far reaching consequences and impacts on the economic of college sports if other conference follow suit. This decision, teamed with the conference realignment, have the power to dramatically reshape the climate of college athletics over the next couple of decades. It amounts to a chilling effect by the ‘power conferences’ in regards to control and access of money generated from media contracts for football. It’ll also be interesting to see how it affects basketball, women’s sports, etc.

Olympics Drop Wrestling

Beginning in 2020, wrestling will no longer be an Olympic sport, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently announced. It came as a shock to many. The decision affects both men’s and women’s wrestling. Although wrestling isn’t necessarily the most popular sport, it is one of the five original Olympic sports. Yet, popularity proved to be the deciding factor, according to the IOC.

The decision is interesting on a variety of fronts. Obviously the sports tradition and connection with the Olympic Games makes it curious. So does the rationale of popularity. According to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, wrestling it the fifth most practiced sport in American high schools. The article claims that participation by boys and girls is at a historic high, with a dozen of NCAA Division II and III schools recently adding teams. To be sure, a board member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame wrote the article and it focuses entirely on the United States. I’m unsure if the sport shares the same international clout.

An article in the Times of India notes that female participation, struggles with doping scandals, and it’s failure to adjust to the television age have affected the sport and likely contributed to the IOC’s decision. At the same time, the article described wrestling in India as having “an exalted status” and suggested India might be one of the most affected countries by the decision.

The international ramifications will be interesting to follow, but I’m most interested on the impact of wrestling in the United States. Unlike other sports, the Olympics Games are the pinnacle for wrestlers. While it is true the sport has recently been growing (my alma mater and several of its conference peers have added teams in the last 5 years at the NAIA level), there is still the stigma of Title IX. Since 1972 over 250 college wrestling programs have been cut. Cutting has been the primary response rather than creating women’s programs. The NCAA, NAIA, and NCJAA do not currently sanction women’s wrestling. According to the Women’s College Wrestling Association (who does sanction the sport), there are only 22 varsity programs in the United States. Likewise, only three states offer championships in the sport at the high school level. Yet, a 2007 New York Times article reported 5,000 girls participate in the sport annually, a fivefold increase from a decade earlier. Women’s wrestling was introduced to the Olympics in 2004, and while not all of these participants have Olympic dreams, it’s likely a contributing factor for a few. I’m curious to see what affect the cut has on both men’s and women’s programs. Without international Olympic competition, will schools invest less in wrestling programs? How will this affect the momentum of the women’s wrestling movement (both in the U.S. and abroad)?

I should note that dropping sports from the Olympics is not all that uncommon. Baseball and softball were dropped in 2005 (there were contested in 2008 but not 2012 and they seem to be doing fine in the U.S. without IOC sanctioning. Baseball and softball, however, are on much firmer ground in the college and high school sports landscape. Wrestling had been under attack for many years following Title IX, and the movement to add women’s programs is still quite young. I think in some cases the panic here is warranted with wrestling fans. As I stated above, the Olympics are one of wrestling’s only major international events. The next move is to petition for reinstatement in time for the 2020 game and work on strengthening the sports base and popularity, both in the U.S. and worldwide.

One issue I wanted to talk about here but ran out of time/room is the notion of sanctioning power. Much of what I’ve talked here revolves around the power to legitimatize a sport. Sports historian Allen Guttmann outlined seven characteristics of modern sports: 1) secularism 2) equality of opportunity to compete and in the conditions of competition 3) specialization of roles 4) rationalization 5) bureaucratic organization 6) quantification 7) the quest for records. Wrestling generally fits all of these criteria. The IOC is also a part of this distinction since it is a sports bureaucracy. The IOC, however, rationalized its decision based on popularity. Guttmann deals with popularity separately. It is not essential for spectators to be present for a sport to be considered modern, he explains. I would challenge Guttmann and say that in today’s world, spectators and popularity are increasingly more important and that they do characterize “modern” sports because spectators and popularity are required to generate revenue, which is required by most sports for equipment, referees, etc.

Without being too cynical here, money makes the world go round and it’s especially important in the world of sports. Wrestling, for example, requires expensive mats, special shoes, headgear, kneepads, uniforms, warm ups, clocks, scales, gymnasiums, as well as, coaches, referees, medical trainers, etc. While most of this is start up costs, there’s also ongoing expenses.  As the Time of India noted, wrestling has been slow to ‘modernize’ in terms of adapting to television. This is bad for the sport, in the Olympics eyes, because television is a large part of how the IOC makes money. Likewise, corporate sponsorships are often tied to television exposure, whether via commercial advertisements aired during specific events or signs posted in and around the competition area.

The Olympic also aim to make money. While it’s somewhat unusual for the host city to make much, the IOC and various national Olympic committees (which are generally non-profits) do make money. Being popular is an important part of making money. An article in yesterday’s New York Times sums up the decision fairly concisely: “A shift in priority has occurred in an era of outsize television contracts as Olympic officials seek to add more telegenic sports and more widely visible stars in hopes of maintaining a sense of relevance, modernity and youthfulness in the Winter and the Summer Games.”  The irony in this approach is that wrestling does appear to be growing, particularly with women. Much of that growth has come because of its Olympic status and the increased emphasis and funding and associated with it.

Smithsonian Hosts Native American Mascot Symposium

The National Museum of the American Indian held a symposium about Native American mascots on February 7th in Washington, D.C. As one might expect, the hometown Washington Redskins were one of the most criticized teams at the event. The event had moderate media coverage in sports world. Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, was one of the more vocal writers. He seems to have made it his mission to convince the Washington Redskins to change their mascot this off-season. Zirin is not alone is in insistence for a change. In his article, entitled “Redskins: The Clock Is Now Ticking on Changing the Name,” implies a real need for change based on the popularity of black quarterback Robert Griffin III and the team’s recent success. He suggests that limelight thrust on them by the just completed season are big reasons for the change. While I admire his tenacity and agree that the name should be changed, his argument ignores the larger struggle.

The Native American mascot issue has been an ongoing battle for several decades. Washington has been in playoffs several times during this fight. And RGIII, for all his popularity, isn’t going to dramatically alter the fight. This, of course, does not mean we should give up hope. Zirin is hopeful that RGIII himself might join the clause, but I have my doubts about that too. I do, however, think the continued pressure will help and I applaud Zirin for keeping the fight alive.

ESPN.com had a similar opinion piece about the mascot. Like Zirin, the author explained the appalling racial history of the teams founder and former owner George Preston Marshall. He was staunch segregationist and was the last owner in the NFL to integrate his team. As the story goes, Marshall was forced to integrate by NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to appease TV executives and President John F. Kenedy because they were in violation of federal law since their stadium was built on federal land.

The team’s current owner, Dan Snyder, has no connections to Marshall but remains committed to the team name. Although the team declined an invitation to talk about their choice to use the mascot at the Smithsonian event, their spokespeople told various media outlets that they believe the mascot serves as a tribute to Native American warriors and is “derived from the Native American tradition for warriors to daub their bodies with red clay before battle.” This deviates from other explanations the team has given in the past, such as the mascot is used to honor former coach and Carlisle player William “Lone Star” Dietz (his claims to a Native American heritage became controversial and remain unverified. Dietz’ biographer argues that prejudice against Native Americans was so prevalent at that time that it makes little since for me to make it up since claiming Native American ancestry would have made Dietz’s life harder, not easier). He coached the team with moderate success in 1933 and 1934 while they were in Boston.

If we assume Dietz was, in fact, Native America, he is a figure worthy of honor. He was one of a few former Carlisle players that went on to a distinguished coaching careers Perhaps most famous for leading Washington State to the 1916 Rose Bowl, Dietz coached a handful of other college teams in addition to serving as a one of Pop Warner’s assistant coaches at Carlisle, Stanford, and Temple. In 2012, he was posthumously inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Interesting, he is not a member of Washington’s “Ring of Honor.” Of course, Dietz ended his time coaching the Boston Braves with a .500 record. Perhaps this is why Washington has changed its story about the mascot name, or maybe it’s why they chose to honor in him in such a derogatory way?

There is no honor in the term Redskin. None. Mascots are inherently representations. They’re built off of stereotypes. They encompass expectations of a certain behaviors and characteristics, whether physical or mental. People name their teams after bulldogs because they are tenacious, they’re bold and stubborn, they’re strong, they have really strong jaws that grip and tear their opponents easily. Although today bulldogs are kept mostly as pets, one hundred to one-hundred-and-fifty years ago they were central parts of urban bachelor and tavern culture. Native American mascots, on the other hand, build off of a long history of conflict between them and conquering and colonizing American settlers, soldiers, and missionaries. They represent complex ideas about what it means to be Native American, and what being Native American means to society. Some pretend to be proud and praising of qualities such as bravery, leadership, and nobility (e.g. the Braves and Chiefs). Others focus on less desirable qualities. Before they changed their mascot, the Texas Tech Red Raiders symbolized Native Americans raiding white settlements that were infringing on Native lands. Looking at the history of the words and their uses implicates both sets of mascots. The terms Brave and Chief, despite their modern justifications, are not innocent. Indeed, they were both once considered racial slurs.

There is a lively collection of scholarship dealing with Native American in sports and mascots. Scholars have explored the issue for a variety of angles and published their findings in numerous articles and books. I explored a lot of the controversy while writing my master’s on Jim Thorpe and Billy Mills. My argument picks up during the progressive era and connects reform efforts, boarding schools, Wild West Shows, and famous athletes as central components of contested representations of Indianness that informed and, at times, reified the expectations of broader society. To be sure, like most social-cultural constructions, mascots are an extremely messy issue.

This messiness, however, is what’s often lost on the message board commenter. Commenters are rarely the target audience of scholars. Few, if any, would spend the time to sit down and read Team Spirits: The Native American Mascot Controversy, one of the best introductions and overviews of the issue, for example. Yet, it’s hard to truly convey just how offense Native American mascots without some of the big picture discussion. The best that most newspaper columnist can do is offer the parallel racial slurs used against African Americans, but even this doesn’t always resonate.

Because of this problem in conveying the messiness and the history these representations and term, I’m glad the Smithsonian held its event. The more we talk about these issues and the more pressure we put on teams, the more likely we are to build a cohesive base that can enact change. And change is happening.

In the last couple of years there have been some real wins in the fight against Native American mascots and sports imagery. In June, after decades of fighting, 68% of North Dakota voters decided to retire the University of North Dakota’s “Fighting Sioux” mascot in a primary election. This had long been one of the most contentious fights, one that saw a donor threaten to withdraw a $100 million donation if the mascot was changed. The same donor required the school to engrave the old mascot throughout athletic projects he funded to make it more difficult to change. At the same time, however, the Big Sky conference threatened to ban the University of North Dakota from its conference if they did not change their name. At the high school level, the states of Oregon and Wisconsin banned the use of Native American mascots in their schools in the past couple of years as well.

These successes indicate that change is possible, but requires relentless pressure and hard work. The Redskins are an important target. They’re not only one of the most offensive professional sports mascots, but they’re also out of the reach of politics and judicial review. All of the recent victories have come from state agencies and votes. Changing Washington’s team name will illustrate a real cultural shift and capstone decades of work. I hope Zirin is right. I hope the clock it ticking on the name change.

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.