Friday, September 16, 2011

Scholarships and Compensation: The Intercollegiate National Lie

Aside from reminding Americans for the next 15 minutes that history has actual value, Taylor Branch's devastating article, "The Shame of College Sports," finally fully legitimized the discussion of paying college athletes for their performance. It certainly didn't approve the notion by fiat, but simply allowing it to enter the conversation as an equally reasonable proposition was triumph enough.

Prior to its publication, it sometimes it took actual effort to find someone willing to entertain the idea. Proposing that college players take home paychecks usually provoked reactions that ran the gamut from mocking laughter to intense moral outrage. It's hard to explain why. In a country where you can monetize your Twitter feed, exploit your pop-star child, and have people applaud the commodification of virtually anything, college football has nestled in a protective embrace of absurd reverence for amateurism, swaddled in flimsy excuses for innocence.

Surely racial factors play at least a small role. It's no coincidence that Branch used terms like "plantation" and "colony" to describe the NCAA's self-interested paternalism and hegemonic exploitation of poor blacks. There's a reason why Bryan Curtis' look at the SEC required a discussion of football as the Civil War by proxy and why SEC fans root for a conference that comprises most of Dixie with a feverish front-running regionalism. It's not hard to see "Hell no! We shouldn't pay students" as a civilized way of saying, "Hell, no! My ticket and t-shirt money shouldn't go to a bunch of lazy stupid* blacks."

* — That "stupid" bit often seems to drift into the conversation as an unfortunate afterthought that invalidates larger anti-payment arguments from dog-whistle racists. Defending the concept of "student athletes" doesn't really work when one instantly acknowledges the athletes aren't really students to explain the sorts of flawed characters who don't deserve to be rewarded with money.

There's a reason, too, why fans revel in the salacious details of NCAA violations. If defending the spirit of amateurism were really the goal, then the types of goods and services bought with ill-gotten money would be immaterial to that purpose. The principle would be enough. However, learning that a player sold jerseys for tattoos, or wanted to go to a strip club, or bought ugly bling, or needed an abortion for a woman he knocked up — well, that doesn't make a case against violations: that makes a case against the violators. Tacky "urban" purchases and being a 20-year-old babydaddy play best to ugly racial stereotypes and racist judgment. Look at them, those details seem to say, all along you knew they were basically stupid animals, and you were right. White thieves would have bought something tasteful.

Unfortunately for these people, paying college athletes is now a subject on the table, and it's not going to come off. Consequently, what these critics need to do, will do and have already done, is shift their tactics opposing the payment of athletes to convincing everyone else that college athletes are already being paid. This is nothing new; simultaneously adopting two contradictory conclusions has always lain at the heart of disingenuously championing amateurism. Not only is it morally hideous to compensate college athletes and tarnish the pure spiritual heartiness of the turf, they argue, it's also irrelevant, because we're already paying them with scholarships.

It's an approach you can see from message board comments to a Sally Jenkins column in The Washington Post. Jenkins is obviously no racist — and many board commenters aren't either —but both employ the same resolution. After beginning the column with what appears to be an army of straw men in search of a leader, Jenkins confronts the problem of compensation, creates a false equivalency between player value and scholarship value, and everything's settled. Even if there were a problem, the argument goes, it's already been resolved anyway.

Such thinking instantly absolves the status quo of error because its very selfness already contains its own rescue. This kind of thinking perfectly accommodates those resistant to change, regardless of motive, because it allows them to seek correction of a structurally flawed system by applying the system to itself. It's the sort of string of broken tautologies that only an Objectivist would love: "We can fix how A is B by using A is A, because A is A."

That said, concluding that athletes are already satisfactorily compensated merely superimposes the large flaws of the system on three already flawed conditions.

1. "They're getting a free education!"
Feel free to insert here all the jokes you want about how "only someone with a BA in General Studies from a massive state school would see any value in a BA in General Studies from a massive state school." Leaving cynicism and ugly generalities aside, there are multiple reasons to see athletes' degrees as valueless. First, as people who only have BAs can tell you, oftentimes only having a BA won't do you much good in the job market. Worse, with negative expectations of an athlete's intelligence and involvement in earning his own degree, he's just as apt to be hired for being a former athlete as he is for being someone with a BA. If the assumption is that athletes get a free ride and cheat their way through college (and that's a widely held assumption), they will be hired on the basis of what they've earned on the field or court, not what benevolent college administrations have bestowed on them.

Second, for all the talk of rewarding these kids with a free education, there's ample evidence that they're strongly dissuaded from actually taking advantage of it. One can't credibly defend the spirit of amateurism and intellectual exploration when it's an open secret that student athletes are, in order of priority, expected to be athlete-students. Complementing this academic disdain are the other open secrets: that teachers are expected to pad grades; that "tutors" write athletes' papers, and that every opportunity will be taken to bend or break rules to help athletes meet minimum requirements so they can maintain minimal academic attendance and attention.

With coaches threatening to cut them the next semester or next year, with people willing to do work for them, student athletes have little incentive to actually make something of their education and every incentive to avoid it. They'd be stupid not to let the tutors do the work, so they can double down on workouts and playbook study. How, then, do you compensate someone with something they're actively discouraged or implicitly turned away from using, something that may ultimately have little utility without a graduate degree, in a market where their athlete status might be of greater significance in hiring anyway?

2. Scholarships offer an utterly screwheaded conception of market value.
Given that a lot of college football fans seem to skew conservative or at least adopt conservative attitudes of merit and personal achievement, at least within the sports themselves, it's bizarre how willing so many are to create a false equivalency between scholarship value and market value. That misappraisal seems doubly troubling given that there are so many historical examples that illustrate the other side of these poor valuations: career mediocrities given scholarships no different from those given NFL-bound superstars.

The same country that produces a veneration for exploiting one's talents for the absolute top available dollar in this case believes that anywhere from $60,000-$120,000 disbursed over four years is equivalent to an athlete's product and marketing value that could be in the millions per year. The same people who screech that socialized medicine would never work because no doctor would work in a government monopoly that paid them six figures instead of seven simultaneously totally embrace a sports monopoly that regularly under-compensates thousands of workers by orders of magnitude. Not only that, but they believe this is a morally superior system because state-sponsored equal disbursement preserves workers from the tainting hands of capitalism. Go figure. That this arrangement shows no familiarity with a labor theory of value and primarily greatly enriches comfortably seated administrators at the expense of thousands of poor people and minorities is at least politically consistent but no less ugly.

3. Name another scholarship program that will actively destroy people.
First of all, full scholarships can't present an adequate form of compensation when schools already give full academic scholarships to students whose activities will only supplement or improve their education. Say what you will about the value of a full ride as part of the school debate team, but spending hours each day researching current events only buttresses the knowledge of debaters, who tend to pursue public policy degrees. Athletic scholarships, on the other hand, commit students to hours of physical activity that leave them exhausted and distracted and whose knowledge and mastery frequently has no applicable academic value.

All that takes a backseat, however, to the second problem, which is that no academic scholarships actively endanger students via their use. Certainly risk attends any activity, but there is no inherent severe risk to, say, pursuing a specialty in radiology. An aspiring radiology tech doesn't enter school with the knowledge that it is very likely he could leave it permanently sterile or riddled with cancer. Studying history doesn't carry the potential to never walk without pain again, never walk normally again or simply never walk again.

Given our increasing knowledge of how even the most rudimentary football action — the opposing lines colliding after the snap — can cause lifelong brain and orthopedic trauma, resulting in depression, suicide and permanent disability, there is no credible argument for a full scholarship offering athletes adequate compensation. When their fellow students have access to the same level of compensation without the stresses, exhaustion, almost inevitable permanent damage and the ever-present possibility that even a conventional play can paralyze or kill them, full scholarships are neither just nor sufficient.

These three inequalities, of opportunity, earning and health, give the lie to the notion that college athletes are already being paid, but they overlook the larger, compounding problem: that the system itself exacerbates these inequalities. The "scholarships are enough" argument of Jenkins and others relies on a theoretical college environment, where all other things are equal, where conditions are fairly maintained, and the engines of student sports are overseen by the wise, attentive and impartial.

Scholarships alone might work in a system free from exploitation and cheating, but the NCAA has a quarter-century record now of repeated and almost hedonistically gleeful abuse. If the system were wholly rotten or absolutely pristine, it might work, but already the playing field is hopelessly uneven. Students who lack the gall, the savvy, the financial necessity or the naked greed to milk boosters and recruiters for illegal perks now receive less compensation than fellow teammates, potentially irrespective of talent. Students who fail to get recruited by dirty schools, or who don't know how to determine which schools are dirty, functionally earn less than their competitors. A breakout talent at a mediocre-but-honest school will likely never enjoy the shady benefits of mediocre talents at powerhouse programs with proven records of corruption.

Add to this mix the 18 college presidents on NCAA Executive Committee, who have every incentive not to expand their oversight or increase their investigative and regulatory powers. Greater power to investigate means greater power to be investigated, and more powerful disciplinary measures only provide the potential for more powerful disciplinary measures being leveled at them. It's in their best interests to be venal and blind. The easiest analogue is of foxes in the henhouse, but for it to really work, you have to imagine foxes that are not only incompetent but want to supplement that incompetence with willful stupidity. Meanwhile, they and other administrators stand only to lose fantastic amounts of unearned money by vacating the status quo.

Solving the compensation problem in the NCAA by expecting it to clean house and enforce its standards while relying on scholarships alone is an exercise in fatuity and disingenuousness. The current system is unjust in terms of educational priorities, distribution of profits and the increased physical risk to students. Asking it to police itself to run "optimally" enshrines economic injustice as a best outcome. Worse, it relies on fortifying a current structure that, at its most productive, has no interest in effectively regulating itself, whose members have masterfully broken it to their greatest advantage.