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    Taylor Branch and the Shame of College Sports (Pay the Kids, Already)

    After I suggested being honest about college sports on this blog page, Taylor Branch has made the same case, better, in The Atlantic. With, you know, actual reporting and everything.

    Here's a bit from Branch's lead, as a shoe-advertising king pin talks openly about "buying your schools" in order to increase his market share:

    Not all the members could hide their scorn for the “sneaker pimp” of schoolyard hustle, who boasted of writing checks for millions to everybody in higher education.

    “Why,” asked Bryce Jordan, the president emeritus of Penn State, “should a university be an advertising medium for your industry?”

    Vaccaro did not blink. “They shouldn’t, sir,” he replied. “You sold your souls, and you’re going to continue selling them. You can be very moral and righteous in asking me that question, sir,” Vaccaro added with irrepressible good cheer, “but there’s not one of you in this room that’s going to turn down any of our money. You’re going to take it. I can only offer it.”

    The whole thing is worth a read.


    Our political system is awash with people doing exactly the same thing described here, but in our government. By this logic ... shouldn't we just go ahead and let politicians take cash payments directly? That is already the defacto standard for all intents and purposes. Wouldn't it be far easier to change the rules/expectations and just start telling ourselves it's perfectly OK than it would be to clean up our politics?

    This seems another example of those who run the higher education system simply not being focused on their mandate of educational excellence as primary purpose for the existence of their institutions. They are selling out and undermining the mission of their facilities in exchange for big bucks ... using a depressingly similar justification to the one used by our politicians.

    In my mind, the problem isn't that these students are being denied a cut of the action. The problem is that we have allowed school administrators and coaches to turn what should be an educational program into a Big Business - creating pressures and competing objectives that are often (usually) at odds with the core mission of education.

    I can't help but wonder if a better solution - as with our politics - is to get rid of the people currently in charge and hire people for the job who aren't sold-out corporate/political lackeys. What we really need is people who will return our higher educational system's focus to the quality of education being given the students as the singular primary concern ... not someone who can more effectively cement crap policy geared to protect the interests of money-hungry administrators and questionable educational approaches of tenured (so-called) educational staff and celebrity coaches.

    You know, I enjoy the way that you often come up with the standard right-wing answer.

    Here you start off with an aw-shucks "common sense" analogy that actually doesn't make much sense, and then your main argument is that the system doesn't need to be changed, we just need leaders with more character. And you completely overlook the powerless young workers who are being exploited. (The fact that a big-time college athlete makes between $100,000 and $250,000 a year for the school, but only gets "paid" in a scholarship he's not actually allowed to use, appears not to bother you.)

    Replacing all of the university leadership at the big football and basketball schools, and bringing in leaders with better hearts, who aren't corporate sellouts, is not a realistic or a smart idea. This doesn't happen because the leaders are bad people. It happens to universities led by good people, bad people, and average people, because it's driven by system-wide pressures.

    University presidents don't turn down money from TV sports because university presidents are never in a position to turn down money. They're not motivated by greed here, because they don't make any of the cash themselves. They use it to fund their underfunded schools. (The schools that don't need the TV money have never taken it, but that's not because the presidents of Ivy League schools have more personal integrity or better values. It's because they have gigantic endowments.) If a some saintly university president kicked a 30-million-dollar hole in his institution's budget because of principle, he'd better have 30 million extra lying around in the budget or he'll be replaced. And not many people have that kind of money lying around.

    You have noticed that most of the huge football powers are big state schools, right? The ones whose budgets keep getting cut by state legislators? They're in this business because they're being starved for funds, and they can't afford to be choosy.


    kgb's got this right, Doc. And his proposal is the exact opposite of your "standard right-wing answer."

    Your proposal, on the other hand, boils down to this: Let's privatize our public institutions of higher learning by pushing them further under the influence of corporate media and corporate sports.

    I know you care for the players. If you really want to help them, let's take all of the external money out of collegiate sports and lower the stakes. Maybe fewer of them will be physically and mentally sacrificed to the great god of "Do Whatever It Takes To Win!"

    I don't disagree with kgb's diagnosis, but I doubt that his prescription could ever happen. We can say, "let's take away the money," but how do we really accomplish that in the real world where educational funding is being cut and corporations can do just about whatever they want?

    I can however see a path towards making college teams into semi-pro entities where the athletes get paid for their efforts, and can afford college after they blow out their knee. It isn't ideal, but I can envision it happening.


    You may be right about what's doable, Donal. Here's the thing, though. I don't grok the great injustice involved in not paying college athletes, but I could get excited about casting the sports/media/money distortion field out of higher education. 

    The greater damage done by competitive sports occurs much earlier than college years, when the players are children, and truly are owed some protection by society and their parents. Their situation is not likely to improve, though, so long as the sports/media/money god rules college football stadiums and basketball arenas, whether or not those facilities are "spun-off" from the college.

    Now, if someone wants to suggest that we also pay students of physics, math, music, literature, painting, molecular biology, well, maybe we can talk.

    But rewarding college athletes isn't big problem in my town, where graduates of the local university's honors scholarship program feel fortunate to bag a part-time job at Chuck-E-Cheeses, much less get paid for doing what they do well while in still in school.

    You wrote:

    Now, if someone wants to suggest that we also pay students of physics, math, music, literature, painting, molecular biology, well, maybe we can talk.

    This is already done for graduate students. They are called fellowships. When my husband was in grad school in engineering and physics he was paid through a Nasa Fellowship and another fellowship (I would have to call him to remember the other agency that funded him, I've forgotten), it paid for health care, monthly stipend, lab space, etc. We were able to pay our rent, for food, we had health care etc. My fellowships were funded by DoE and Microsoft.

    Post-grad fellowships are great. Undergrad scholarships, too.

    No, my proposal is to split the corporate professional sports operation off from the universities, so the schools can be schools and the pro teams can be pro teams.

    I would prefer, of course, to live in the ideal world where the big football schools turned down the TV money and went back to having real amateur teams where the players were allowed to be students. But that's not going to happen. The Nebraska Cornhuskers, to take an example, are never going to stop being a professional team. Nebraska can't afford to turn down the money, and even if they did Nebraska's voters would never permit it. (They love their team, which is the only big-time spectator sports franchise in the state. If you take the Cornhuskers off network TV, and killed the Bowl-conference program, the voters will be furious.)

    My proposal is that the U of N could become the sponsors of the openly professional Cornhuskers (whose players would get a salary and, not for nothing, insurance), which would be spun off from the university itself. If they want to add a tuition grant to their pay package, so that former Cornhuskers could go to the school for a degree after they were done playing, I think that would be ideal.

    You don't uphold your ideals by getting leaders with better hearts. You uphold your ideals by lining up the economic incentives to make your ideals the smart bet. Because, as a great right-winger once scribbled in the British Library, economics determine the course of history.


    It's not clear which of my ideals would be upheld by your proposal, Doc.

    I see no great injustice in not paying college athletes, which seems to be your motivating premise, no greater than the injustice of not paying college political science students. But I do see great injustice in the very existence of the college sports/media/money distortion field, whether spun off or not (now being extended to high schools, by the way, and should we have corporate high school teams?).

    In the end, I'm skeptical that it would be possible to spin off a truly independent professional sports team from the U of N, one that would continue to contribute large sums of money to the university budget without continuing to distort the university's focus on education, and even further distorting the political process that supports higher education.

    Privatization of public goods, not my favorite solution. Take a look at the private prison system.


    Nice work Doc, really.  This issue makes me crazy.  Thanks.

    Let' not ignore the next generation, let's pay high school kids to play sports too.

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