Friday, October 31, 2014

Campus divestment: sports

Steven Johnston
Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah

In July Bill Connolly published a manifesto entitled “Toward an Eco-Egalitarian University.” I would like to complement his call for educational reinvention and resistance to the “neoliberal machine” by addressing selected aspects of the sports-violence-money-media-entertainment complex that governs and plagues so many of America’s colleges and universities.  There are a number of issues here.

1) Major men’s college football and basketball programs serve primarily as minor league training academies for the NFL and NBA. This self-selected subservient role, highly profitable to some schools, financially problematic to many more, comes at the expense of the academic and moral integrity of the institutions implicated. As recent events at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill indicate, schools will not hesitate to corrupt their basic academic functioning, including manufacturing imaginary courses and bogus grades, to keep mercenary athletes eligible and turnstiles rotating.
A UNC-Chapel Hill student athlete's paper.
2) These programs generate tens of billions of dollars in revenues for themselves and other dominant corporate players (broadcasters, apparel companies, the auto and beer industries, etc.) in the neoliberal capitalist arena while exploiting the non-union labor of (mostly) teenagers.  Thousands of students on athletic scholarships, so-called student athletes, are effectively the fulltime employees of colleges and universities who control their lives and can dismiss them at will.

3) Football and basketball coaches are often the highest paid employees at their institutions with compensation packages—totaling millions—exceeding even the most lavishly paid college and university presidents. This warped financial structure informs students, who incur unsustainable debt to pursue the American dream, and professors, who may never be able to afford retirement, of their value in the so-called academic world.

4) Running a football program means, by definition, that colleges and universities are co-conspirators in a corrupt enterprise that sacrifices the short- and long-term health and well-being of its participants. Morally, if not legally, this amounts to felony assault and battery. Players may or may not be removed from games even when they are obviously damaged from routine plays. Statistically, the vast majority of college football players will never play at the professional level, which means they are sacrificing themselves for, at best, an illusion.

5) Major sports programs are commonly linked to a culture of privilege and entitlement, which includes violence against women, a seriously underreported phenomenon, as the Florida State examples demonstrate. It might be convenient to presume that this is the isolated conduct of a few malefactors with a disposition to violence they brought with them to college, though it’s perhaps just as likely that they cultivated and extended the pleasures of domination and violence the sport teaches them and celebrates.

6) When football players at Northwestern initiated a unionization drive in order to protect themselves and their interests against their employer, the university, aided and abetted by the head coach, and concerned about possible repercussions to its bottom line, waged a concerted campaign to defeat them. To my knowledge, not one college or university president spoke in favor of the players’ autonomy and self-determination. Rather, they were determined to keep them in their properly subjected position.

Still, let us suppose, against the evidence, that Trustees and Presidents are serious when they talk about student athletes and seek to really fold sports into the intellectual life of a college or university. Well, here are some things they would do with respect to basketball.

For programs it will mean:

  1. no athletic scholarships will be granted;
  2. practices will be conducted and games will be played in only one semester; they will no longer encompass both fall and spring;
  3. regular season schedules will be limited to 20 games, roughly 1 and 1/2 per week;
  4. conferences will be realigned so that no road trip covers more than 200 miles and no flight lasts longer than 2 hours;
  5. no post-season conference tournaments are to be allowed; they are designed not for competition in a conference race but the gratuitous generation of revenue;
  6. the NCAA tournament will be reduced to 32 teams, which means the tournament can be completed in just over one week, minimizing the disruption to the end of the semester and final exams;
  7. no coach will be paid—from any and all sources—more than the median salary of an associate professor. Comparisons to CEOs notwithstanding, a coach contributes nothing to the university as a university; a coach is merely parasitic upon student-athletes.
For students it will mean:

  1. no morning practices before the first scheduled on-campus class;
  2. no practicing on weekends, when there generally are no classes; this is the time to study and rest;
  3. if students are expected to put in roughly five to six hours of work outside class per week, per course, basketball players will be allowed to practice no more than five to six hours per week; after all, they are not employee-athletes;
  4. should student-athletes leave before graduating to pursue a professional career, they will redirect 10% of the value of any NBA or European league contract they sign to their alma mater’s general scholarship fund.
As for football, it is to be abolished—now. There is too much evidence that brain damage is a routine, predictable part of the sport to sanction its continuation. Colleges and universities can lead a nationwide campaign for the abolition of football, a commitment to which can be made a condition of (continued) employment for all top-level university officials. NCAA member institutions form one key link in a long chain of injury, abuse, and exploitation. Irreparable brain injury does not begin in college—or even high school. It begins when young children playfootball for the first time as pre-teenagers. Pop Warner starts with the Tiny-Mite division for ages 5 to 7 with a weight range of 35 to 75 pounds. It has 6 other divisions that extend to age 14 and noweight limit.The brain, always vulnerable to concussion from any head-on collision, is especially vulnerable during the early stages of its development. Parents who allow, let alone encourage their children to play football are arguably guilty of abuse. (Soccer parents may be guilty, too). Either way, colleges and universities cannot participate in a sporting culture and structure that inspires and implicitly rewards the systematic maltreatment of children. These young boys (and girls, too) are also students and they should not be repeatedly and irreversibly harmed before they can matriculate to the many colleges and universities waiting to welcome them. We in academia can best plan for this day by reining in the horrors of American sports that have either a limited place (at best) or no place at all on our campuses. Some might find these proposals utopian, but, following Bill Connolly, I would say that not only is this partly the point; the recommendations also reflect a catalytic, life-affirming utopianism as opposed to the self-destructive, death-laden utopianism of the neoliberal machine that aspires to consume the academic world.



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