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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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Orange is the New Black as a Risky Act of Consciousness-Raising

Michaele L. Ferguson
University of Colorado

By blurring the lines between entertainment and political advocacy, Orange is the New Black expresses a novel and risky form of mass political consciousness-raising. It simultaneously educates, outrages, and diverts its audience. In so doing, it has tremendous potential to generate empathy for the poor and the incarcerated among the complacent American middle-class, but it also risks undermining critique of our justice system through its use of melodrama and marketing. Whatever its ultimate impact on our culture, it is worth understanding how Orange simultaneously operates as entertainment and political incitement.

I contend that Orange engages in a kind of consciousness-raising through entertainment that is indirectly political. It focuses on stories about individuals, peppered with brief discussions of political issues: along the way the viewer is educated in questions about sentencing and prison justice, but the show does not make these issues the overt object of the action. It raises consciousness in a subtle fashion, without just telling us what to believe.

Precisely because its politics are so subtle, Orange has the radical potential to illuminate how our justice system works and the ways in which women prisoners are particularly disadvantaged within it. Yet this potential to raise awareness and even to mobilize viewers to take action is simultaneously undermined in four ways.

1) The Netflix series deploys melodrama in a way that keeps the storytelling light and satisfies viewers’ desire for justice, but may also keep viewers from reflecting on the actual injustices of the prison system. Consider this in contrast to what we see in a series like The Wire. Where The Wire is primarily dark and aims at portraying realistic characters and situations, Orange often exaggerates scenarios in a way that seems designed to satisfy viewers’ desires for some kind of justice in a prison world that is (in reality) unrelentingly unjust. The Wire’s deployment of the tragic form, I believe, makes it very difficult for viewers to treat it as mere entertainment, and to disengage from the political questions it brings to the forefront. The use of melodramatic forms in Orange, however, while perhaps it makes the show easier for a broader audience to enjoy, may also risk obscuring the real injustices of the prison system that the show serves to highlight.

Orange couches consciousness-raising in the more entertaining and palatable forms of hot lesbian prison sex, humor, and melodramatic justice in which bad people ultimately suffer for their misdeeds. While based on a memoir, the Netflix series takes creative license with reality in ways that may obscure or at least deflect serious attention from the injustices of the prison system.

2) My second worry about the potential effectiveness of Orange’s political consciousness-raising has to do with how Netflix blurs the lines between entertainment, marketing and political advocacy. When political advocacy is presented as marketing for entertainment, I worry that audiences may experience this either as confusing (i.e., they may not experience the political issues as issues), or as a turn-off (i.e., they may see the advocacy as self-interested rather than the result of more noble motivations).

For example, consider the “paid op-ed” that Netflix produced for The New York Times around the time Season 2 was released. Entitled “Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work,” this op-ed presents a visually appealing graphic representation of the status of women in the American prison system, interspersed with video and audio interviews with women who are serving or have served time. It is an incredible act of political pedagogy: it educates readers about the specific issues faced by women in the justice system; it raises awareness about many of the injustices faced by women both leading up to, in, and after prison; and it offers a solution in the form of the Hawaii Women’s Community Correctional Center, which treats women prisoners as in need of sanctuary and a place to heal during their time in incarceration. At the very end, it provides some links to “additional resources,” including to some activist and service organizations addressing women prisoners in particular.

I find this ad intriguing because of how it blurs the lines between politics and marketing. Netflix may benefit reputationally from being seen as a corporation that is not merely making money from the show, but is advocating for the kind of women the show portrays. But I think the blurring of the lines here raises questions of motive that are difficult to dismiss. Is the Netflix leadership truly in favor of prison reform (in which case, why does this appear to be the only such effort at consciousness-raising sponsored by Netflix)? Does it hurt the cause of justice reform to have it associated with a media company that is profiting off of a fictional and melodramatic portrayal of the issues? Or does it help to have the corporate money to reach a broader audience with the political message?

3) Either way, neither the series nor the op-eds provides us with a viable model of what political action to change the system would look like. The op-ed references the women’s prison in Hawaii as a role model for other prisons, yet it does not give readers any sense of how this model could be taken up elsewhere. The resources listed at the end of the op-ed give readers a chance to learn more about the topics mentioned and to find ways to take action, but the organizations listed are lumped together with no additional information to distinguish between them, or to explain why they were included. There is no suggested political action to take, and no information given to encourage readers to find out more about the organizations listed. It is unclear how a reader would even get to more information about the Hawaii prison, the one that is upheld as a role model for reform.

Matters are even worse in the series itself. Those who have political convictions about justice are mocked in Season 2 with its hunger strike. The hunger strikers cannot agree on a meaningful platform, and ultimately their conviction weakens in the face of a mediocre pizza. Sister Ingalls encourages them to leave the movement saying, “Go ahead, girls. Take a break from your values” (Season 2, Episode 11: "Take a Break from Your Values"). The hunger strike serves primarily as comic relief – no one takes it seriously, least of all the prison staff.

So even as the marketing and the series urge us to see the injustices of the system, they offer no clear path to create change. In a culture in which the general population is largely depoliticized, and which often treats political activism as futile, self-aggrandizing, or na├»ve, this is an opportunity missed. What’s more, the deployment of consciousness-raising as a form of marketing reinforces the cynical view that political actors have hidden agendas.

4) Finally, because Netflix has chosen to release an entire season all at once, annually, the show enjoys only a brief media spotlight. Women in prison get a big boost of attention in June, which subsides by the end of July when many viewers have finished binge-watching. This limits the impact that Netflix’s advertising campaign, and news articles about the show can have in terms of raising awareness and keeping the issue of prison justice in the forefront of media attention. Except for the occasional award show or guest appearance on a talk show, there is no real occasion to bring up Orange in the media until we are approaching the release of the next season. The spotlight on prison reform is intermittent, as a consequence. Again, I worry that this means that sustained attention on reform is unlikely to result from the show.

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