One of the ways institutions preserve power is through creating rules and regulations that are labyrinthian, archaic and seemingly unchangeable and then repeating them over and over again in a slogan, giving them an air of legitimacy that unfortunately the public buys into. The Bush administration’s claim that ‘If we don’t attack them there, we will have to do it here’ doesn’t quite resonate like it did back in 2001. And a politician claiming that ‘What is good for GM is good for America” would probably be given the side-eye these days. Conventional wisdom born of institutional sloganeering rarely holds up under scrutiny, so when I hear people regurgitate NCAA rhetoric against student athletes receiving payment it troubles me.
Our first instinct is to immediately launch into an argument about how much money colleges do or do not make from college sports, which forces us to wade into the murky waters of institutional accounting. Colleges may or may not be making a fortune from athletics – it seems obvious to me that they are, but that’s for another post. What troubles me is not that the ‘student-athlete’ – cannot receive payment from colleges, but that he or she cannot receive payment from anyplace above some arbitrary ceiling. So, for example, the student entrepreneur – scholarship or not – can create a business often using college resources and become a billionaire like Mark Zuckerberg without a problem. The student-engineer can create an innovation like Bill Gates and become a billionaire without a problem. The student-investor can invest while he’s a student and whatever money he or she makes is their business. The ‘student-athlete’ is of course held to a different standard.
If an athletic apparel company or car company or snack chip company decides that they can make money by hiring the ‘student-athlete- they can’t without punishment for the student athlete. If the student-athlete gets a loan or a flight or a laptop or anything that exceeds the NCAA’s arbitrary ceiling the student athlete is penalized. What is the justification for this? Many argments seem to revolve around the idea of ‘protecting the athletes from exploitation’. Pimps use a similar argument to justify the ‘services’ they provide to prostitutes. It goes something like ‘Well, if I don’t protect her another pimp will beat her ass in the streets.’ And the NCAA will say ‘Well, if we don’t protect the athlete by paying him/her a little, a booster, or loan shark, or multi-national corporation will exploit him/her by paying him/her a lot’. Both arguments sound like efforts to undermine agency (i.e. ‘Hoes with money don’t know how to act.’) rather than genuine arguments for the group in question’s best interests.
Another reason seems to involve the ‘purity of sport’ or ‘education’. I’ll deal with the latter first. Students on college campuses come from a variety of financial backgrounds as it stands and the more elite the school the more rich students will be in attendance. A few additional rich students on campus won’t change much, but there are of course those that feel that having one student making a million from Nike and another eating Ramen noodles gives the impression that one student is worth more than another. That impression is reality and already exists throughout the educational institutions between tenured and un-tenured professors, union and non-union assistant professors, and university football coaches and university presidents. Some reality tv stars make more than the President of the United States. Salaries are just symptoms. Focus on the underlying problem if there is one.
The ‘purity of sport’ justification makes less sense considering that college sports is already a multi-billion dollar industry. If people were making the case that the entire industry or sector should be socialized in some way then that might be a little different, but for now the only people being protected from the impurities of the free-market are the ‘student-athlete’.
It’s easy to dismiss the whole debate, but a larger thing is at stake in my view, and that is the mainstreaming of institutional bullshit . We must resist this urge, no matter the question.