Throughout an unlikely championship run in the 2014 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, they called themselves the “Hungry Huskies.” Leading the way for the University of Connecticut was Shabazz Napier, a senior from Roxbury, Massachusetts who dominated last year’s March Madness with his aggressive play on both ends of the court. Eventually named the tournament’s most outstanding player, and the Bob Cousy Collegiate Point Guard of the Year, Napier became one of only two players in college basketball history to win a national championship in both his freshman and senior seasons. But after defeating the University of Kentucky in the 2014 final, the quality of Napier’s play was soon overshadowed by his post-game comments.
“There are hungry nights,” he said, “that I go to bed and I’m starving.” In a climate where the National Collegiate Athletic Association is increasingly viewed as an exploitative institution that denies young athletes their fair share in a thriving college sports industry, it’s not surprising that Napier’s reflections went viral. To his credit, the UConn senior showed some perspective: “I don’t feel student-athletes should get hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said, before repeating, “there’s hungry nights and I’m not able to eat and I still got to play up to my capabilities.” He continued, “When you see your jersey getting sold—it may not have your last name on it—but when you see your jersey getting sold and things like that, you feel like you want something in return.”
From the pages of the New York Times to Fox & Friends and The Daily Show, Napier was widely celebrated as a courageous voice speaking truth to power. Overlooking the fact that full-scholarship athletes like Napier are granted complete meal plans—at UConn that often includes catered meals at basketball facilities to accommodate the unusual schedules of student-athletes, precisely so that they won’t go to bed hungry—the largely unchallenged logic went something like this: the NCAA makes billions of dollars on the backs of unpaid laborers, and it should either pay up or cease to exist. Just three years earlier, Taylor Branch had made the argument just as forcefully in his popular article for the Atlantic, “The Shame of College Sports.” Branch claimed that “the tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid” (referring to cases where players are compensated in violation of NCAA rules), “but that more of them are not.”
With a groundswell of public support behind Branch’s position and Napier’s supposed hunger, the NCAA—an otherwise sluggish institution—fast-tracked legislation to provide “unlimited meals and snacks,” in addition to scholarship awards. Within months the legislation had been adopted, along with a massive overhaul of the NCAA’s structure that gave the Big Ten, Pac 12, ACC, Big 12 and SEC—now known as the Power Five conferences—legislative autonomy to redefine the future of college sports on their own terms. Some, like University of Vermont president Tom Sullivan, denounced the move as representing a surrender to greed and corruption. Others heralded it as an overdue gesture of support for college athletes. But the most voluminous cohort, including Joe Nocera of the New York Times, argued that the NCAA was exercising a “feeble reform impulse … doing the minimum they could get away with to make their problems go away.” Their problems, according to Nocera, stem from the organization’s violation of antitrust laws, where athletes are held hostage in a rigged system that prohibits their ability to capitalize on their entertainment value.
Expounding further, Nocera cited Andy Schwarz at Deadspin, who identified two teams battling for the future of college sports: Team Market, which espouses the virtues of unbridled commercialization, and Team Reform, which would prefer to harness commercialization for the good of the university as a whole. Speaking with the authority of a “highly (and perhaps over-) educated economist,” Schwarz went on to lampoon the naïve paternalism of Team Reform. “I think education is a noble calling,” he conceded, “but until I see university presidents and their boards living like an order of Franciscans and working for room and board and a living stipend, I won’t believe it’s not also a business.” To the extent that presumed reformers have benefited from the commodification of amateur athletics, or have failed to maintain the virtues of collegiate amateurism, he has a point. But do the failures of Team Reform demand a capitulation to the amoral dictates of Team Market?
For Schwarz the answer is yes. Colleges and universities shouldn’t feel guilty for having “stumbled onto a very successful commercial product.” Nor should they limit their earning potential to uphold antiquated ideals of what college is or should be for. Not surprisingly, Schwarz’s judgments are informed by his economic training, echoing Calvin Coolidge’s belief that “the chief business of the American people is business.” Perhaps forgetting the result of Coolidge’s approach to economics, Schwarz argues that the business of college sports should be unshackled, allowing athletes to capitalize on what he claims are “the four highest-earning years of their whole lives.” So, he concludes, “let the money flow”:
Let schools include money (or other benefits above and beyond the current compensation cap imposed by NCAA collusion) in their offer to the talented young men who generate the profits. Let the market decide if deferred payments make the most sense. Let the market allocate talent where consumers most want it and tinker with issues of competitive balance (unlikely as they are to emerge) after the fact rather than allow them to act an outright impediment to creating a better world.
In what he takes to be the nail in the coffin of Team Reform, Schwarz writes, “the fact that millions of people love Saturdays in the fall because there is so much good college football being played is not a problem to be solved. It is a joy to be cherished.”
Under the noble pretense of advocating for an oppressed population, and “creating a better world,” the laissez faire approach encouraged by Schwarz, Branch and Nocera fails on at least two critical levels. The first results from a misunderstanding of the philosophical foundations and historic trajectory of intercollegiate athletics. The second results from a misunderstanding of the actual economics that define the landscape of college sports today.
Speaking to the first point, college sports have always been a uniquely paradoxical American tradition. As Michael Gillespie pointed out in his essay “Players and Spectators: Sports and Ethical Training in the American University,” many college athletic programs originally emphasized their connection with the ancient practice of gymnastic exercise, espoused by Plato and Aristotle as “a necessary component in the training and habituation of the desires that is essential to the habituation of virtue.” They have proceeded by weaving together traditional Greek, Roman and British mores into one tapestry. From the British, athletic programs have harnessed a vision of teamwork and sportsmanship, “where the ethical goal was the creation of group loyalty.” But what dominates perception of, and conversation about college sports today, reflects a Roman vision of athletic spectacle, maximizing the pleasure of fans and presumably the monetary profits of their institutions. Where “the gladiatorial games were a drama depicting the domination of the state,” the games in college arenas are dramas that depict the prestigious domination of educational institutions.
On the surface, the confluence of these traditions may appear innocuous. Sports in this country are “a vivid dramatization of American social and political life,” which, after all, has always celebrated the spirit of competition. But Gillespie sees this drama as revealing a tension at the heart of our educational system, reenacting a “foundational truth of the modern age, articulated first by Bacon, that knowledge and effort produce power, and that power produces victory and preeminence.” The implications are critical for our cultural relationship to both academics and athletics. For Gillespie, “while the Greek and British heritage of sports” can still promote the moral values needed to sustain a democracy, “our Roman lust for spectacles endangers it”:
Insofar as the American spectator becomes Romanized, that is, becomes an anonymous spectator with little connection to the actual human beings who participate in sports, he or she becomes a mere consumer, passive, happy to watch others display their skill and courage, but never seeking to emulate them. For this audience sports are a catharsis, an occasion when they can let their passions run without constraint.
Today, this is the maelstrom in which players, coaches, administrators and fans of elite athletic programs exist: and in recent years an insatiable appetite for spectacle has run parallel with moral corrosion at some of America’s most celebrated schools—Penn State (child molestation and rape), Missouri (rape), Tennessee (recruiting violations and sexual assault), Vanderbilt (sexual assault and rape), Southern California (recruiting violations), Syracuse (academic fraud), North Carolina (academic fraud), and Harvard (academic fraud), among many others. With the lust for athletic spectacle creating a vacuum of meaning and purpose at institutions of supposed higher learning, many elite players now believe they deserve more from the spectacle than their scholarships offer, which leads us to the economics of their endeavors.
Without question, college sports are marketed and presented, often at the behest of powerful media organizations, as a professional product. This can go some way toward encouraging us to forget the fact that very few college athletes would be capable of commanding a professional salary in an open market. Where Taylor Branch argues that the “whole edifice” of amateur college sports “depends on players’ willingness to perform what is effectively volunteer work,” his claims (Nocera and Schwarz’s too) are predicated on an extremely narrow view of what constitutes intercollegiate athletics. It also rests on a profound misunderstanding of the benefits college athletes receive, the range of opportunities athletic departments currently provide, and the fiscal realities associated with those provisions.
A careful assessment of college sports as a whole reveals much more than a monotone conglomerate of corrupt administrators, coaches, corporations and presumably exploited athletes. In fact, intercollegiate athletics still provide a mosaic of athletic and academic opportunities to a wide range of students who will never be seen on TV. While the NCAA, which Branch called a “plantation,” has been publically ridiculed in recent years due to the money that elite football and men’s basketball teams generate, the association has not benefited financially from football since a 1984 Supreme Court ruling granted football programs the autonomy to pursue their own TV contracts. With respect to basketball, the NCAA’s latest TV contract to broadcast the Division I championship tournament, or March Madness, is worth $10.8 billion over fourteen years, accounting for 95 percent of its budget. But Team Market’s belief that the NCAA and its partner institutions are overflowing with cash doesn’t bear out.
As Brad Wolverton has reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, without the NCAA’s redistribution of their March Madness money, “many smaller athletics departments” wouldn’t be able “to support the day-to-day activities that keep their programs afloat.” Indeed, the NCAA’s basketball revenue supports all three divisions of competition, 23 sports, 89 championship seasons, billions of dollars in athletic scholarships, and subsequently hundreds of thousands of male and female students whose competitions go largely unrecognized, unsponsored by global corporations and mostly unattended. (As a non-scholarship Division III soccer player I was one of them.) According to Branch, Nocera and Schwarz’s narrative, a manipulative hoax has lured athletes onto the plantation. But absent the infrastructure of college sports most of those athletes (especially in Divisions II and III, and in Division I schools with limited budgets) would have virtually no opportunity to pursue their athletic ambitions beyond high school, and certainly not while earning a degree. So while it’s inarguable that billions of dollars are being exchanged in and around college sports, it is also inarguable that the money the NCAA allocates is primarily dedicated to supporting non-profitable athletic opportunities.
That includes, perhaps surprisingly to some, a large majority of elite college football and men’s basketball teams that actually lose money every year. Though a small fraction of these programs generate revenue exceeding costs of operations, even fewer are profitable in any way that could be considered financially lucrative. As Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian report in The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football, even University of Michigan-Ann Arbor—one of only 21 schools that consistently profits from their athletic program—barely breaks even. In the 2012-13 fiscal year the Wolverines brought in $130 million in revenue, $90 million of which was from football. But after accounting for expenses, including $18 million in financial aid, $44 million in departmental salaries and about $15 million in interest and debt load associated with $228 million in upgrades and renovations to just the football and basketball facilities, their estimated surplus was only $5.8 million. As far back as 2001, James Schulman and William Bowen of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation stated conclusively that “almost all athletic programs lose money,” seldom making up the difference with private donations from fans or alumni.
As this relates to individual athletes, it may be true that some are not paid salaries commensurate with their eventual earning potential, or the surpluses they (seldom) help generate for their schools. But it is ultimately misleading to suggest that athletic scholarships are universally manipulative devices, or that scholarship athletes are scandalously undercompensated—a position some Northwestern University football players argued for in their attempt to form a labor union in 2014, later echoed by the College Athletes Rights and Empowerment Coalition. Keeping in mind that less than three percent of college football players, and less than two percent of men’s basketball players go on to play professionally, rough estimates for the total award gifted to a four-year scholarship athlete—including full tuition, athletic equipment, access to world-class training facilities, housing, food, travel, health care and other expenses—can easily reach $500,000. On balance that amounts to an annual salary of $125,000 for a starting quarterback, backup point guard or coxswain, which very few 18- to 22-year-olds, or middle-aged professionals, actually make. In the case of students who play sports where equipment is more expensive (i.e. football, hockey, lacrosse), or suffer injuries that require major surgery, rehab and therapy, that number can increase exponentially. In the wake of Shabazz Napier’s comments about going to bed hungry, those benefits for full scholarship athletes are increasing in the coming academic year to provide “full cost of attendance,” determined by each school’s financial aid office.
According to a memo released by the athletic department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, additional benefits will range from $3,830 to $5,280, depending on financial need, intended to cover everything from cell phones ($354) to eating out ($800). Again, these benefits are for students like Napier, who are already receiving full meal plans. But popular opinion, driven by the spokesmen for Team Market, insist that such provisions are a paltry excuse, no matter how much of a financial burden schools (many already facing critical budget deficits) will shoulder to make sure athletes can go out to eat after they’ve had a catered postgame meal.
Adding a powerful voice to the cause, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar chimed in last November in a Jacobin article titled, “College Athletes of the World, Unite.” The former UCLA and NBA legend lamented being “too broke” during his years with the Bruins “to do much more than study, practice, and play.” Due to the slavish conditions college athletes are forced to endure (studying, practicing and playing for four years in southern California), he says that he spent spring break working “as a groundskeeper on the UCLA campus or in their steam plant repairing plumbing and electrical problems. No partying in Cabo San Lucas for me. Pulling weeds and swapping fuses was my glamorous life.” But where Abdul-Jabbar rightly pointed to a list of glaring inconsistencies that have infected elite college sports on the watch of Team Reform (improper use of likeness, exploiting loopholes in health coverage, and manipulation of scholarships based on athletic participation and performance), voicing a narrative of exploitation and entitlement undermines his ultimate concern about players being deprived of a meaningful education (something that never seems to bother the elite athletes who participate in academic fraud). In fact, this narrative actually capitulates to—and helps reinforce—a corrupt ethos that has compromised the educational component of the student-athlete experience.
Likening the plight of college athletes to sweat shop workers, Abdul-Jabbar claims to have been “furious when it was reported that Nike made billions in 2001, while at the same time employing, through subcontracted companies, twelve-year-old Cambodian girls working sixteen-hour days for pennies an hour to make $120 shoes.” But if athletes at schools like UCLA were granted what he argues are much-deserved salaried positions, and the freedom to negotiate contracts, a significant portion of their income would likely come from the same shoe companies that profit by exploiting the labor of Cambodian girls. So how furious can Abdul-Jabbar really be? And how much does he really care about education and justice? Here the logic of Team Market’s advocacy for the oppressed has fallen into its own moral vacuum.
In so doing it at least begins to shed light on the ultimate problem that Taylor Branch did well to identify: namely, the inordinate power allocated to coaches and corporate sponsors in high-revenue programs, which over time has compromised the moral credibility of the NCAA and its partner institutions. Beyond the power and influence schools give many coaches, media corporations like ESPN grant them commanding national platforms and visibility, while shoe and apparel companies, exploiting third-world laborers, supplement their already exorbitant incomes. As Branch reports, Sonny Vaccaro—a bona fide high-stakes huckster who “built sponsorship empires successively at Nike, Adidas and Reebok”—told a room full of NCAA, college and university administrators in 2001, “I’m not hiding. We want to put our materials on the bodies of your athletes, and the best way to do that is to buy your school. Or buy your coach.”
At which point both Team Market and Team Reform are forced to confront a paradox at the crossroads of elite college sports and the contemporary university. Team Market would “let the money flow where the market wants it to flow,” but that money has already served to encourage a Romanized spectacle with little connection to the presumed goals and values of institutions of higher learning. Team Reform would insist on maintaining collegiate amateurism, but they’ve allowed the likes of Nike, ESPN and Sonny Viccaro to buy their school and their coach. Former Texas football coach Mack Brown has summed up the result as well as anybody: “When you hear presidents and athletic directors talk about character and academics and integrity, none of that really matters,” he told the New York Times. “The truth is, nobody has ever been fired for those things. They get fired for losing.”
Shocking as it may be that Brown (now an analyst for ESPN after being fired by Texas) made this statement openly to a respected news organization, the implications go deeper than nostalgia for amateur ideals, or politically correct claims of exploitation. Vacating the philosophical justification for college sports at the highest levels of competition, we’re ultimately left with the perception that athletes, both amateurs and professionals, are merely utilitarian devices to maximize the pleasure of viewers and the material profit of shareholders. In which case, the real shame of college sports is not that athletes aren’t being paid, but that the commodification of their activities has rendered athletic endeavors incommensurate with the democratic, intellectual and moral values higher education was founded to preserve. Without maintaining a relationship to those values, or reestablishing an educational purpose for the existence of elite college athletics, Team Reform and Team Market can do little more than quibble over the structure of a corrupt circus, in a feeble attempt to redistribute the bread more evenly.
Perhaps, if they were successful, then players like Shabazz Napier and UConn’s “Hungry Huskies” would end up getting “something in return” for their triumphant run through March Madness. Perhaps Taylor Branch, Joe Nocera and Andy Schwarz will celebrate the fact that future NCAA champions will be rewarded with all manner of monetary gain, copious nourishment, and trips to Cabo San Lucas. But as Leon Kass has put it, “the materialistic view of life, though it may help put bread on the table, cannot help us understand what it means to eat.”