Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Division I Football: Of Coaches, Classrooms, and Cash

December 22nd, 2007 by Ajuan Mance

“In 2005, the 121 Division 1-A football teams generated $1.8 billion for their colleges. “Source: Michael Lewis NY Times writer/reporter

New York Times sportswriter and commentator Michael Lewis breathes new life into the metaphor of big time college sports as a modern-day plantation in his November 11, 2007 Op-Ed piece, “Serfs of the Turf .” 

In it Lewis points out the significant disparity between the big money that college football (particularly, Division I-A college football) generates and the modest compensation received by players (scholarships, free uniforms, travel to out-of-town games). In the past, I have dismissed arguments that big-time college sports athletes deserve to be paid. My resistance to this notion is largely based on my belief that colleges should not value one form of talent over another; the gifted student musicians who populate the University of Michigan Orchestra, for example, should be valued no less than the gifted student athletes who play on UM’s football and basketball teams. In his recent Times article, however, Michael Lewis just might have changed my mind.

Here is the crux of Lewis’s argument:

College football’s best trick play is its pretense that it has nothing to do with money, that it’s simply an extension of the university’s mission to educate its students. Were the public to view college football as mainly a business, it might start asking questions. For instance: why are these enterprises that have nothing to do with education and everything to do with profits exempt from paying taxes? Or why don’t they pay their employees?

This is maybe the oddest aspect of the college football business. Everyone associated with it is getting rich except the people whose labor creates the value. At this moment there are thousands of big-time college football players, many of whom are black and poor. They perform for the intense pleasure of millions of rabid college football fans, many of whom are rich and white. The world’s most enthusiastic racially integrated marketplace is waiting to happen [emphasis mine].

For Lewis, college football — or, at least, “big-time” college football — finds itself far removed from its early function as a gladitorial, school – spirit – generating gentlemen’s game. In the 21st century, big-time college football is still gladitorial, and it still generates school spirit; but it’s most important byproduct is money.

My interest has always been primarily in the fate of the Black male athlete, and I have generally believed that, for this population, the revenue to the school vs. rewards to the athlete was a trade-off. Black college athletes in big college sports generated funds for the school, and they got a fully-funded college degree, in return. A free education was, in my estimation, sufficient compensation. After all, I thought, far too many young pros are forced out of the NFL with broken bodies and no college degrees to fall back on. I was not, however, thinking about those young men who are forced out of college football with broken bodies and barely a year or two of remedial college courses under their belts. Nor was I thinking about the high attrition rate among Black football players in big time sports, half of whom leave school before earning their bachelor’s degrees.

The most striking passage in Lewis’s piece is his discussion of the role of the NCAA in maintaining this complex and dysfunctional relationship between big time football’s highly – paid coaches and athletic directors, the largely middle- and upper-class (and largely white) fans who pack college stadiums, and the uncompensated (disproportionately Black) players. In the following passage Lewis unpacks this disturbing relationship, characterizing the universities as sellers, and the fans as buyers :

[B]etween buyer and seller sits the National Collegiate Athletic Association, to ensure that the universities it polices keep all the money for themselves — to make sure that the rich white folk do not slip so much as a free chicken sandwich under the table to the poor black kids. The poor black kids put up with it because they find it all but impossible to pursue N.F.L. careers unless they play at least three years in college. Less than one percent actually sign professional football contracts and, of those, an infinitesimal fraction ever make serious money. But their hope is eternal, and their ignorance exploitable.

Lewis reminds us that the NCAA allows this unequal relationship based on the notion that colleges are educational institutions, not businesses; and to compensate players beyond the limit of the athletic scholarship would commercialize college sports to a dangerous degree. To that he responds, “College football already is commercialized, for everyone except the people who play it,” and, “If the N.C.A.A. genuinely wanted to take the money out of college football it’d make the tickets free and broadcast the games on public television and set limits on how much universities could pay head coaches.”

The NCAA that Lewis portrays, however, is comfortable with the status quo. As long as the money goes to the coaches, the athletic directors, and the university coffers, a little commercialization (or, in the case of big-time sports powers like Ohio State University and the University of Florida,  a lot of commercialization) of college football is perfectly acceptable. It is only when the players themselves might benefit from the fruits of their labors that the big time football money train comes screeching to a halt. Lewis explains:

the N.C.A.A. confines its anti-market strictures to the players — and God help the interior lineman who is caught breaking them. Each year some player who grew up with nothing is tempted by a booster’s offer of a car, or some cash, and is never heard from again.

The solution — or at least the beginning of the solution — according to Lewis is for all of the parties involved in big time college sports to “get real.” There is pernicious lie, he explains, that exists at the foudation of college football, and this lie enables the current unfair distribution of football-generated wealth to persist:

The lie … goes something like this: serious college football players go to college for some reason other than to play football. These marvelous athletes who take the field on Saturdays and generate millions for their colleges are students first, and football players second. They are like Franciscan monks set down in the gold mine. Yes, they play football, but they have no interest in the money. What they’re really living for is that degree in criminology.

There is so much truth in Lewis’s commentary — and on so many topics — that I could post and respond a great length to each of his major and minor assertions. He does, for example, address the dramatic and much storied academic underachievement of the largely African American big-time football population, reminding us that there are more complicated reasons for the academic failure of these players than a simple lack of brainpower: “It’s not that football players are too stupid to learn. It’s that they’re too busy. Unlike the other student on campus, they have full-time jobs: playing football for nothing.”

In the end, though, all of Lewis’s insightful and at times biting commentary on big time college football is a wake-up call. College football at Williams or Cornell, at Oberlin or Pomona is a labor of love, with players remaining on the squad because they want to (such institutions do not offer football scholarships and players who quite the team see no change in their financial aid status); and for the fans as such insitution, football is both a curiousity and a school-spirit-building source of reverse-pride (“our football team is so bad, you know that the education here must be good”). College football at the Division I-A institutions, on the other hand, is a high-stakes commercial venture whose success or failure in a given years has significant implications not only for the emotional stakeholders (the fans), but for the financial stakeholders, as well.

Until players receive real compensation for their work — in the form either salary payments or, more palatably, in the form of support for their often gravely impoverished families — it will rarely rise above its current status as the worst kind of gladiatorial spectacle — the game itself strategically compelling, and often athletically beautiful, but economically primitive and brutish–  in which the wealthy fans, partisans of one institution or another, enlist disadvantaged and often disenfranchised mercenaries — the poor Black player from the inner city, the financially strapped white player from the rural midwest — to fight their battles for them, to take their hits for them, to risk health, well-being, and the opportunity for real education all in order to earn bragging rights for those legions of rabid enthusiasts.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

Posted in 746, big time sports, Black athletes, Division I, Football, Football scholarships, Higher Education, NCAA

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