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oib

I can't agree with Malcolm on this one.

As far as I can tell, the argument vis a vis revenue sharing should really only apply to college athletes in two sports, men's football and basketball, right? These two sports, as far as I am aware, are the only two sports that generate meaningful revenue for colleges. So notwithstanding the large number of scholarship athletes on football teams, the vast majority of athletes in college can hardly be regarded as exploited. It's very difficult to make the argument in any other sports that the NCAA benefits more than the students, who are doing something they love, having a great time, and getting a college education for free.

So the essence of the injustice according to Gladwell is the lack of compensation for athletes in major football and men's basketball programs, who are the only the only athletes who could realistically make a case for compensation on the basis of revenue sharing. And even there the revenue sharing case isn't very strong. Most college football programs, which often have ten times aa many scholarships athletes as basketball programs, dont make money. And In general, the more profitable a program, the more chance its athletes will later benefit by becoming professional, which is of course why the prized recruits who make these programs great choose those schools. If you are a member of the USC or Miami football teams, which do generate substantial revenues, your chances are much better than average of making it to the next level, and are greatly enhanced by the same attention which makes the sports so profitable for those colleges. It's hard to feel sorry for college football players, by and large, especially given the god like status and outsized recognition given to members of the team while they are on campus. I do feel sorry for Mr. Mcelrathbey, but its hard to see why an exception can be made in his case, since quite clearly the only reason he is being offered help is as a result of his presence on a top tier athletic program. These offers are hardly something he should be entitled to by natural right and bending the rules for cases like his would soon lead to obvious corruption and abuses.

In my mind, the only real clear injustic regarding college sports is college basketball, where players are currently prohibited from going to the NBA in their first year out of high school, unlike hockey and baseball, despite the fact its the sport where 18 year olds can most easily compete at a professional level. This is a clear injustice, propagated by the NBA, but that benefits colleges hugely. They, hypocriticallIy, rent players for a year or two, with no regard for the amateur ideal. I can see a real case for paying basketball players, since generally these programs make money, but in the final analysis, what really would be achieved by making a special exemption for men's basketball players?

It's also hard to know also how a system which paid college football and basketball players would work. Who shoule benefit on these teams? Wouldn't we be paying a great deal more to a few star athletes, like Brett Bomar. Should Brody Quinn be paid to quarterback Notre Dame, which will probably earn him a multi-million dollar contract in a few years. If he is paid should he really be paid the same as his offensive linemen or kicker? I think that in practice what Gladwell suggests will end up looking far worse on the murky margins he is using to argue against the current system, since it will mean paying a few athletes in a few sports a great deal more than all the others, which will be unseemly to say the least, and will be even more so when these salaried collegians then go on to to make millions of dollars playing pro sports. Its hard to imagine any system where the spoils could be equitably shared without undermining the ethos of a collegiate team sport.

seth

interesting post. as an alumni of a big time div1 football program where football is religion with a capital R (think SEC conference) I thought I would share some of my thoughts.

There are many misconceptions about the so-called 'free' degree these student-athletes receive. First of all, during the season they are practicing, lifting weights or watching films for approximately 4 hrs a day including very early in the morning. Their every meal is monitored as well as most of their free day time. Most of the top tier players have 'advisors' and assistants watching their every move. This plus the pressures of performing and having entire towns recognize you and constantly harrass you is not the sort of thing most 18-20 yr olds can handle very well in addition to trying to actually study and get good grades. There is little to no time for studying and the fact is the they are pushed into taking the easiest and least taxing classes as possible. How does this prepare them for life outside of athletics? What freshman or sophomore would say "no thank you please don't give me the answers to tomorrows exam I would prefer to study and learn it for myself"?

There is also the issue of the enormous sums of $$ the uni's are making off these kids - Chris Webber, UofMich fabfive fame, sued the school to not use his name on the jersey's they were selling (which by the way reaped millions in revenue) and won. At many schools the athletic dep't is separate, with separate dorms, finances, etc... as stated the coaches, the schools and everyone else involved are making millions why not let the players?

Lastly, consider the race issue, other (mainly white) sports tennis, golf, hockey, baseball (although now baseball is more latino) allow players of just about any age. Football and the NFL (with an assist to the NCAA) do not allow young (majority black) players to enter when the market determines nor does the NBA (although they have lowered the age requirement in recent years and most of the best pros have bypassed the sham that is the NCAA, ie Lebron James, Kobe, T Mcgrady, not too mention all the foreign players)

wes

Gladwell is right to observe what's obvious to any disinterested person. Professionalized college athletics are a big business whose business model is based on a cruel lie. It prospers by exploiting the fiction of amateurism to deny sharing its profits with the athletes. This is a form of grotesque mendacity.

But it's an index of how money and power constrict our moral imagination that the only remedy to this mendacity that Gladwell can think to advocate as a cure for this mendacity is to compound it. One way to be consistent in our lies about college athletics is to permit professionalized programs to continue to rake in money and then make allowances for the players to share in that profit.

This is Gladwell's suggestion, as it has been the suggestion of others, and it makes sense in its own terms. But we should be thinking of all that this proposal excludes.

A better way to be consistent and actually to be honest would be to simply forbid professionalized college athletics by enforcing consistent academic standards on student athletes and to make it so that athletes are (once again) genuinely representative of the student body.

Aspiring professional athletes would be free to sign with a developmental league of their choice to train for their chosen career, rather than engaging in a charade of being a college student.

Collegiate athletes would be student-athletes again instead of defacto professionals who by their very presence on campus, corrupt the morals and the mission of the university, which is the pursuit of scholarship, the advancement of knowledge, and not only the technical, but the moral education of its students.

The extent to which the phrases I've just spoken sound like hollow, stiff, and empty cliches is the extent to which our cynicism has collaborated with our moral abdication. Universities really are founded for this purpose, and engaging in transparently mendacious practices really does corrupt everything that has to do with the university.

This is, of course not a "realistic" solution. Wherever there are interested parties making money by doing a crooked thing, we assume that this crooked thing can't be changed. And so we become complicit in the ambient and inescapable mendacity of our public life. To the extent that we treat these things as inescapable, we make them unreformable in the imagination, and, by extension, unreformable in fact.

I agree with everything Gladwell says in his piece, but it's my view that in addition to making the "realistic" point, it's the responsibility of reforming journalists or crusading citizens to look at the bigger picture and the larger truth.

JVD

This all brings me to my point about the beauty of D-III athletics. As a D-III volleyball coach I have the privelege of coaching student athletes who receive no athletic scholarships and play for the love of the game. JVD

RSaunders

Why can't the colleges/universities simply license the rights to their football (or other) programs to managing entity and let that entity run the team as it sees fit. We could do away with the fiction of the athletes as students, and everyone continues to make their money. The university could still institute control/influence by refusing to renew the license to people who do "bad things" (e.g., hire lots of athletes who are wifebeaters, drug addicts), but it places those sports in a box that preserves the chastity (or "viriginity") of the university itself.

It could also help get around Title IX issues: because the teams are not part of the college (they only exist if somebody pays for the rights to the team and its management is outside the university--presumably you'd have Board of Trust members like Auburn's Bobby Lowder leave the university to join the football board, which is where they should be anyway), we don't have to worry about the imbalances of resources between football and women's field hockey, since non-football sports are balanced male-female in team size, and, except for football and men's basketball, all college sports are effectively non-revenue. In this world male and female sports run by the university itself would be funded out of the profits of the licensed sports and other university money. Just like intramural teams.

The other benefit is that this is effectively how the system runs now.

Christopher Horn

Wes,

I very much enjoyed your post, particularly your characterization of the cynical ease with which we dismiss those who would crusade for the educational mission of big-time college football/basketball factories, er universities.

Indeed, the status quo at these factories, I mean universities, is that underprepared students will be shuffled along in preparation for a 50 to 1 shot at a professional athletic career, of a scant few years' duration, with seven figure salaries during those years, and then the faint echo of reflected glory thereafter.

We pollyannas imagine an alternative world, where big time sports factory schools 'enforced' educational achievement, imposing the onerous burden of a credible degree on their student athletes, thereby providing (let's say) a 4-1 shot at a long, prosperous career as a six- or seven-figure doctor, lawyer, businessman, or similar.

This week's Sports Illustrated has a profile of Pat Tillman, who is quoted (in oversized text):

"Just because it hasn't been done doesn't mean it can't be done".

Sometimes, the thing that hasn't been done, but needs to be done, is so obvious that one would hope it wouldn't require a hero of Tillman's stature to make change occur.

TBrann

First of all, you insist on using a marginal case to make your point. In the vast, vast, VAST, number of cases, the NCAA code works just fine. Also, the truth is that these guys are paid. A full paid scholarship is worth, what, over $150,000, not to mention that they get treated like gods for the most part. When you consider the raw number of athletes getting that kind of treatment, especially in football, and when you consider that less that 5% ever play pro ball, well, it's a pretty good deal!

And if that means that they can't cash in from some moronic booster who doesn't have a life and would gladly pay an athlete to hang around his car dealership and is willing to do so for an absurd amount of money, well, then give me the NCAA rule book any time.

Look, you should know better, in the case of this one kid, the rules don't do what they intend to do. An adjustment could be made and nobody would be for the worse. Things get complicated, however, when you've got thousands appealing rules. Besides, I think the NCAA does have some kind of hearing committe to review such cases.

Bottom line is that college sports, particularly football and basketball, work and they work spectacularly. I'm always amazed at these people who think they are going to "fix" things by getting rid of the NCAA and making things more like, ta da, PRO SPORTS! My god, pro sports are a horror. In the quest to give a "wage" they treat people like goods to be used, sold, and discarded. Yeah, that's a great idea for thousands and thousands of 18-21 year olds who are never going to be good enough for the pros anyway.

Your point is taken: the system could be tweaked, but stop it with the "abolish" nonsense. You are way off base.

WD

College athletes should be paid. The idea that everyone benefits from the athletes except the athletes themselves is old and valid. Pay them a stipend to help out all cases, not just the exceptional cases mentioned above.

In contrast to what some have said, the NCAA is broken. It's a mish-mash of rules that are contradictory. Not only that, but the power conferences are favored big time. The NCAA exists to serve all schools, not just the important ones.

CathyB

Each time I read a discussion of college sports I am surprised at how we treat sports as a unique field. It’s illuminating to compare the way we view and handle sports to how we handle performing arts such as acting and singing.

Consider: They’re both talent-based disciplines, which can be enhanced by study but whose mastery cannot be captured by SAT scored or traditional school tests. They are also both fields in which many people participate recreationally as well as consume the work of professionals. From both performing arts and sports, average people can participate to gain practical physical and emotional benefits. And they’re also both fields in which many people aspire to fame and fortune, in which children across the country take classes in, but in which a relative minority can earn a healthy living. But the popular industries surrounding both these fields are immensely powerful in terms of both cultural influence and economic power.

At college, casual participation in both is commonly handled through recreation/student affairs departments, but serious participation is handled very differently between sports and the arts.

Institutions that want to attract serious artists set up colleges or schools staffed by faculty who study the field. They have majors and departments and equipment and scholarships and internships and museums and encourage their students to become professionals and scholars and participate in the growth of the field.

On the other hand, institutions that are serious about sports have potentially sports-related majors and classes (such as kinesiology, sports medicine, sports marketing, leadership, strategy, sports history, etc.) offered by many departments and unaffiliated with the actual sports offered by the school. They have equipment and scholarships and advisors and heavy sports-related schedules, but they require “student-athletes” to be students in something things other than the sports which earned them a place in the institution to begin with. And although colleges triumphantly celebrate the success of students who go on to professional sports, they carefully separate their curriculum so that it doesn’t directly prepare them for it (rather than, for example, giving student-athletes internships with pro teams)

When I was in college, I felt that the underlying dishonesty associated with this ruse was so pervasive and obvious that the only way to fix it was to make all college sports truly amateur and create non-college minor leagues for those few big-name sports that attracted the worst of the problems. I think it was a reaction to seeing all the horror stories of abusive athletes and their perks or the ironic flip side of the poor exploited athlete who makes millions for the college but graduates with no useful skills because professors just passed the student through easy classes in a major about which he didn’t care.

What I now wish for is a utopia where athletes who love the sport have to take the same core courses everyone else does, but then focus on their majors learning things like competitive strategy, team psychology, sports management, health and nutrition, mass communication, negotiation, coaching, or one of a large number of other topics that would be so useful for athletes that they’d want to study and the coach-professors would prioritize their study. And all of these skills are useful. And playing competitively would be part of the their major in the same way that theatre majors are expected to participate in plays. And for the athletes who wanted to study, say, both high-level track as well as pre-med, they would be require to double-major just like any other student with multiple deep and unrelated interests.

In this unlikely utopia, students and alumni of the institution would be rightly proud of the athletes who study at their school – since they’re then truly part of the student body and every one could be proud of the major-relevant skills that earned them their scholarships and acceptance. Athletic directors would be replaced by athletic deans or chairs that would have no more power than then other deans or chairs. The fields of sports would be studied together in professional schools perhaps more comparable to business or hospitality schools as much as traditional fine arts schools, but the precedents are there. And the NCAA would devolve into two organizations – one part accreditation organization to police the rigor and honesty of the programs, and one part a professional organization (like the IEEE!) to act as a bridge between academia and industry.

That’s how I’d do it, anyway.

Merle

Putting aside the question of whether college athletes should be paid, I wanted to address "the idea that a regulatory agency can have jurisdiction over the entire life of athlete." Malcolm claims it's "outrageous" that the NCAA seeks to regulate the outside behavior of Bomar and McElrathbey.

But the restrictions are solely tied to their participation in NCAA sanctioned athletic events. Bomar and McElrathbey are free to take money from car dealers and well wishers, but they cannot accept that money and play in NCAA sports. They are free to take the money and go to school. They just can't be NCAA sanctioned athletes. And while there is definitely an element of market control on the part of the NCAA (we're the only ones who can make money from our sporting events and athletes) it is common in every other walk of life. Policemen cant fraternize with mobsters, federal employees can't work for campaigns and even pro athletes are contractually prohibited from certain risky activities (I'm looking at you Jeff Kent).

While the NCAA restrictions may not be a wise policy, an effective means to achieving the organization's goals or even in the athlete's best interest, they aren't really "outrageous."

Nick

Mr. Gladwell,

Thank you for spending time addressing the absurdity of the NCAA. As a former NCAA athelete, I have always felt it is absurd that the ones who do all of the work and sacrifice the most, are the ones rewarded the least and punished so severely.

The worst part is that the atheletes who can see through the charade that is the NCAA and also have the ability to leave it behind are often vilified for skipping out and going pro. How can they possibly be blamed for this? Most of their life, they have made money for somebody else, and the life of an elite athelete is extremely fragile--one wrong move and injury could end your career instantly. Can they be blamed for trying to make some money for themselves before the window of opportunity closes?

david gordon

Just a note, the NCAA voted to give McElrathbey an exemption to earn more than the maximum allowed to college athletes. Maybe stories like these prompted that.

lara may

outrageous

Nick

Here is a link to an article by an SI writer on the McElrathbey exemption: http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/columns/story?columnist=wojciechowski_gene&id=2586435

JVD

Keep up the pressure Gladwell!

Nathan Schiller

Gladwell's right. There's no other way to put it. Emotionally, I agree with him. But, at the same time, for the vast majority of scholarship "student-athletes" who are not going to play their sport professionally, they are receiving a college education and diploma at a very, very reduced price in the (tens of) thousands of dollars. So there's that. And to compound the issue, where would you draw the line, and how would you differentiate, between cases like Rhomar, the Clemson kid and every other "normal" college athlete who subconsciously lets a family friend who happens to be a booster pick up a dinner check? In other words, the trick is to write rules that decide who gets paid, how much they get paid, under what jurisdiction they can get paid, while being totally fair and honest to all parties involved. Of course, once non-professionals get paid, whatever little bit of "amateurism" remains will be thrown out the window forever.

In any case, if this broad subject interests you, check out the book "Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education," written by one of my old college professors, Murray Sperber. It's a fascinating study with a compelling thesis, and Sperber is a great guy (now retired; I got lucky to get him in his last semester).

http://www.bloomington.in.us/~sperber/

Adam Morse

Check out this article on ESPN about the McElrathbey brothers at- http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/columns/story?columnist=wojciechowski_gene&id=2586435
I didn't realize this at the time of reading your article, but I am dissapointed that you didn't note the fact that the NCAA had not yet turned down the McElrathbey brothers from special treatment, I think your judgment was a little premature.

Mike Currie

There's a huge flaw in everyone's logic here. You all assume that the NCAA sanctions exist only to maintain some false ideology that keeps the athlete on the bottom of the totem pole so to speak, in college athletics. What no one seems to see are those athletes that aren't star quarterbacks or cornerbacks at major universities. Rhett Bomar only got into this trouble because he was the starting QB at Zero U. Does anyone think the third string left guard or long snapper could have gotten the same deal? What about the fifth year senior who has killed himself for 5 years, and fought injury, not to be star, but to be a part of the team? Who's extending their gratiousness to those guys? The same goes for athletes in less profitable sports. As a former Shot Putter, I can tell you that track scholarships (nevermind payments of any kind) were meager at best. Does anyone think that national champion swimmers or cross country runners would cash in to the tune that even mediocre point guards or wide receivers would at major programs? Despite what the NCAA claims it's purpose is, these things are the real benefit: To keep all college athletes on a level playing field, not just the popular athletes at the popular schools.

David Isser

I think that it's important to make a distinction between the two cases of Bomar and McElrathbey. Bomar is clearly taking advantage of his situation and trying to exploit his materialistic talents on the football field in the capitalism/marketting setting. The other guys is tyring to provide some money for his family and raise his brother. Just from a moral standpoint, Bomar is much more of a jerk then the other guy...

Dean Wermer

In the case of the Oklahoma car dealership, perhaps the dealership could push a claim against the universithy and the ncaa based upon tortious interference with contract/business relationship (a legal cause of action in certain jurisdictions). After all, the ncaa and university have interfered with their business and have effectively defamed the dealership as abetting cheating.

Dean Wermer

McElrathbey may also be able to claim some type of interference based claim. After all, the ncaa’s actions were intentional and caused him and his family significant damages. In a world of very clever lawyers, who have successfully pursued and won on a whole variety of claims that reasonable people might find specious, it’s hard to believe the plaintiffs bar could not successfully pursue a claim against the (very deep pocketed) ncaa. One of the problems with pursuing claims against the ncaa by athletes is that the athlete has a short college shelf life and litigation can take years. Litigation is also expensive and may in itself damage the marketability of the athlete. However, because the ncaa effectively has a presence in all fifty states, I would think the plaintiff bar would have the great advantage of being able to cherry pick the best jurisdiction for any such claim.

Carlton Gray

First of all I would like to say that I wholeheartedly agree with the article. The NCAA is one of the most hypocritical organizations in the United States. The colleges make millions of dollars off their “student/athletes” while all the athletes get at most are free tuition, which is nothing compared to the endorsements and gifts that they could receive if they weren’t hindered by this amateurism thing. More importantly, these "student/athletes" cant fully focus on being a student-or an athlete. But an easy solution is to have a minor league that the players could go to rather than going to college right out of high school. It would be similar to the US army in the fact that the athletes could be paid for 4 years of service in the minor league, while at the same time making enough money to make a living. The minor leagues could even have it where a portion of the players’ salaries are deposited into a separate account so that the players who do not make it professionally can go to college and have something to fall back on. Not only would this allow the players to focus all of their attention on their sport/job, but after their career is over it would allow them to fully focus on school rather than having them coast through college and get a degree that they didn’t truly earn. The concept of the “student/athlete” is completely idiotic, because it is impossible to focus 100% on school and 100% on being an elite athlete. At most, all these “student/athletes” can hope to achieve is 50/50. And last time I checked a 50 grade would be an F. As it currently stands, both the college and the sport is being cheated, so separating the two is the most logical thing that could possibly be done.

Luke Middleton

You are right, Malcolm: the absolute factor is the issue.

The NCAA does not want any college athlete to receive any form of compensation for their athletic abilities.

Yet, elite schools hand out scholarships to kids whose academic applications may or may not have carried any weight on their own. What's the financial savings given to athlete who don't pay tuition at Miami, Michigan, UCLA, or Ohio State? What's the value of a communications degree from Syracuse?

Peter Tousignant

Hello Mr. Gladwell,

I think you are spot on in your assessment that Hello Mr. Gladwell,

No doubt the NCAA is broken in many ways. Stories like those of Mr. McElrathbey’s plight cause us to wonder whether the NCAA is nothing more than proof that perfection is the enemy of the good. But then we read headlines like “Yahoo: Bush accepted over $100,000: Heisman in question; USC may face possible sanctions” (from http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2006/football/ncaa/09/14/bush.investigation.ap/index.html) and realize that we need some way of punishing those who will break whatever rules are in place.

Even if we get rid of the NCAA, there will certainly be some governing body that will set some rules for the activities of collegiate athletes. The rules might not be as stringent or complex as those imposed by the NCAA, but they will be have to be enforceable nonetheless. What will we do with those athletes who break the new rules, as well as those agents and coaches who encourage the athletes to do so?

Clearly the NCAA needs reforms, but the public needs assurances that any compensation athletes receive is gotten according to the new set of rules. If we have a select minority of superstar athletes secretly getting paid more money than they are allowed, the mentality that led to the NCAA’s current strict posture will undoubtedly make a repeat appearance.

Jason Geer

Mr. Gladwell:

It seems the light you shone on Mr. McElrathbey's situation has paid off...the NCAA is allowing people to make donations to this young man...

Please see http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/columns/story?columnist=wojciechowski_gene&id=2586435

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