Over the years the line between exploitation, expediency and greed has become increasingly blurred throughout all aspects of our lives. Nowhere is this more evident than in big-time college sports that have become a hundred of billions of dollars Ponzi scheme where the universities, conference corporate leaders, and media moguls are capitalizing on the fruits of young 18–22-year-old athletes whose hopes and dreams of a future for themselves and their families are seldom realized.
Father Theodore Hesburgh the universally respected president of Notre Dame for almost 30 years opined upon his retirement about the problem of universities “using athletes”. He stated—”If an athlete comes to Notre Dame and doesn’t graduate (with a meaningful degree—.) then the university has used the athlete for its own purposes, and it should be ashamed. If they come to the university and graduate, they have used us, and we should all be proud”. That of course was stated several years before Notre Dame signed its first $40million contract with NBC sports for exclusive coverage of Notre Dame Football.
And of course, if Notre Dame doesn’t put a good product on the field the prospects for future million and maybe in the long term billion-dollar contracts goes away. To secure and leverage the future Notre Dame had to lower admission standards, and pressure was put on coaches to recruit talent, and if that talent doesn’t produce as expected—get rid of the player so a scholarship spot could be reused for another player that might be better. I am sure nowhere does the GPA or major of the disposed “scholar athlete” become part of the equation.
Economic theories from as desperate a group as Adam Smith, Abraham Lincoln, Karl Marx, Von Hayek and Milton Friedman all agree that economies are all built “in the first instance upon labor” —Lincoln. As Lincoln opined in an address to farmers at the State Fair in Wisconsin, labor after a few years invests, and when it has invested a certain amount it employs others, and then after a few years it invests not only in labor but in machines and other businesses. There is a clear path between the laborer and the capitalist. In efficient economies that path is easily undertaken by those who take advantage of first their labor and then their ingenuity. The most efficient economic systems are those where “human capital” is deployed in such a matter that relatively early in the life of the laborer they can begin to invest in themselves and their economy.
College athletes overall graduate at a higher rate than the general population of students that enter as freshman. Certain sports programs like swimming and gymnastics graduate at a high rate with meaningful majors that will immediately put them into a position in a welcoming economy. In certain programs like football and men’s basketball the graduation rates are lower than the general student population, but that doesn’t tell the entire story because many of the majors are dead end streets.
Name Image and likeness (NIL) programs that allow young athletes to capitalize on their celebrity in the short term, do not necessarily lead to long term financial security for themselves or their families. The transfer portal (TP) where students can leave institutions on a prn bases certainly lessons the value of the investment in their human capital. Playing a sport becomes more important than investing in an education. If a college scholarship isn’t an investment in education and the future, then what is it? How many college football players make it to the NFL—less than 5%. How many NFL players are bankrupt after 5 years of retiring—it is estimated the number is close to 50%! How many Joey Burroughs are there—1!
In the Weekend Wall Street Journal is an article announcing that Oregon and Washington are going to join the Big TEN Conference. The Big 10 just struck a 6-year television deal worth $6.2 billion and those universities wanted a piece of the action. I am sure they will build fancier and bigger athletic facilities, but will their graduation rates in meaningful majors go up? The athletes have become “the means of production” and will become further marginalized and commoditized—is indentured to harsh a word? Fifty years ago, the Pac 8 was recognized not only for its athletic teams, but for the academic standards that the student athletes had to maintain to have the honor of participating.
Many years ago, my son and I watched a college football game in San Francisco between Stanford and Cal Berkely. At halftime we witnessed a funny half time show with an important message. The living Nobel Laureates from the opposing institutions stood at the fifty-yard line for a five minute “Stare-Down”. One of the student newspapers opined that the transfer of information over that short period of time had never happened in “the history of the world”. I am sure that the events in the “UPPER ROOM” on Holy Thursday didn’t enter into their thinking! The message was also clear. We are two of the best academic institutions in the world and if you are serious about your education come to Stanford or Cal
In 1936 the University of Washington rowing team, a truly amateur team, beat a professional German team in the Olympic eight-man crew gold medal race, an event memorialized in the book THE BOYS IN THE BOAT written by Daniel James Brown. The book was about teamwork and how the best 8 individual rowers didn’t row as a team as well as the best team of 8 rowers. During their college years on summer breaks the team worked in various jobs all requiring hard manual labor—several on the Grand Coulee Dam near Spokane. These individuals that were turned into a team went on to incredible professional achievements. Their academic life at UW was complimented and completed by their athletic lives.
During reconstruction, many Black educators like Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver recognized the value of “work-classroom” education. Called the “Hampton Model” after Hampton Institute, institutions like Tuskegee and College of the Ozarks still offer such programs. In almost all our College and Universities you can find students working in cafeterias, as TAs, or on lawn maintenance crews. The connection between work and the value of an education becomes a reality for these students. Many other students work summer jobs, and more than a few join the military and wait 5 years and then use the next generation of the GI Bill to pay for their education. Most of the latter group graduate in much less than 4 years. Such experiences provide an opportunity to assess value through work, of an education. When one must work for an education, I seriously doubt they will have “basket weaving” for a major. The cost of the investment would not be worth the potential return.
I was lucky to play small college sports for Hall of Fame Coaches. Though I was an average athlete, my coaches and my professors cared about my future. If it was Devine Providence or luck—I believe the former, they helped shape my future and I will be forever in debited to them. Today it would be very difficult for me to have the access to the opportunities I had then if I were a D-1 scholar athlete.
In High School, I played for another legendary Hall of Fame Coach who at the end of every practice and game huddled with his coaches and asked, “Did we today make better boys”. That was the purpose of his coaching. To teach and make better people. With (NIL) and the (TP) are we making better people? Are we even giving them the opportunity for an education and to become a contributing member of society and to help provide for their families? Or are we just using them to get to the next billion-dollar TV contract?