Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Musing About March Madness and Money Part II The Inequality of Commercialism in Big-Time College Sports

Drew Koch
Vice President for New Strategy, Development, and Policy Initiatives

This is the second part of this three-part blog on big-time college sports. 

In my first installment, I contextualized the overall commercial nature of Division I college athletics – particularly men’s football and basketball – and I made the case that this commercialized nature exploits student athletes. I also argued that, for better or worse, big-time college sports are (and will be) commercial, and thus it would only be reasonable to acknowledge this and use market approaches to benefit (as opposed to exploit) the student athletes who are filling coffers while they are not completing degrees.

In this blog installment, I delve a bit deeper into just who is being exploited by the inequitable big-time college sport system.

This inequitable situation – where student athletes get very little in return for the revenue that they generate for the “big-time college sports” complex – once prompted the former Indiana University and National Basketball Association star Isaiah Thomas to comment:
When you go to college, you’re not a student-athlete but an athlete-student. Your main purpose is not to be an Einstein but a ballplayer, to generate some money, put people in the stands. Eight or ten hours of your day are filled with basketball, football. The rest of your time you’ve got to motivate yourself to make sure you get something back.
Unfortunately, the number of players in big-time college sports who seem to “get something back” is not as large as it should be – particularly for those who play men’s basketball and football. For example, Zimbalist shared in Unpaid Professionals that the graduation rate for the four teams that went to the 1996 NCAA final four men’s basketball tournament was 25%; and that nine teams included on the final NCAA Division I men’s basketball top-twenty five list during that same academic year had a graduation rate of 0%.  That right, zero – an outcome that let Zimbalist to conclude, “Large numbers of student athletes . . . are harmed by the system because they get neither an education nor a degree.” 

While this conclusion is valid for nearly all athletes in big-time sport universities today, it rings seemingly louder for African-Americans who are disproportionately represented on the teams fielded by the big-time sport institutions. In Intercollegiate Athletics and the American University, Duderstadt commented, “Basketball and football are dominated by talented black players, whose representation in these sports programs far exceeds their presence elsewhere in the university.”

Adding to this line of thinking in his book Air Ball: American Education’s Failed Experiment with Elite Athletics, John Gerdy notes how participation in college sports, and the obtainment of a scholarship that goes with it, is largely associated with the promotion of educational opportunity by the broader public. However, Gerdy laments, “With black basketball and football players graduating in the mid 30 to mid 40 percent range, respectively, earning an athletic scholarship under the current system is little more than an opportunity to play ball.”  Gerdy concludes that American educational institutions perpetuate, 
a dangerous and counterproductive cultural myth. Specifically far too many parents and youngsters believe sports, rather than education, is the ticket to future success . . . This impact is particularly prevalent in the black community. One only needs to consider the previously mentioned NCAA graduation rates to realize that, in many cases, this is a cruel hoax.
This hoax runs deep – as many hoaxes do.  Citing a Harris Poll that reported “that an incredible 43 percent of high school African American athletes believe they will make the pros,” the sports commentator Frank DeFord asked, “How many of them are nurtured to think this way because all they hear and see about black collegians is associated with athletics?”  (Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates also commented on the “big-time sports as educational opportunity” hoax in Breaking the Silence, a 2004 opinion piece published in the New York Times.)

Hoaxes.  Exploitation. Profits without promised outcomes. All of this leads me to some “What if” questions.  That shared, you’ll have to read the upcoming third and final installment of this series – Musing About March Madness and Money Part III:
“What If” Questions – to learn what I ask.  For now, if the spirit moves you, please comment on what I have shared; and, as always, thanks for reading.

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