It has been more than ten years since the publication of Murray Sperber’s scathing critique of college sports, Beer and Circus, in which he makes a series of observations about the state of big-time college athletics and its corrosive and corrupting effect on host institutions. Indeed, “host” is appropriate, as the big-money sports are parasitic on universities, making use of their “brand” and built-in base of alumni and supporters, and the captive audience of students who pay for sports whether they wish to or not. Football and basketball coaches are routinely paid more than a million dollars per year—more even than over-compensated presidents. Even when tainted with scandal, as was Jim Tressel, the Ohio State football coach, coaches wield extraordinary power, as reflected in President E. Gordon Gee’s answer, when asked if he would fire Tressel, that he hoped Tressel didn’t fire him. Of course, Tressel was fired in 2011, with Ohio State forfeiting past victories and being placed on probation. That a veteran president such as Gee, head of one of the nation’s largest research universities, would be intimidated by a coach demonstrates the degree to which once peripheral aspects of the university have taken center court.
The firing of coaches is no simple matter. Recently the Auburn football coach, who won the national championship in 2010, was dismissed with several years left on his contract. He walked away with over $3,000.000. Remember, this is a public institution that derives most of its budget from state taxpayers. Are there really no needs in the needy state of Alabama greater than the need to fire a coach who has not won a championship for two years? At the University of Tennessee, two football coaches have been fired in the past three years, with a total cost of $9,000,000. Similar situations have arisen at other public universities across the country.
Although the money available to top programs in basketball and especially football is great, thanks to television contracts and sales of merchandise and tickets, as Sperber shows it is largely a myth that this money benefits the institution. Certainly, none of it goes to academic departments, with the unique exception of Penn State coach Joe Paterno’s personal support of Classics at his university. The few institutions that can afford to make transfer payments to their universities do so into the general fund, which is spent at the discretion of administrators. No doubt some good comes from this money, but this fact can never make up for its corrupting influence. Ironically (or perhaps not), the transfer to academics was the first thing to go in the wake of the Auburn firing.
Conference realignment, much in the news lately, is similarly driven by finances. The University of Maryland, a charter member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, recently left to join the Big Ten, even though that means much longer travel for student-athletes (most of whom play in non-revenue sports such as volleyball or lacrosse) and the abandoning of traditional rivalries. Even more absurd, the Big East has recruited schools such as Boise State University. Geographic and historical considerations, as well as any concern for students’ welfare, have been thrown under the bus (which no longer will be the main mode of travel to sporting venues).
What about the NCAA? Isn’t it supposed to regulate universities and conferences? In theory it is, but in reality it functions as a cartel seeking to maximize profit and minimize cost, while giving the sordid business a patina of respectability. Its first priority is to prevent reasonable compensation of athletes. All, of course, in the name of the cult of amateurism. As Joe Nocera of the New York Times has documented, this mainly takes the form of patently racist and classist persecution of African-American athletes, who can be easily accused of misdeeds and not provided an opportunity to defend themselves. In particular, those who cannot afford to travel to a campus (which middle class folks think a virtual right) and rely on family friends to pay their way can come under scrutiny if those family friends are judged not to be such. (In one egregious case documented by Nocera. a basketball player at UCLA has been suspended because of such a trip to the campuses of UNC and Duke, although the person paying for the trip had known his father for more than ten years—presumably before it was obvious that the boy would become a college prospect).
This scenario is reminiscent of the situation with adjuncts. In both cases the exploitation of an entire class of people supports a big-money environment that invites corruption. Just like adjuncts, who suffer not only from poverty but health problems resulting from stress and overwork, student-athletes, who must often spend thirty hours per week practicing, training, playing, and of course traveling, suffer. As they are often admitted without concern for their academic qualifications, this is especially troubling. They are clearly tempted by promises of future success in the pros—usually empty promises. Indeed, the basketball program at the University of Kentucky—another reputable research university—is predicated on “one and done”—the idea that the “student-athletes” will stay only one year. Add to this the real risk of injury, especially in football, and we see that the prospects of the student-athlete, especially if minority and poor, is bleak indeed.
Injuries, and the likelihood of a class-action suit by concussion victims, is one of the likeliest drivers of change in college athletics. However, institutions should not wait to be catastrophically sued to reform. As I urged in my previous column, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has a unique opportunity during Obama’s second term to avert these crises in higher education. At the very least, coaches’ salaries should be regulated and student-athletes should be paid a stipend. Revenue sports should be allowed to form professional teams loosely affiliated with universities (sharing facilities and branded merchandise). In the end, the stakes are too high not to undertake radical reform.
Michael E Harkin is a cultural anthropologist and ethnohistorian at the University of Wyoming. He is editor of the journal Reviews in Anthropology and co-editor of Ethnohistory.