The hypocrisy of 'amateur' in big-time college sports

Michigan fans in the stands react to a Michigan fans in the stands react to a play during the first half of an NCAA college football game against the Alabama at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012. (AP Photo/LM Otero) Photo Credit: AP Photo LM Otero

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John Jeansonne Newsday columnist John Jeansonne.

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since 1970 and has covered 11 Olympic Games and ...

Perhaps we all are brainiacs, closer to genius status than we realize.

While continuing to flock to big-time college football and men’s basketball games, even in the face of unseemly sports-wagging-the-academic-dog revelations at such institutions as Penn State and Rutgers, there is solace in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that “the test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

More and more, we are aware of how the sausage is made.

Coaches are paid far more than the school president and the state governor and have more power, ripe for abuse. Players are unpaid workers in a billion-dollar enterprise. Higher education has nothing to do with it.

There really is no avoiding the opposing ideas: Major college sports are magnetic entertainment, but the college sports culture is akin to a swamp. Furthermore, there is no going back, because the root of all evil -- massive amounts of money for athletic departments, increasing exponentially with television rights -- pay for the hypocrisy of the so-called “amateur” operation.

“It’s a fascinating question to consider,” said Ellen Staurowsky, a Drexel University professor of sport management and co-author of the book, “College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA Amateur Myth.” “There is a moral dilemma that everyone associated with college sport is confronted with on a daily basis.”

Staurowsky sees a system “built on so many mythologies and legal fictions that college sport is becoming increasingly problematic. There is layer upon layer of competing conflicts of interests, from the investment of the corporate sector to the institutions of higher learning to gambling interests to the interest of the everyday fan to the interests of the media.

“It becomes less and less an enterprise we can defend and be firmly situated on a high moral ground.”

Xavier University psychology professor Christian End, who has written extensively on fandom, pointed to how “all the conference realignments” roiling college sports the past few years make clear that “if you were oblivious to the business side before, it’s almost impossible to ignore now.” Fans essentially are forced to find comfort in their allegiances and what End called “the downward social comparison”-- that whatever stunts your school is pulling, others are doing worse things.

As an academician, End has heard the long-argued justification for raising and spending enormous amounts of money on college sports in comparison to educational needs.

“The argument that always comes back,” he said, “is that people will go to a game at Michigan and pay $70, but you can’t command those prices for your lectures. And that’s a reality, because sport is such a central part of the culture and so valued.”

So, even as fans are confronted, more and more, with the underside of the endeavor, End reminded that “all this can be on the fans’ minds to think about while driving to the stadium or the arena. But as soon as they get to kickoff, or the ball goes up in the air, the fans’ attention is on the game.”

Opposing ideas held in the mind. A sign of fans’ brilliance? Or… .

“I don’t think we have to accept it as it is,” Staurowsky said. “We’re at a moment where we all should be feeling some shame. But we don’t have to throw up our hands and say, ‘This has been going on for a hundred years.’”

She agreed that the financial powers are beyond reigning in. But her pathway out of the bog is to ‘fess up to the truth and split big-time football and men’s basketball from the amateur, educational process.

“Create a college pro league that serves as a revenue generator for itself,” she said. “You’ll still have tailgating and excitement and athletes associated with your school. But, instead of this barter system with a quasi-educational situation, they would be paid like other employees.”

The players could go to class if they’d like, she said. Plenty of students attend college while earning money. “I do believe firmly in the academic mission of higher education,” Staurowsky said. “But, we’re at the point where colleges and universities have taken on the role of promoters and brokers of athletic talent and mass sports entertainment.

“A decision has to be made. We need to conceive of this as a college/pro league for big-time football and men’s basketball, and the remainder of the athletic department will sort itself out. Acknowledge what it already is, let it be what it is, maybe take it to the NFL to fund it. You could still have a relationship with education, but don’t call it education.

“That will be a soul cleansing, I think, and the have-nots [the smaller college programs trying vainly to keep up] will be put out of their misery.”

And the thinking fan as well.

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