Used Commodities and the NCAA

By Don Rollins

Fellow left-leaning sports fans in sore need of distraction this side of a debt-limit Democratic meltdown, let us bow our heads and thank the gridiron gods for the return of that venerable cultic clash of clans known as college football.

Think of it: In a few short weeks we’ll be donning our chosen tribe’s outlandish liturgical colors, complete with a digit or two and somebody else’s name on the back (as if that were a completely reasonable sartorial option for anybody north of puberty). Yep, we’ll be tailgate-scarfing wiener dogs on Wonder buns and chasing ‘em down with Natty Light. And all will be well once more. But no matter how many rabid tailgaters stagger through the turnstiles, no matter how many diaspora fans sidle up to the big screen, let us also remember that college football is, in the end, a corporate enterprise. It’s about product, trademark and bottom lines. It’s “Mad Men” with a pig skin. It’s the football division of its parent company, the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association).

And behind the product, trademark and bottom line are the student-athletes – 60-105 young men (depending on division level and home/travel squad caps) – up to roughly two-thirds of whom receive scholarships. They lift, run and study tape; then they go out and butt heads and risk permanent injury. While we watch.

But at some level we’re really watching used commodities – employees without pay; indentured servants playing on Saturday in the slim hope of playing on Sunday.

How slim? According to the NCAA’s own statistics, only 6% (1 in 16) of high school seniors make the college ranks. And of those college players just 2% (1 in 50) will be drafted by an NFL team. So the odds against playing on Sunday are daunting; but the scholarships and sheer possibility of the pros are more than enough to keep the rosters full.

And the NCAA’s unchecked corporatism doesn’t stop with the players. Like society itself, there is an ever-widening revenue gap between have and have-not members of the Association.

Example: While the University of Akron regularly relies on non-football revenue to supplement its program, a robust 58% of big name schools (such as my recently duly disgraced Ohio State) net a median $9 million per year. The refusal to consider anything approaching a profit sharing model virtually guarantees that small-school programs remain small. It’s a headquarters approved, sporting version of class warfare.

In these and other ways, college football has morphed into the modern day equivalent of the 1920s-style coal operator, profiting on the backs of hungry man/child workers and promoting economic Darwinism among its subsidiaries. No pay for the athletes. No room at the grownup table for the little programs.

Even in a perfect world, collegiate sports would still need the NCAA. It’s an upholder of essential standards, practices and educational thresholds for a plethora of sports. But right now those standards should be more substantive than chasing players who sell game jerseys or pick up free ink at a cross-campus tat shop. They ought to be about fairness and a plan to make it happen.

So whether it’s a ticket surcharge deposited in escrow or some better idea, until something changes, the NCAA will remain a co-conspirator in parasitical financial injustice against those whose talent and determination wow us and distract us when we need it most. P.S. Two avenues of activism on this one: 1. Contact your local college/university athletic director and make your case. The ADs have great influence at the conference level; 2. Mark Emmert is the current president of the NCAA. His email is He could be the catalyst.

Rev. Don Rollins is Interim Minister, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, N.C. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2011

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