Thursday, September 25, 2003

Sports: Breaking Down the System

My colleague Eric McErlain offers his usual valuable insight, here on the larger issues in the Maurice Clarett case:
But what I cannot get over, is the singular fact that athletes in many other sports regularly turn professional before their 18th birthdays. Here in North America, we've been conditioned to simply shrug when we see teenage girls become instant millionaires after stepping of the balance beam, ice rink, or tennis court.

In Europe, professional soccer teams regularly sign boys before their 18th birthday, and most maintain a feeder system of players that can include local pre-teens who aspire to one day don their kits as professionals. In Canada, parents enthusiastically ship their sons across the country in their early teens to play major junior hockey -- a de facto professional league that is acknowledged as the best path to the NHL.

Are the young men who play college football any less professional than their counterparts in the minor leagues of any other sport? I don't think so, and the rules and regulations governing their conduct ought to be radically changed to acknowledge that fact.

At bottom, college football players at larger institutions essentially function as full time employees, albeit ones charged with the responsibility of representing thier institution and helping to raise its public profile. It's far past time that their work as professionals be recognized by the rules of the NCAA, and the rule of law as well.
The NCAA's philosophy of "amateurism" is obscene and irrational on every level. It's not that amateurism per se--playing a sport for enjoyment of the game without compensation--is bad. When practiced voluntarily, it is usually a virtue. But when amateur status is forced upon an entire class of athletes by institutions that actively seek financial profit for themselves, that is a moral wrong. Ohio State does not run its football program as a charity but as a revenue-producing arm of a larger corporate entity. The funds generated by football finance other athletic and university programs. Yet a key component of that revenue's producers, the athletes, are told they are wrong to seek full compensation for their efforts. In the eyes of the higher education elite, it is moral for a school to use football revenues to finance insolvent women's sports teams, but immoral to give football players even a modest monthly stipend. This is altruism at its classic worst.

We must also note that Ohio State, and many other NCAA schools, are government-run institutions. This makes the NCAA's moral corruption a matter of legitimate public concern. If I were a state legislator or governor, I would do everything in my power to prevent taxpayer-supported institutions from belonging to the NCAA or any other organization that promotes amateurism as a moral ideal. To condone the NCAA's behavior under color of government authority is no different from accepting the Mafia as a legitimate form of business organization.

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