March 29, 2017

Kareem, Jacobin and NCAA athletes: Watch out what you're asking for

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar:
Socialist, or rather,
Capitalist in disguise?
Confused socialist?
Because, per the old phrase, you might just get it — with that phrase's implication that you might not like it, either.

Jacobin, the hot new mag for boutique socialism, has given Kareem Abdul-Jabbar a spot calling for a variety of things related to the NCAA money pie.

Some, due to the Ed O'Bannon et al lawsuit against the NCAA, from his college days, will likely be settled in court, to athletes' favor, in a few years. An appeals court has already indicated the athletes should get something; now the question is if either the athletes, or the league [sic, more below] don't like this. (Other lawsuits, over antitrust issues, have less chance of any level of success, in my opinion.)

Some (more in a minute) are noble, but likely won't be addressed by paying Bama Tide or Oklahoma Sooner tailbacks money.

Others? Will likely benefit participants in two NCAA men's sports, possibly in one NCAA women's sport, and hurt most other sports.

In short, Jacobin has given Abdul-Jabbar a venue to talk about a possible witches' brew of capitalism, socialism and general activism — and the three may be at loggerheads with each other.

Time to dive in.

Abdul-Jabbar speaks primarily from his experience as a men's basketball player at UCLA. Beyond that, when one things of dollar signs and college athletes, football most likely comes up.

And, in fact, a study done by the NCAA itself claims that only 20 Division 1 schools make money on football. I find that kind of hard to believe, and to the degree it's real, Abdul-Jabbar has the solution — stop paying coaches and ADs so much.

That said, this is a HIGHLY contentious topic. The Washington Post, in a long piece, notes that top schools are taking in more money than ever — and paying out more than ever. Solution? The one Abdul-Jabbar mentioned — share the pie more, and more equitably.

This, from that piece:
“College sports is big business, and it’s a very poorly run big business,” said David Ridpath, a business professor at Ohio University and board member for the Drake Group, a nonprofit advocating for an overhaul of commercialized college sports. 
“It’s frustrating to see universities, especially public ones, pleading poverty . . . and it is morally wrong for schools bringing in millions extra on athletics to continue to charge students and academics to support programs that, with a little bit of fiscal sense, could turn profits or at least break even.”
Is the centerpiece.

Of course, college athletic departments aren't alone. The neoliberalization of academia means that colleges and universities in general are big business — and often about as poorly run. 

There's a related issue — if one school makes $150M off athletes and another only $50M, will one school pay more than another to players? Right now, the NCAA's various conferences are kind of like the NFL, with at least partial revenue sharing. (Way back in 2008, for Twitter friend Howling Wolf, the Bama-Vandy gap in revenue was $123M/$55M, per an ESPN spreadsheet.)

Does Abdul-Jabbar want to end this? Does he want a more unfettered capitalism?

In turn, that home of boutique socialism Jacobin apparently never asked, before signing off on the article, whether Abdul-Jabbar was going to talk about socialism or about capitalism. And, it seems pretty clear his first focus is capitalism.

After all, he doesn't talk about money-poor men's sports, or women's sports of any stripe, at all.

And, yes, they're money-poor. Football and men's hoops could be more profitable than they are if, per the Washington Post link, schools didn't spend $10M on new scoreboards, didn't pay for 500 staffers to go to a New Year's Day bowl, etc.

But volleyball? Track? Gymnastics? They lose money and get subsidized from other university funding accounts.

If Abdul-Jabbar really were a socialist, rather than calling for college football players to get paid, he'd call for coaches and ADs to get paid less, and for that money to go to better travel and meals for volleyball, track and gymnastics athletes.

And, if Jacobin knew that much about NCAA athletics, it would have edited his piece, put up an editor's note, or written a follow-up piece of its own, saying that.

As for this?
We were outraged again in 2006, when the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School reported that about two hundred children as young as eleven years old were sewing clothing for Hanes, Walmart, JC Penney, and Puma in a factory in Bangladesh. 
The children sometimes were forced to work nineteen to twenty-hour shifts, slapped and beaten if they took too long in the bathroom, and paid pennies for their efforts. According to the report, “The workers say that if they could earn just thirty-six cents an hour, they could climb out of misery and into poverty, where they could live with a modicum of decency.” 
Thirty-six cents an hour. 
While such horrific and despicable conditions are rarer in the United States, we still have to be vigilant against all forms of exploitation so that by condoning one form, we don’t implicitly condone others. Which is why, in the name of fairness, we must bring an end to the indentured servitude of college athletes and start paying them what they are worth.
A noble concern, Abdul-Jabbar, and as someone who checks tags on clothes, I say that non-sarcastically.

But, two counterpoints.

if you really think paying Bama's tailback $50K is going to automatically raise his social consciousness, let alone help Bangladeshi workers without said halfback's consciousness being raised, I've got some beachfront property in North Dakota to sell you. (Beyond that, the soul-crushing work of hypercapitalism isn't the only consciousness problem. For example, how much more polluting is that Bangladeshi factory than an equivalent one in the U.S.? Or, even more, and of direct worry in that country, what if that factory contributes more to global warming than an American equivalent. And, what if addressing either of those environmental issues is in conflict with getting more Bangladeshi workers better jobs than they might otherwise have?)

Second, your idea might WORSEN things, because your ending of "indentured servitude of college athletes" will inject more capitalism into the system. That's because those track, golf and gymnastics athletes never appear in sports video games, never have their jerseys sold for big dinero, etc. Even if football and hoops don't directly subsidize them, they are the primary source of pay for an AD who, on paper, oversees all athletic programs.

And, this is why, and not for the first time, I've had minimum high regard for Jacobin. Critical thinking often seems lacking there.

Besides, if we're going to take a capitalistic approach to this issue, Kareem's idea isn't the only one.

There are other options. I'd argue they're better, and not just on the monetary angle.

The primary option is killing NCAA sports entirely and either having minor leagues affiliated with the NFL, NBA and MLB, for the top sports. The NFL has little minor-league operations, and the NBA not much more. MLB, of course, has a long, and deep, minor league tradition, which is probably part of why college baseball isn't the moneymaker of college hoops, let alone football.

Dirk Nowitzki:
A club system not directly affiliated with major leagues, like independent minor league teams such as St. Paul's Saints, is a variant on the minor leagues option, of course. The likes of a Dirk Nowitzki played at a club team in German, not a university team; such things don't exist there.

That's part of why Europeans react with an "interesting" at best, "puzzlement" in the middle and "that's laughable" at worse about many Americans' attachment to their college alma maters. 

The attachment is all about sports, of course.

And? You could still call a team the Alabama Crimson Tide. They'd just — along with other Power Five teams — be the NFL's AAA franchises. Might even rent them the use of the college football stadium.

Players would get paid, and given that the NFL has revenue sharing, this would actually be more socialistic than Abdul-Jabbar's idea.

This is actually my preferred solution. For people who want to be loyal to their alma maters for academic reasons, it boots the college football team, and coach, out the door.

A split-the-difference approach would be to incorporate NCAA Athletics Inc. School sports would still have an "affiliation" with schools but not a direct partnership.

And, while university presidents would squawk at first, they might in private breathe collective sighs of relief after a couple of years.

On the other hand, this would finish killing off the money-losing sports that don't lose money because of overblown spending but just because few people pay to watch collegiate golf at most places.

But, if Kareem the Capitalist is OK with that?

The one item I unreservedly agree with is that athletic scholarships should be treated just like academic scholarships. That said, under my idea, the separation or even divorce, we wouldn't have athletic scholarships any more.

And, you know what?

That would also eliminate a lot of hypocrisy.

As coach John Calipari and a one-and-done player of his like Karl-Anthony Towns can attest, most college football and men's basketball players don't attend Kentucky, or wherever, for a college education. (While we're at it, it might also get rid of the hypocrisy of some "prep schools" that are nothing but pre-collegiate basketball factories.)

Otherwise, the rest of the article is an ill-thought mishmash at best. At worst, one man's socialism becomes another man's (or women's, re women's athletics) capitalism, and a pretty brutal one.

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