KNAYSI: Forget about the price tag
Paying college athletes would only exacerbate the pressures that young adult stars already face
The cover story for this week’s issue of TIME magazine — “It’s Time to Pay College Athletes” by Sean Gregory — is irresponsible but unsurprising. The article considers the large profits of college football and basketball and argues that we have an “ethical imperative” to start paying student athletes tens (or potentially hundreds) of thousands of dollars in addition to scholarships and other benefits. I mark it as an unsurprising cover story because it is consistent with our culture’s increasing view of college athletes as celebrities rather than the students and young adults they are. I call the article irresponsible for two reasons. First, it unquestioningly advances the view of college athletes as celebrities and commodities. Second, its solution to the rising “exploitation” of student athletes is to throw these young adults into our cutthroat American market.
To put the cover story in a political perspective, it arrives at a time when one of the biggest issues in higher education is rising student debt. Though many young Americans invest between $100,000 and $200,000 for a degree, scholarship athletes do not. But Gregory’s article chooses to take a different perspective.
“College athletes are mass audience performers and need to be treated as such,” the article asserts confidently. “The athlete is the most available publicity material the college has.” With this outlook, he weaves an article that uses the promise of money-making, rather than student well-being or the law of unintended consequences, as his guiding principle.
Our idolization of athletes (rather than public officials, teachers, or scientists) often reaches extreme levels. This is particularly true in professional football and basketball, two of America’s biggest sports industries. College divisions experience similar veneration — particularly within athletes’ own university communities — but NCAA regulations against sponsorships or celebrity appearances help moderate the idolatry. Still, the tendency to view college athletes as celebrities rather than students is powerful. Just look at the name recognition and infatuation our University’s top football and basketball stars attract — and our players really are not very good compared with the country’s best.
The TIME cover story unquestioningly (and even passionately) praises the celebrity of these young students. Content of the article aside, observe the magazine cover itself. It features 20-year-old Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel: the player’s face is resolute and his arm is outstretched in a gesture of power as he flies over the camera against a backdrop of blue sky. This one well-executed shot (they’re a dime a dozen in professional sports) imitates much of the religious or nationalist-themed art you might find in a museum. The artistic effect is well documented: to present the figure as larger than life, heroic and worthy of reverence. To view such a young student — or any human being, for that matter — with such uninhibited, unqualified reverence seems an unhealthy cultural disposition. And as celebrities of all types note, being the focus of such attention and pressure does not necessarily promote a balanced and content lifestyle.
But Gregory’s piece is irresponsible not only because of the idolatry it promotes but also because of the argument it presents. The article quotes sports economist Roger Noll of Stanford University: “The rising dollar value of the exploitation of athletes is obscene, [and] is out of control.” Keep the semantics of the term in mind: this economist uses “exploitation” in a monetary sense that does not necessarily imply personal harm to the college players. It’s strictly about cash flow: top athletes get free room, board, and a college degree (among other benefits) and in return universities make millions (via television, tickets, and replica jerseys). It’s true this may be considered an imbalance in profit, but is it harmful or unfair?
Among the monetary value of the (highly coveted) scholarships, athletes get loads of free publicity. A top basketball or football recruit like Manziel not only gains the valuable competitive experience he needs to start a pro career, but he receives free exposure that will undoubtedly pay off in endorsements and a sweet contract as soon as he goes pro. If athletes are exploited, it is only in the driest monetary sense.
I take issue with TIME because they respond to this “problem” by proposing an open door to even more economic “exploitation.” These college athletes — often naïve teenagers, fresh out of high school _ would become even more commoditized upon entering the free market. Under Gregory’s proposed system, colleges could use large sums (in addition to great scholarships) to bid for students. Additionally, these 20-somethings would be thrown into the truly cutthroat world of American advertising — where temptations for merchandising, commercials, and million-dollar endorsements are only the beginning. The college athlete’s current role as student (however limited) would be irrevocably changed.
Among other consequences the article declines to discuss are effects on academic funding, lowering of faculty salaries, an increase of ticket prices, potential Title IX challenges and the destruction of amateur sports. The piece touches on the idea that paying players might make a mockery of higher education, but uncritically concludes that “college sports are already impure… paying players can’t make things much worse.” Ultimately, TIME’s callous (and potentially harmful) discussion of these young adults creates an alarming prospect for the future of college sports. If discourse about paying college athletes continues, let’s hope it is not so fanatic.
George Knaysi is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His column appears Tuesdays online.