Wednesday January 2nd, 2008

Some things in sport, as some things in life, never really get changed, even when they are indefensible. We say: life is unfair and move on. Sports, though, are supposed to be altogether fair. Ah, the level playing field! But, alas, that's only so when referees are around.

Still, every now and then, it's worth bringing up some glaring inequity, even if it's pointless to do so. So now, when college basketball is in full swing and college football is at its climax, with bowls jammed with high-paying customers, with television revenue pouring in. Not to mention all the money that hotels and airlines and restaurants and souvenir salesmen and announcers and sportswriters and coaches and athletic directors are raking in. Yes, now is a good time to lament anew that, my gracious, isn't it interesting that the only people not making money are the people actually playing the games.

It is perfectly unconscionable that big-time college football and basketball players go unpaid. They are employees, and deserve to be paid based on the National Labor Relations Act.

First, a little history is in order. When college football become a popular sensation more than a hundred years ago, the concept of amateurism was in full sway. Okay. All Olympic athletes, for example, had to live by what was always called "the amateur ideal." But all that has changed. The most popular Olympic sports have all gone pro. Today, in all the world, amongst big-ticket spectator sports, virtually the only athletes who are not paid are our college football and basketball players -- whose numbers, ironically, include so many poor African-Americans.

That this should be so in the United States, bastion of both freedom and capitalism, makes it even worse. That this should remain the case when college sports charge Broadway ticket prices and pay their coaches literally millions of dollars, makes it even more shameful.

Moreover, colleges always emphasize that football and basketball make so much money that they pay for the entire athletic program. To me, this only adds to the cynicism. Not only do poor black kids get no remuneration for their work, they are expected to carry all these other coaches and players and teams on their backs with their unpaid labor. Basically, a scholarship boils down to a device to keep the players on the premises where they can perform their services for free. Okay, they get a lot of perks. They live well. They're the equivalent of what we used to call "kept women."

Besides, why is it only athletes who must perform for the so-called love of the game? Nobody cares if college kids who are actors or musicians or writers or dancers can make a buck using their talent. Why is an athlete any different?

But, at the end of the day, it isn't an economic issue so much as a moral one. It's absolutely evil that only here in the United States do we allow this unscrupulous nineteenth-century arrangement to continue to exist -- and nobody anymore hardly even bothers to bring up this awful injustice.

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