- Alabama-Georgia tonight is the climax of the college football season—and a showcase for an industry that generates hundreds of millions of dollars through the efforts of young men, many black and poor, who are not fairly compensated for the value they create. Pardon me if I don’t indulge in the lie
I won’t be watching the College Football Playoff championship game, just like I didn’t tune in for the semifinals, the conference championships or any other prime-time game this season. It’s not that I don’t like the sport, or value the level of competition. For a writer who covers the NFL, there’s a lot to learn from the way the college game is played; it’s generally agreed upon in pro football that ideas on the field flow up from CFB to the NFL, not the other way around.
Rather, I won’t be watching because I can’t ignore the lie. It grows bigger and bigger every year, as the television, advertising and merchandise contracts swell to proportions that legendary Nick Saban predecessor Bear Bryant couldn’t have imagined. When Bryant was coaching at Alabama, football brought in modest revenue in the form of gate sales, and for the players’ efforts, they received an education from the largest university in the state. The most contentious debate at Alabama during Bryant’s era concerned whether African-Americans were worthy of earning those degrees. Six years after Gov. George Wallace unsuccessfully attempted to block the school from integrating, the football team was still all-white at the insistence of its boosters. It took a 42-21 spanking at the hands of an integrated Southern Cal team in 1970 to convince supporters that the Crimson Tide needed black bodies to be competitive.
And that’s what they’ve been to the schools that deemed them worthy of playing alongside white students: black bodies. Black bodies from working-class backgrounds played a major part—larger than any other demographic—in college football’s expansion into big business, and the compensation for students both black and white remained the same: a meal plan, housing, medical care and an education. As college football revenues swell into the hundreds of millions at individual colleges ($103.9 million in 2016 for Alabama), the lie grows bigger.
I won’t watch, because I can no longer pretend that an education (out-of-state cost of attendance at Alabama and Georgia is between $45,000 and $50,000) and a slim shot at the NFL is commensurate compensation for college football players.
And I won’t watch, because there will come a moment when the lie manifests itself in all its ugliness. An athlete on that field Monday night will go down in a heap, clutching his knee or ankle. As he writhes on the ground, a color announcer will lament the loss to the team, and the disappointment for the individual. Maybe he’ll tell the story of the player who spent an entire year of his childhood cooped up in his family’s East St. Louis apartment, because a police officer was shot to death in the parking lot that year and it was too dangerous to go outside. Or the one about the two brothers—one at Georgia, the other at Alabama—whose father was deported to Guyana when they were young boys, never to be seen or heard from again. Or it’ll be the story about the receiver fighting like hell to earn a future for his infant child. Or maybe the one about the student with the ailing father who suffered a stroke and was displaced by a hurricane.
What a shame.
But we’ll be right back, after these messages from our sponsors. And Larry Culpepper, the fanny-pack-wearing Dr. Pepper pitchman, will tumble into the picture for 30 seconds of airtime that costs the soda company in the neighborhood of $1.5 million. (The entire sponsorship/ad campaign for the Championship is believed to cost the brand in the neighborhood of $30 million.) And back on the field, the player will be carted to the locker room, weeping, and he might even receive a word of encouragement from the coach who makes $11 million a year based on a combination of his own unique talent and a steady flow of young bodies.
And that player will recover, God willing, and if he’s a senior, earn that degree that took a back seat to football. More than likely he’ll enter the job market with the rest of his peers, except they had time to do internships and were allowed to work paid jobs in college and gain experience in their chosen fields. But he chose the NCAA path, which doesn’t allow “student athletes” to have paid jobs.
And if the injured student has any eligibility left, he’ll be back in the spring, and someone from the local media will write a feature story about him and his recovery, and how he’s taking full advantage of this tremendous opportunity. The journalist will find some virtue in that background of poverty and tragedy, and in fighting for the opportunity to earn a living off of his body, all while that body is earning a living for a handful of administrators and coaches, and improving university life for other students who are afforded the time to focus on majors that suit them, rather than majors that suit a rigorous football schedule.
Obviously, there is a sensible way to fix this gross disparity between the people earning the money and the people being paid. Rather than pay players an outright salary, the NCAA could let the free market decide their value by allowing students to pursue advertising opportunities with local businesses, rewarding those who contribute the most to the program’s success. And to appease those who cling to the sanctity of amateurism, earnings could be placed in a trust to be paid when the student has left the institution. Point is, there are solutions here for those open to change.
But that’s a discussion the NCAA is not willing to have. And why should it? The NFL provides a shelter for the NCAA cartel with a rule that says a player has to be three years removed from high school to be draft-eligible. And the only viable path to the NFL for an 18-year-old seeking a chance at the league is major college football. Success for the NCAA and its schools comes at the risk of 19-year-old bodies, and business is booming. So children from poverty and talent keep coming to Tuscaloosa, and Athens, and some of them are broken in the process, and some are not, and a handful make it to the next level.
Just pardon me if I can’t stand to see the players compensated with an education they can’t take full advantage of, and with the public recognition of their own virtue and “love of the game.” I prefer the game where the young men get paid via direct deposit.
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