Schooled The Price of College Sports

Unpaid athletes fuel multi-billion-dollar industry - and the annual deluge of holiday sports

Much has been written this year about low-wage workers being compelled to work on Thanksgiving day, as major retail employers expand Black Friday holiday-selling hours. But this work-on-the-holiday reality has already been true for a while regarding another class of under-compensated laborers: College athletes.

The Thanksgiving weekend brings a dizzying assortment of college basketball tournaments and football games, a prelude to the latter’s bowl season, which now begins in mid-December and extends well into January. How quaint it is to think back on the day when everyone consumed their fill of football on New Year’s Day and then got back to other pastimes.

While the analogy isn’t perfect — and yes, some of these kids will eventually become millionaires — the exploitation of college athletes has become a major topic of conversation, as detailed in the recent documentary “Schooled: The Price of College Sports,” which makes the case that universities and TV networks have created a multibillion-dollar business fueled by the free labor of young men, most of whom will never have a professional career.

Former UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin (pictured), who did make it to the NFL, also noted the onerous restrictions placed on athletes, all part of the NCAA’s arcane rules designed to protect and preserve the ideal of amateurism. (“Schooled” was adapted from an exhaustive magazine piece by Taylor Branch that, if you have a couple of days, is well worth reading.)

Moreover, in the case of football, a lot of those guys face the prospect of debilitating injuries, as a separate doc, “Frontline’s” “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” outlined.

New York Times columnist Joe Nocera has been especially aggressive about calling out college sports for its hypocrisy, writing last June in regard to legal action instituted to compel the NCAA to compensate athletes, “the day is coming when the players will be paid. The only question is when.” (Lest anyone say “But these kids get free books and tuition,” true, but that’s a relative pittance based on the revenue the major collegiate sports bring in — a haul padded by escalating TV rights deals as well as the launch of regional networks dedicated to specific conferences.)

For now, though, the system remains as it has been for decades. Meanwhile, ESPN and other outlets hungrily clamor for every game they can get their hands on — in the Disney-owned sports titan’s case, even determining the schedule and dictating who plays when and where. It’s all because sports have become essentially the perfect food for television — a commodity people prefer to watch live, in an age where delayed viewing and DVRs are seriously threatening the old models.

It’s easy, of course, to blame greedy schools and networks for the current inequities, but let’s face it, everyone who plops on the couch and watches basketball or football over the long weekend (yours truly included) is complicit in supporting the system as presently constituted. Notably, ESPN’s hoops coverage this season got off to a strong start.

Perhaps that’s why college athletics are so well positioned to weather the criticism. Because at this point, the only thing more traditional about Thanksgiving than family and a portion from that juicy Butterball is the big helping of football and basketball that follows.

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