The Bigger Conversation

I’m still not exactly sure why, but I took a lot of heat yesterday about my piece on Jim Tressel.  The argument that is being made is that Tressel knew what the rules were and he decided to break them and I get that.  The guy should lose his job, especially if he encouraged kids to break the rules.  You’re supposed to set an example as a Head Coach.  What I don’t understand is how sports writers across America can sit back and blame Tressel as if this were an isolated incident.  That’s kind of like blaming Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens for the proliferation of steroids.  Yeah, they were doing it, but so was everyone else and they did what they did to stay competitive, it’s a risk you take.

I can’t help but look back at the Mitch Albom book “Fab Five,” which looked at the lives of the NCAA winning players from Michigan after each of their careers fizzled out.  In the book, Chris Webber walks by a memorabilia store and sees his Michigan jersey going for $50 and Webber asks Albom: “how do they get away with charging $50 for my jersey when I can’t put together enough money to buy myself lunch?”

This raises the bigger question in college sports and that is ‘how do you rationalize an atmosphere in which only one side benefits from the athletic talents of kids that take the field or play on the hardwood to make you money when they themselves see nothing in return?’  I understand they get an education, but few of athletes actually use their education to further their careers.  You can make the argument that players should focus more on academics, but doing so runs counter to what the university system is based on and that’s money.  So it stands to reason that the university isn’t going to encourage it’s athletes to do something that is not in their economic best interests.  The real question that should be asked is: why do we expect players to do everything right and get nothing in return?  It goes against human nature.

It seems like a pretty one-sided system that they’ve got going on and it sounds like we should have a real debate about the system of college sports as opposed to having a purely one-way conversation about the ethics of one coach for one team.  If your university isn’t making money off of its’ players they’re doing something wrong.  Those kids are fundraising machines and it shouldn’t be beneficial for only one side in that equation.

What I really take issue with in the Ohio State scandal in particular is that the kids were going to sell a piece of their property that they earned and it that is somehow against the rules in the NCAA.  If I go out and win an award, that award is mine to do with as I please and I’d be absolutely livid, as would my community, that I couldn’t sell something that was a part of my personal property.  It’s a really stupid rule that’s in place and it needs to change.  But from a broader perspective, we need to look at how athletes get compensated in a college system.

When you work in an industry where one injury is separating you from tens of millions of dollars, there’s obviously a high risk, high reward system in place and athletes know that.  But, the collegiate community knows this as well and their willful ignorance to these issues is, to me, absolutely appalling.  When we exploited African-Americans before 1860, we rationalized our behavior in a very similar fashion.  We said that their services were required to make the collective well-being better for all sides.  Some even said that slaves enjoyed the institution of slavery.  No one likes being subservient, regardless of what form that servitude takes, but there’s a difference between being a slave, being a servant, and being a human being.  The fact that we still rally around a system that placates the system more than the people who make the system what it has become is absolutely stymieing to me.

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