Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Peter M. Gunn, truth specialist. You may know me by another name, but in case the FBI is watching (and if we’re doin’ it right, they will be), I would rather you not bring my government name up in here. This is the Daily Truth. This is the stuff that has no business being read, much less being written. We’re taking the bullet train straight to the heart of the issues that matter today: geopolitics, pop culture, and the struggle. Truth is beauty; beauty is ephemeral — so this shouldn’t last long.
Stuart: This fortnight (a fortnight lasts for two weeks), we’re getting deep into higher education, starting with that straw that stirs college life every fall weekend: NCAA football.
Peter: OK, so yes, I did wait until the season was over, but even so, I am here to announce that I am quitting college football. Indeed, it was the 2011 season that did it for me. My heart hurts after four years of being an enthusiastic cog in the college football machine. This is an evil system. The amateurism is a sham, and it is an unsupported free labor system — pretty much everyone knows about that, but like –
Stuart: Let’s not call it free labor, let’s think of it as indentured servitude because I think that’s probably the most accurate historic parallel. These kids are getting something out of this — a scholarship that can be ripped away on a whim, and a degree that can be finished while they work part-time at a call-center or a restaurant.
Peter: It’s sort of the opposite in the sense that people talk about slavery, that college football is slavery, but it’s a slavery without a form of actual bondage. So instead, they pamper them with stuff they don’t really need like tons of free food, free clothes (though I have read stories about athletes wearing their sweats all the time because those are all the clothes they have) and sex (see: recruiting visits to strip clubs, or He Got Game) to keep the athletes happy; to keep them from really thinking about how the system is hurting them by not preparing them for the future. Then, there is the whole athlete/warrior culture to make players believe that they’re doing something important other than just giving free labor to the university. It’s not free labor; it’s service. You’re representing the University of Whatever, and that’s an honor, and we’re giving you this honor that you would never be allowed to have otherwise because you’re too stupid and poor to actually get in, so be grateful and not greedy. They use a velvet rope and groupthink to keep them on the plantation instead of actual chains.
Stuart: But of course, universities can take these kids to the curb any Wednesday they wish. You tell half-a-dozen kids they’re going to start at running back and then cut three of them — that’s how you do it in the SEC. Or you try to get them medical scholarships. But don’t forget — where would these kids be without the benevolent charity of a billion-dollar industry?
Peter: It’s some bullshit is what it is. You can’t position yourself as this benevolent paternal institution that’s going to help lift kids out of poverty and then send them right back after they tear their ACL just because they’re not a superstar. That may be a model for professionals, but it goes against everything that institutions of higher learning claim to stand for. Still, that’s the hard brutal nature of the punishing SEC (fun fact: The conference’s nickname is the Southeastern Criminals because judges in the South will actually allow a season of playing SEC football to substitute for a year of jail time. It’s just that punishing.), which ESPN falls all over itself to praise. It shows how the problem is systemic because we value the model that dehumanizes its players the most.
Stuart: Let’s talk economics. As I understand it, there is money involved in this here football. It’s a huge industry, hundreds of millions of dollars are made by rich white men.
Peter: Billions, billions of dollars, two to three billion dollars. That’s with a B, in case you never learned the alphabet.
Stuart: Billions of dollars are made, but fewer than 25 schools actually have profitable athletic programs. College football employs many professionals — industry professionals, marketing professionals, everyone at the television companies producing this product–
Peter: Regional sports networks that only exist to broadcast college football. If you want to get all “fight the system” about it, you could call college football an industrial complex.
Stuart: So the fundamental problem of all this: the profit is coming from amateur labor — it’s coming from players who make millions for rich white men, off of kids wearing jerseys with numbers but no names. They see nothing of it, and if they let coach pay for dinner — then it’s back to the old neighborhood. Sure, they may get half a degree, sex with beautiful women and Saturday night high-fives — hell they may even hold a football in a local car commercial while they sell you Subarus before they’re 30, but really, what do they get?
Peter: Well, amateurism is a really faulty concept in the first place. If you read Taylor Branch’s piece in The Atlantic, you realize that this practically Hellenic (and with all the buttsex that word implies) ideal of the amateur student-athlete has been a myth since the days of Harvard winning the national championship. It comes from a model of privilege and leisure. Sportsmanship and amateurism has always come from privileged white men playing meaningless sports because it was a better use of their time than mistreating their servants. The rules prevented people being a dick to each other because the games ultimately had no significance. The problems came, (i.e. this is when sportswriters and administrators started to get all pissy about the college sports’ crisis of amateurism and sportsmanship) when the pressure to win finally overcame institutional racism –
Stuart: Ah yes, when they started recruiting “athletes”. You know, the kind of players who are really “athletic”, but not very smart — not smart enough to play quarterback — that’s for sure. “Athletes” from poor, urban neighborhoods. The SEC has so much speed — so many “athletes”. These “athletes” don’t always have the best work ethic, and they don’t always understand the game as well as the white players — err…. Nothing pisses me off more than the thinly-veiled racist, classist resentment constantly, almost subconsciously, directed at black players. But back to the economics–
Peter: Having gone to college at that magical land of unicorns known as Stanford, (and yes, it does have to be italicized), I’ve been all privy to Larry Scott, the Pac-12 commissioner, and his plan for world domination via expansion into superconferences. He’s putting college football on a neoliberal global capitalist scale. The monster just keeps expanding.
Stuart: Viewing major college football alongside the global economy could be useful. Whatcha got?
Peter: Well in classic capitalist form, our current system of college football only really works for the few at the top. For the regular top 25, the brand names like Texas, Ohio State, Alabama, the system is great, but you have all these schools in the MAC or Conference-USA and all these schools in FCS chasing after Boise State or Appalachian State and bankrupting their athletic departments in the process because the Nike/Adidas arms race have made the sport so expensive, all so they can pull an upset once in a while or land in a BCS bowl, even though a trip to the BCS bowl actually causes half the teams involved to lose money. This shit is like heroin.
Peter: Sure, sure, and to broaden the analysis, I’m gonna get a little righteous and drop some critical theory on you: College football is an oppressive hegemony. The BCS is the system that is primarily responsible for maintaining this oppressive paradigm, like apartheid or segregation. Like many of our favorite systems of oppression like standardized testing or Jim Crow laws, the BCS was created as a more liberal replacement to the old bowl system, which didn’t even try to front about its rigid exclusion. The evidence I proffer for characterizing the BCS as an oppressive system is that it doesn’t make any damn sense. The only internal logic of any oppressive system is to oppress, even if maintaining that system works against the hegemon’ best interest. It’s never been a debate that a playoff system would make more money.
Given this situation then, a dilemma arises for the marginalized majority. Do you Booker T or do you WEB? Do you try for assimilation through the tokenizing model of the AQ rule (a la Boise State), even though you’ll most likely never get to play for a national championship, or do you try to work outside the system to make it more fair (like lobbying Congress to establish a playoff).
Stuart: But the major schools control the design of the system? The BCS is the IMF and the World Bank?
Peter: Yeah, it’s run by the university presidents, and if there’s any doubt that they operate with an oppressive mindset, just remember Gordon Gee’s comment about TCU/Boise State and “The Little Sisters of the Poor.” That’s the college football equivalent of Malcolm X’s question: “What do they call a black man with a PhD?” Like I said, it’s neoliberal capitalism at it’s finest. Money straight up buys success, but it’s not just any money that’s key; it’s institution money, T. Boone Pickens and Phil Knight money. Smaller programs are never going to have that. Getting back to the unfair promise of assimilation, TCU and Boise State are probably the best examples hitting the glass ceiling. They’re mid-majors that, through good coaching hires and effective marketing, managed to own their leagues and get into BCS bowls, where they’ve done pretty well — but they’ll never make it to the national championship game, even if TCU is now in the Big X (aka the Big XII – II)
Stuart: But really, if everybody goes Booker T and plays by the rules and accepts the game as it is, major market BCS schools will be the only dynasties. TCU and Utah got invites that Boise State never will because they have the TV markets of Dallas/Fort Worth and Salt Lake City. It ain’t about prestige, it ain’t about tradition — it’s about dollars. As long as the BCS system is in place, outsiders who want to be insiders (the periphery if you will) will just cripple their athletic budgets.
Peter: The old emphasis on prestige or whether or not that school looks a real program, the way that crusty old commissioners talk, is like the mindset of the antebellum South (funny how that works out). And Stuart, those dollars come from one source: media rights. The new system is entirely about TV ratings. Now, in some sort of cynical, Chayefskian sense, one could make the argument that this reordering of priorities could help the subaltern sect of college football (after all, upsets can bring huge ratings), but even then, the still structure has to keep those programs on the bottom. Just like neoliberal global capitalism is ostensibly colorblind and meritocratic but still maintains the systems that perpetuate inequality –
Stuart: Ahh yes. Capitalism isn’t racist; it just happened after colonialism.
Peter: The small amount of mobility still available is going to disappear once those new superconference media rights deals permanently lock everyone else out of the superconferences. There are and will be only about 24 schools (and even that’s a generous number) that can be viable for winning the national championship until global warming sinks Louisiana and Alabama into the Gulf of Mexico.
Stuart: Bleak. But shit, WEB went from being a radical to a conservative by the time he was old. So….
Peter: College football is just like any other institution, man. We know how to do this. Don’t be John Mayer, just waiting on the world to change. Occupy the Horseshoe. Drop some Althusser outside the office of your local sportswriter. Nobody’s forcing you to watch, and most games suck anyway.