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Sportswriters Rally to the Cause of Unpaid Labor

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A NOTE ON THE OTHER S.E.C.

Man, will this absurd University of Miami booster scandal go away already? Has a more ridiculous non-story ever generated this much hypocrisy and pious self-congratulation before? Watching sportswriters go after this thing is like watching a nature show about chimpanzees in mating season…

For those of you who aren’t sports fans, a convicted Ponzi scheme artist named Nevin Shapiro has come forward and claimed that he gave “impermissible benefits” to 72 athletes from the University of Miami, many of whom now play in the NFL. This included such things as cash payments, jewelry, and fishing junkets for various college football stars, including big names like the New England Patriots’ Vince Wilfork, New York Giants safety Antrel Rolle, and others. Those of you who aren’t sports fans may also not be aware that the athletes who perform on the field for the multi-gazillion-dollar TV reality show known as “Division 1 College Football” – involving teams from the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big  12, Pac-10 and so on – are not paid for their work. These kids earn tens of millions every year for the universities and colleges they play for, incurring concussions and Achilles tears and microfractures in exchange for (sometimes) a degree and a tiny-percentage chance at an NFL job. That’s the basic bargain of college recruiting: you come to play at our school, we’ll give you a shot at the big time, plus the “opportunity to graduate from a fine educational institution.”

In a vacuum, a free education and a shot at the NFL sound like pretty good compensation for the labor of 18 year-old football players, many of whom come from poor backgrounds. And if this were fifty years ago, before the giant TV contracts that come with major-college football, it would make perfect sense.

But it’s not a good deal. For one thing, most of these guys don’t get very good educations, because playing on a D-1 football team is basically a full-time job – at least as time-consuming (and certainly more dangerous) than most full-time jobs. Major college football players spend an average of 44.8 hours a week in practice or in games, and everyone knows that a lot of the players get “tutors” to write their papers for them, if their professors aren’t already being pressured to soft-pedal their grades.

The reason they spend so much time at practice instead of in the library is because the amounts of money now involved have skewed the priorities of the universities. College sports has become such a huge business that coaches have to drive their kids hard to be competitive.

The same corporate ruthlessness that drives management in any other big industry drives coaching staffs in college sports. If your second-string linebacker is spending his weeknights studying botany instead of his blitz package, that doesn’t mean he’s a good kid who does what his parents tell him. It means he’s an unreliable worker. Coaches with multi-million-dollar salaries won’t hesitate to cut or discipline a player whose iffy priorities imperil his chance at a contract extension.

So playing college sports is not a unique “student-athlete experience.” It’s a job like any other job. Just like in any other corporate job, you go to work every day for a stress-sick executive who needs you to bust ass 24 hours a day to save his neck and stave off his aneurysm.

Unlike any other job, though, you don’t get paid, because the company you work for, the NCAA, has cleverly designed a series of pompous rules making it “illegal” for you to be compensated. In order to preserve this bottomless well of unpaid labor (poor kids, both black and white, coming from the ghettoes and from busted country towns in West Texas or the Ozarks, etc.), the league has created and carefully nurtured the myth of “amateur status,” essentially arguing that the 200-300 players they deliver to the NFL draft every spring must be economic virgins at the moment they sign their first NFL contracts, or else all moral hell will break loose.

The reality, of course, is that preserving the virginity of those 300 lucky future NFLers a year is all about not having to pay the tens of thousands of kids who play college football every year and don’t make it to the pros, while earning millions for their schools.

Objectively speaking, there’s no logical reason why it should be wrong to pay a star football player who’s helping the University of Miami secure a multimillion-dollar TV deal. But the NCAA says it’s wrong, and its officials even wrote a complex series of rules to back themselves up – and, unbelievably, the entire sportswriting community buys the myth.

When stories like this Shapiro thing come out, about teenagers who are caught making the mistake of actually accepting pay for their labor, every pompous, finger-wagging dimwit asshole in the sportscasting world – and there are a lot of those -- naturally has to sound the moral alarm.

Complicating the whole issue, of course, is that a lot of these kids are black, and so part of the story becomes not just about the players taking money, but what they did with the money. In other words, not only did they surrender their economic virginity prematurely, but look what they bought! Here’s a list from the Yahoo! Report:

The booster said he doled out tens of thousands of dollars in jewelry for players, including watches (Tavares Gooden and Antrel Rolle), diamond-studded dog tags (Sean Taylor) and an engagement ring (Devin Hester). He also spent thousands of dollars on suits and clothing for Hester, Gooden and McGahee at Fashion Clothiers – purchases that were confirmed to Yahoo! Sports by the store’s owner, Shelly Bloom.

Shapiro bought plane tickets for two of McGahee’s female acquaintances to attend the 2002 Heisman Trophy ceremony and flew D.J. Williams’ mother from California to Miami to spend time with her son and meet with Shapiro’s partner at Axcess Sports, Michael Huyghue.

Televisions were purchased for Andrew Williams and Sam Shields, and the booster said he also gave Hester cash to buy rims for his SUV.

I heard ESPN’s Colin Cowherd last week moaning about how it would be one thing if these guys were feeding their families with the money, but no, look what they bought – jewelry! Plane tickets for chicks! You can almost hear the eyes of white readers everywhere rolling back at the mention of Hester buying rims for his SUV. For such base stuff, these players befouled the sacred virginity of our sacred sport.

Cowherd, for whom a jewel-encrusted throne thirty feet high is undoubtedly already being constructed in raging sportscaster blowhard Valhalla, went one further – saying these kids should have been more like Jesus, who after all didn’t mind being poor:

One of the things yesterday, during that whole Miami football scandal, you know, one of the lamest excuses people use all the time is these Miami players are poor and so they took payouts. That’s a lame excuse for lacking ethics. Being poor, rich and poor in morality are separate issues, ok? The man, Jesus, was a pauper, ok? He didn’t care about material things and watches and yacht trips. And you’re poor. Nobody is — nobody lacks ethics because they’re poor. There are millions of Americans who are categorized financially as poor who have ethics and don’t take things that belong to them. The truth is, though, people don’t like to admit their faults. Very few people will own their own baggage. That’s why therapy is good for all of us. So people make excuses for doing things. I’m poor so i took $30,000 from a booster. No, you lack ethics, and you just happened to be poor. But a lot of poor people don’t take money that’s not their money.

Right, be more like Jesus! Because Jesus wouldn’t have minded slamming his head into 300-pound linemen fifty times a week for free, so that a bunch of old white university officials can spend their weekends driving cigarette boats to Key West. What a tool!

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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