Friday, September 24, 2010

The Sport of Serfs

Black Betty - Ram Jam (mp3)
For Tomorrow - Blur (mp3)

UGA’s A.J. Green was suspended for four games for selling his own jersey for somewhere in the range of $400-500. A 1-game suspension per $100 of profit. According to Michael Wilbon’s column in the Washington Post, UGA rakes in a healthy six figures in pure profit off the sales of various licensed versions of A.J. Green’s #8 UGA jersey. Meanwhile, A.J. Green could only buy three Kindles with the money he made.

That makes my head hurt. But not as much as the next factoid.

Somewhere between 1.6 million and 3.8 million brain injuries - mostly concussions - are suffered each year during sports activities. There’s no reliable way to track athletes and concussions in high school because so many players are afraid of missing games or falling in dutch with coaches (PDF, The number of emergency room visits for concussions for children ages 8-19 doubled from 1997-2007 (PDF, Pediatrics).

I play fantasy football. I am a moderately fervent UNC sports fanatic. My daughter plays select soccer, and it would take the jaws of life to remove her from doing so for the foreseeable future, because she loves it. So I’m not the Anti-Jock or Gozer the Destructor, apocalyptic death-bringer of all things sporty. But I would happily bet that we’re approaching the point, in the coming decade, where the cultural pendulum will reach its pinnacle of sports obsession and begin returning to something more in line with reason.

Take a look at Newsweek’s latest feature on college athletics, “The Case Against College Athletic Recruiting,” which is a troubling (if admittedly oversimplified) investigation into how important playing a sport can be in the college admission process... at all levels for schools of all sizes.

After my rant about our local paper, perhaps I’m beating a dead horse here. But sports are often hurting the very people it claims to help -- the students. It’s hurting them physically with concussions, torn ACLs, broken bones, and it’s taking advantage of their pipe dreams by giving them “scholarships” and then making millions of dollars off them. And those great college scholarships earn them majors in amazing things like “sports management,” “African-American Studies,” and “General studies.” (The top 10 list is here.)

What I’m saying is, the claim that these money-making athletes (read: D-I basketball and football players) get a free ride in college and should be grateful is a lie we all know to be a lie. We want to be deceived. We also prefer to believe that football is “safe enough” because they wear armor and are super-sized humans with super-speed. We say this even as we watch approximately 45 players get carted off the field during the Clemson v. Auburn football game last weekend. (OK, slight exaggeration, but myself ant at least three friends declared that game “one of the most violent football games in recent memory.”)

At some point, the willful self-deception will have to stop. Because it always does.

We are currently riding a sports bubble not unlike the housing bubble and dot-com bubble of the recent past. BThe economic unfairness of the college system, and the evidence piling up on the kind of permanent physical damage we’re doing to teens and young adults will eventually force us to wake up. And we will wake up. We will eventually decide that the risks are more costly than the rewards.

Sports won’t die. Nothing at all like that. But I do believe my grandchildren will grow up in a society that doesn’t use phrases like “select sports” with quite the same zeal and focus. It’s possible this will be because everyone speaks Chinese and plays table tennis. Or it’s possible we’ll all be dead because an astronaut hit us or we did something to our planet that we can’t fix that wipes us out.

Or maybe the zombie virus will actually come. (And oh hell yeah I’m gonna watch “The Walking Dead” on AMC. You betcha! I say, to quote our most famous American zombie. I have a huuuuge soft spot in my heart for zombies.)


Hank said...

1: I know this was an excuse to post Black Betty

2: Top revenue producing football programs:

Sara C said...

Be careful, Billy. Those Top 10 majors are not at all illegit. In fact, a proper course of study in African-American Studies or Liberal Arts would be an amazing intellectual exploration. It is, however, awfully easy to imagine some of these athletes taking a different path regardless of major designation.

Billy said...

@Hank - I will not try to deny it. Thanks for the link. Very eye-opening. I also read that AJ Green made $1,000 off his jersey. So I apologize. He's virtually Gordon Gekko.

@Sara - It's not so much the majors as much as it is the absolute lack of any real work many of these guys do to earn them. UNC ain't the only team in the land having people write their papers. The job of a coach at most D-I schools is to make sure the illusion of education doesn't get in the way of a valued revenue generator. And a free education isn't worth much if there wasn't any real learning going on.