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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: The NCAA Blind Sides Poor Athletes

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The NCAA Blind Sides Poor Athletes

The Blind Side is a heat warming movie about Michael Oher, a black boy without family or home who is befriended and ultimately adopted by a wealthy white family.  The makers of the movie make several important claims, that nurture is more important than nature, love is colorblind, and that religion and athletics are two of the few bridges between white and black America.  A minor point is that the NCAA thought that a white family befriending an athletic black boy might be an NCAA violation.  In a wonderful interview by Robert Birnbaum (RB), Michael Lewis (ML), the author the book, The Blind Side, delves into the role of the NCAA in restricting the access of the poorest of black athletes from a ladder of upward mobility through college education (identity, "Michael Lewis 2.0").
ML: I didn’t feel outraged by it watching it [subversion of NCAA rules] up close. Because...while it’s outrageous in theory that this happens—that people can go and subvert the rules of the NCAA—the rules themselves seem to me to be a little screwy. First, the rules that kid lived by his whole life...what basically the NCAA is saying to this kid is, “Society completely cheated you for the first sixteen years of your life. Failed you in every possible way. No family, no love, no upbringing, no structure, no schooling. Nothing! And so we are going to make sure that that sticks.”...

ML: It’s a corrupt regulatory system—it's worse than you know. What happens is that there is a career to be had as an NCAA investigator, and what you do is go to work for the NCAA—like a career with the Securities Exchange Commission: you go to work being the cop, and then you get hired for a fancy salary working for the school interpreting the rules written by the cops. And so it becomes this little incestuous world that justifies itself in all sorts of ways. And its main purpose is to serve as a figleaf for what has become professionalized college athletics. The tutors at Ole Miss were very blunt about this. They watched the regime that the football players were in; they said that they give them a speech when they arrive: “You are employees of a corporation. You are not college students. You are employees of a corporation. You are just not paid.” [laughs] I think the harm that is done by the hypocrisy is greater than the harm that would be done just by throwing open the doors and saying this is the way it is. People have so obsessed with football at the college level, and it is such a money maker—it’s not just a money maker for these universities: in some cases the school would have trouble surviving without the football team. So let’s just acknowledge this. Let’s acknowledge it in the way we acknowledge professional baseball players were once indentured servants and they shouldn’t have been—these people have a market value. They are poor people who desperately are in need of realizing their market value—let’s be fair and honest about it.

RB: Right, they are all not going to the NFL.

ML: The vast majority will not go to the NFL. These are the numbers—there are a million high school football players in the country, roughly fifty-five thousand of them will play college football. And a thousand of those will have some kind of professional contract, of whom just a couple hundred will make enough money to have careers. So you are talking about a winnowing process that’s brutal. However, the whole system is premised—not the million to fifty-five thousand—but of those fifty-five thousand college football players, there is some large number of them who are sustained by the hope that they are going to be professional football players and are not making other provisions for themselves.
Michael Lewis believes that college athletics will eventually evolve into an organization that gives more to its employees. 
RB: So even in those years when they are in college, they could get some vocational guidance, and get some compensation—

ML: —and it will all work out. I think what will happen is someone will come along who won’t buckle under the pressure and will say, “Okay, we’re going to get a good lawyer and take care of them and break the system.” Because it’s outrageous. It is outrageous. Essentially what you have now is thousands upon thousands of poor black kids coming from the most horrendous kind of destitution, exploited briefly for three or four years and led to believe that they might actually make a career playing football and then thrown back on the street with absolutely nothing to show for it. And the flip side of that is what an opportunity to at least make a dent in the social problem. There are not very many points of contact between white America and black America. Here can be cynical about sports, about football, but you can’t argue that white people aren’t interested in those black people playing on the field when they are playing football. Why not use that for some greater purpose? Instead of forbidding the rich white boosters for so much as taking the black football players to lunch, why not insist that they not only take them to lunch but they give them an internship and pay them well in the off season and teach them about their business? The minute those kids cease to be football players, they are of no interest whatsoever to those white people anymore. That relationship should be cultivated rather than denied.


  1. Dr Wilson:

    I'm not sure I buy this premise. It may be designed to sell more books and promote a movie, rather than reflect reality. I played high school football in Dallas in the 70's, and went on to play at Texas Lutheran (for 1 year - injuries forced me to quit).

    I had high school friends who played at the big schools -- A&M, Oklahoma, Texas, etc. These guys got paid by the backers (can you say Barry Switzer?). Some of my friends at the large schools got free cars, cash, and no-show "jobs" that allowed them to stay in school. This was all known and winked at throughout the old Southwest Conference. I'm sure it was just as bad in the other conferences.

    We had the same problem then -- we played with middle-class white kids, and poor black kids. TLC (now TLU) won the NAIA Div III national title a few times -- and none of our players went on to the NFL. And I don't think any of them had any expectation that they would.

    Now, I'm an old fart, and things have changed in 30 years (SMU death penalty, etc). But one of the problems that the NCAA faces (and some high school teams in TX with UIL do, too) is kids moving from school to school in search of scholarship money -- any money -- just to stay in school. And they'll treat the rules just like we treat taxes -- ("Anyone may arrange his affairs..." -- Learned Hand). Why should we be surprised when family and big-money (typically white) athletic supporters encourage all players to get right up to the line and push the edge of the rules, just as they do in their business and personal lives?

    It has always been my position that college players should be paid a stipend (ok, salary) in order to remove some of the incentives to cheat. In my case, I never got any money from boosters (I wasn't very good), but I worked real jobs for real money, and there were no limits to what I could earn. I had a union job in the summer that paid $12 per hour (big money in the 70's) and that paid for my college.

    Now in my day, we had no illusions that we would play pro ball. We wanted to earn that National Title ring, and then brag about it until our grandkids were bored of hearing about it.

    I'm sure it's changed - there's a lot more money sloshing around - but this line that there are players who are "sustained by the hope" that they'll be pros is a stretch. We have schools who don't require them to show up for class, and the 60's "social promotion" is still going on in college. How in the world can we grant a college degree to someone who is functionally illiterate, and hasn't been to class in a semester or so? This is a problem at the teaching level (and the athletic program bringing in the big bucks). Why in the hell do we have tenured teachers if they won't stand up to the coach and the school and say "no" to giving passing grades to players who don't really pass?

    Perhaps if we saw fewer "ganstas" like Michael Irvin sporting 10 carat diamond earrings, and a little better roll-models on the part of white and black players (active pro and retired), along with stipends, we could put a dent in this so-called problem.

    But college is about education for life, and the athletics is secondary. THIS is the message that must be the basic premise of college admission counselors, coaches, and backers. I think a stipend for the players will slow down the use of big-name college progams as farm teams for the NFL. Let's get Jerry Jones to put a few of those millions to work at SMU or at Baylor instead of building billion-dollar stadiums.

    TLC '80

  2. TLC '80 I liked your comment so much that I made it a post. I believe that you correctly describe college athletics in 1980. I do believe that the NCAA has changed from giving winks to placing unreasonable burdens on universities and athletes. I will try to learn if and why they changed. I will post whatever I learn.