Slaves of Big-Time College Sports

By Eitzen, D. Stanley | USA TODAY, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Slaves of Big-Time College Sports


Eitzen, D. Stanley, USA TODAY


Athletes are dominated, managed, and controlled; do not receive a wage commensurate with their contribution to economic returns; are sometimes mistreated physically and mentally; are denied the rights and freedoms of other citizens; and have no real democratic recourse in an unjust system.

MANY YOUTHS dream of playing football or basketball for a university with a big-time college sports program. They want to be part of the pageantry, glory, excitement of intense competition, shared sacrifice, commitment to excellence, and bonding with teammates, and to be the object of adoring fans. Not incidentally, they would also receive an all-expenses-paid college education, which, if a professional sports career does not work out, will open other lucrative career opportunities. Many observers of big-time college sports accept this idealized version, but just how glamorous is participation in athletics at this level? Are the athletes as privileged as it appears?

There is a dark side to big-time college sports. To show this, let me use the metaphor of big-time college sports as a plantation system. I admit at the outset that such a metaphor is overdrawn. Big-time college sports is not the same as the brutalizing, inhumane, degrading, and repressive institution of slavery found in the antebellum South. Nevertheless, there are significant parallels with slavery that highlight the serious problems plaguing collegiate athletics. Thus, the plantation/slavery metaphor is useful to understand the reality of the college sports world.

There is the organization--the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)--that preserves the plantation system, making and enforcing the rules to protect the interests, of the individual plantation owners. The plantations are the football and men's basketball factories within the universities with big-time programs. The overseers are the coaches who extract the labor from the workers. The workers are owned by the plantation and, much like the slaves of the antebellum South, produce riches for their masters while receiving a meager return on the plantation's profits.

Many observers of big-time college sports, most certainly the coaches and players, would argue vehemently with this assertion that the athletes are slaves in a plantation environment. After all, they not only choose to participate, they want desperately to be part of bigtime sports. Moreover, they have special privileges that separate them from other students (much like what house slaves received, when compared to the field slaves of the Old South) such as more and better food, special housing, favorable handling in registration for classes, and, sometimes, generous treatment by the criminal justice system when they cross the line. Also, the athletes, unlike slaves, can leave the program if they wish.

If participation is voluntary and the athletes want to be part of the system, what is the problem? My argument that these athletes are slaves in a plantation system, whether they realize it or not, involves several dimensions: The athletes (slaves) are exploited economically, making millions for their masters, but provided only with a subsistence wage of room, board, tuition, and books; they are controlled with restricted freedoms; they are subject to physical and mental abuse by overseers; and the master-slave relationship is accepted by the athletes as legitimate.

The governing body of big-time college sports, the NCAA, is caught in a huge contradiction--trying to reconcile a multibillion-dollar industry while claiming it is really an amateur activity. That it is a huge moneymaking industry is beyond dispute.

* The major conferences have an eight-year package (ending in 2006) worth $930,000,000 with ABC to televise the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) at the conclusion of the regular football season. Each team playing in a BCS game currently receives about $13,000,000 and, under the terms of the new contract, will receive around $17,000,000 in the final years of the agreement. …

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