Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big-Time College Sports

By Leef, George C. | Ideas on Liberty, April 2000 | Go to article overview

Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big-Time College Sports


Leef, George C., Ideas on Liberty


Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big-Time College Sports

by Andrew Zimbalist

Princeton University Press * 1999 * 252 pages * $24.00

Reviewed by George C. Leef

Turn on your television set almost any urday afternoon from September to March and the chances are pretty good that you will be able to find a college football or basketball game. You'll see a lot of color and excitement. Dazzling athletic feats performed in a state-of the-art facility before thousands of cheering fans.

That, of course, is the bright face that college sports always wants people to see. There is, however, a darker side that is rarely seen except by those who pierce the glitzy exterior. Andrew Zimbalist, professor of economics at Smith College and a long-time student of college sports; has done exactly that in his new book, Unpaid Professionals. It is worth reading even if you are not a sports fan; it may spoil some of the fun if you are.

Among collegiate sports powerhouses, the concept of the "student-athlete" has long been something of a joke. Well back into the 1800s, Zimbalist notes, colleges were using mercenaries to improve their chances of beating rivals, claiming that they were students when in fact they were not. Things are not much different today, except that the pretend students are actually enrolled and soak up money (ultimately taken from taxpayers in most instances all year long, rather than just on game day. Many take courses with no intellectual content so they can maintain the minimum grade point average and leave college (usually without a diploma) as dull as the day they entered.

People and institutions respond to incentives, and there are big bucks to be had in winning in college sports-at least football and basketball. Schools seldom resist the temptation to build successful teams by letting academic standards slide. Zimbalist writes, "[M]any NCAA schools find the temptations of success too alluring to worry about the rules. Schools cheat. They cheat by arranging to help their prospective athletes pass standardized tests. They cheat by providing illegal payments to their recruits. They cheat by setting up rinky-link curricula so their athletes can stay qualified. And when one school cheats, others feel compelled to do the same:'

There is a lot of evidence that the athletic tail is wagging the academic dog, and Zimbalist provides his readers with interesting facts such as these:

The University of North Carolina gives more than $3 million in athletic scholarships yearly to around 700 athletes, but only some $600,000 in academic merit scholarships among the rest of its 15,000 students.

Clemson University paid young black men from Columbia, South Carolina, to be on campus and pretend to be members of a black fraternity so the university would look more appealing to visiting black athletes.

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