The opening is powerful in another way, as well, setting up the distinct and jarring contrast between our passion for the games and the too-often coldly calculating way we treat the athletes that play them for our entertainment.
Thanks, once again, to the kindness of one of our own, the Teej, Mrs. Teej, and I were fortunate to attend a screening of the documentary Wednesday night at the headquarters of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA). We rubbed shoulders with Bobby Valentine, the executive producer of the film (Teej rubbed more than that, to be sure*), met former Penn State and NFL linebacker Andre Collins, and shared time in a bathroom line with former Redskin Darnerien McCants.
After viewing the film, I confess to very mixed feelings. I love college sports. I love the theater, the passion, the emotion. I love the spectacle, and the drama, and the whole damn circus. But except for the occasional thought about the concept of compensating collegiate athletes, I've given very little consideration to the welfare of those that entertain us.
The film offers a view into a system that churns out massive profits based on a design intentionally crafted to restrict the rights of its most important participants. When former NCAA President Walter Byers and his legal team hit on the term 'student-athletes' in the 1950s as a means to defend the organization against workman's compensation claims, he could have scarcely known how successful his gambit would ultimately prove.
It's entirely true that student athletes receive significant compensation in the form of scholarships, which have both economic and intangible value. For a substantial majority of collegiate athletes, especially those in non-revenue sports, a scholarship is arguably more valuable to them than to the university. But as Branch pointed out after the screening, no college athlete has the same economic rights as those taken for granted by their classmates. If an English major publishes a novel, her eligibility as a teaching assistant won't be revoked, in one example.
After the screening, journalist John Ourand moderated a panel discussion about the issue, which featured Valentine, noted scholar Taylor Branch (upon whose e-book, The Cartel, the film is based), former UNC fullback Devin Ramsey, UNC academic support specialist Mary Willingham, and producer Andrew Muscato.
The discussion was wide-ranging, but ultimately centered on Branch's fundamental call for a discussion about ensuring the basic rights of athletes as participants in the marketplace. There is no panacea, nor were any substantive policy recommendations offered. Valentine made what I thought a very cogent comparison of today's student-athlete with professional baseball players in the reserve clause era. Prior to the advent of free agency, professional baseball players had no freedom of movement - they served at the whims of their team's owners until they weren't needed. Only when the players got a seat at the table did fair market principles begin to take hold. And despite widely-held fears that free agency and money would ruin the game, 45 years later, Major League Baseball thrives by nearly any measure.
The evening's most interesting exchange occurred between Valentine (who was as charismatic, engaging, and just plain fun as you could've hoped) and George Mason men's basketball coach Paul Hewitt (best described in this case as something that rhymes with 'thick'), who attended the screening and offered a highly critical response to the film. Hewitt lambasted the filmmakers for telling a one-sided story, which on the face of it is a reasonable criticism, except that the film offered no claim towards balance - it's absolutely got a point of view. But Hewitt surely understands that there's a multi-billion dollar media-industrial complex dedicated to telling the side of the story he wants told. He's clearly invested in the maintenance of the status quo - his own university is a case study in the potential impact of intercollegiate athletics.
|'Nice ass, Pedroia, but you're no Doyle.'|
After seeing the film and hearing the discussion, I have more questions than answers. I'm not necessarily supportive of paying all college athletes, because I think there's a real difference between revenue and non-revenue sports, and I think such a policy would create severe financial burdens on a number of institutions. However, I do think there's potential in a system that enables athletes to seek market value for their images/services. As noted above, a vast majority of collegiate athletes receive very fair returns in the form of scholarships and opportunities, but that small minority that don't is substantially undervalued in comparison to their contributions. Finding an equitable way to close that gap wouldn't destroy what we love about collegiate athletics any more than Curt Flood did professional baseball.
You can catch the movie on EPIX October 16 at 8:00 pm. If nothing else, in combination with the recent Frontline documentary on the NFL's concussion issues, it's an invitation to continued conversation.