Friday, November 30, 2012

Exploitation of College Athletes Revisited: Maryland's move to the Big 10

On November 20th, the University of Maryland at College Park announced that it would be leaving the ACC (not a slouch of an athletic conference by most standards) and becoming part of the Big 10 Conference.  It was a curious move for all sorts of reasons (e.g. with the exception of Pitt & Penn St., Maryland is not a geographical neighbor to any of the other member schools of the Big 10), not the least of which being the way the decision was made and announced--the Board of Trustees started and finished the process in under three weeks and some regents weren't aware of the final decision until hours before it was announced to the media.  

Not surprisingly, finances played a big role in the decision and in providing a rationale for the move, Maryland President Wallace Loh made a rather interesting statement about Maryland's future potential to use the athletic department to subsidize other parts of the university (something many would call a pipe dream).  As reported in Inside Higher Ed, Loh has publicly declared that "substantial funds" from Maryland's new revenue stream as a member of the Big 10 Conference will be used to support the educational mission of the university, specifically through financial aid for needy students.  Loh then asserted that Maryland is "doing nothing less than developing a new financial paradigm for intercollegiate athletics."

On its face, Loh's statements and ideas seem laudable.  What could be better for college athletics than an institution where the athletic program, rather than being a drain on institutional resources, puts money back into the pipeline and for needy students, no less. However, viewed another way, this is just another example of athletes--specifically, those who participate in high-profile, revenue-producing sports (which at most institutions means football and men's basketball)--whose talent is used to bring prestige and financial gain to the larger institution.  What's more, writers like William Rhoden, would argue that systems such as the one Loh is advocating for, have historical echoes to early American History when African American men were oppressed for the benefit of the more privileged class of American society.  In his book Forty Million Dollar Slaves, Rhoden provides a narrative of black athletes in the US (who, make up the majority of athletes of high-profile teams in Div. I college athletics).  He describes the evolution of professional and collegiate athletics in the US as one that led black athletes from literal plantations--where sports were used as a distraction to quell uprisings among slaves--to symbolic plantations where professional sports franchises and intercollegiate athletic departments continue to exploit black athletes' skills.

Critics of the views put forth by Rhoden and others are quick to point out that high-profile scholarship athletes receive scholarships that cover tuition, books, room, board, and virtually any other expense they might incur directly related to their enrollment in the institution.  Further, by providing opportunities to black athletes (often from urban areas and familial cultures where higher education isn't the norm) to attend college, the institution does much more than give someone a chance to play basketball, they change his life trajectory.

My purpose here isn't to argue for one position or another, just to raise some interesting questions about college athletics in general, and Wallace Loh's views in particular.  Is a free college degree and the opportunity for a better future enough "payment" for what an athlete (or team of athletes) brings in for a university?  And, how often does the four-year athletic scholarship really lead to the opportunities cited by proponents of big-time college sports?  What does it mean for one student (or group of students) to subsidize the cost of enrollment for another group of students?


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