College Sports Cartel
With empty pockets and limited options, student-athletes have become commodities.
by David J. Leonard / @drdavidjleonard
Once upon a time, I loved college sports. I was the person who planned his March around Madness, his fall around football, and even spent many a spring day at college baseball games. I couldn’t get enough Big Monday, Super Tuesday, or football Saturdays. While a fan of specific professional teams (the Lakers), I was truly a fan of all collegiate sports, from football to volleyball.
Notice the past tense here, as I have come to hate college sports. While I have nothing but love for the athletes, their talents and the demands of balancing school and sports, I truly have deep disdain for college sports. I love the player, but hate the game. From the hypocrisy and exploitation, from the absurd rules and the lack of concern for the well-being of student athletes, there is little I find redeemable about college athletics. In recent weeks, my contempt has become more pronounced, leaving me thinking that I don’t want anything more to do with the institution of college sports.
Unhappy with his situation at University of Wisconsin, Jarrod Uthoff notified school officials of his desire to transfer. As a student, who plays basketball, you would think he would be able to simply drop out and find another place to go to school and participate in collegiate basketball. As someone who dropped out of University of Oregon, whose friends routinely changed schools, it is clear from my own life that transferring from one school to the next can be a routine part of the collegiate experience. Don’t tell that to Uthoff.
His request for a release from his scholarship, which included a list of more than 25 potential schools he was interested in potentially transferring to, was met with resistance, and subsequently, restrictions. Over half of the schools on his list were determined to be unacceptable by the University of Wisconsin. ESPN’s Jay Billas reacted to the Wisconsin decision with a tweet: “Wisconsin restricting Jarrod Uthoff’s transfer is simply wrong. There is no legit reason for a school to control a player’s destination.”
Jamie Johnson, Uthoff’s AAU coach, agreed, pointing out the hypocrisy here: “I guess I don’t understand how ADs can job-hop and coaches can job-hop [...] It seems like there’s a double standard out there.” While Uthoff was ultimately allowed to seek transfer outside of the Big Ten, is yet another reminder of how collegiate athletics is a space of tremendous hypocrisy and little concern for the well-being (present and future) of its student-athletes.
Not to be outdone, Larry Brown reminded me of everything I hate about college athletics. Shortly after the Hall of Fame coach arrived on campus at SMU, he told several players that their services were no longer needed; in other words, he kicked them off the team, telling them to take their ball and go elsewhere.
Can you imagine if a university hired a new department chair, and the first order of business was to tell several of the students majoring that the department no longer needed them? That is what Brown told several student-athletes, although each would be allowed to remain at the school on scholarship.
Despite the public pronouncements regarding the importance of academics, about student-athletes, the dismissal of these players is yet another reminder of what counts: athletic performance and wins and losses. Jeremiah Samarrippas, the Mustangs’ starting point guard, was one of those dismissed from the team, telling the school’s student newspaper that “Brown basically told him that he ‘wasn’t good enough to play for him.’”
The callousness of a system that has turned student-athletes into athletic commodities is nothing new, in part resulting from an NCAA rule change in the 1970s that made scholarships renewable each year. Regarded as little more property, these players were tossed away with little regard for their future.
Such disregard has become commonplace and is evident in the recent case involving a student-athlete at Florida International University. Dominique Ferguson decided that FIU was not the place for him. Like other students, athletes and otherwise, he realized that FIU was not the best fit for him academically and personally.
“I wanted to go to a school close to my family in the Midwest. I went to Hargrave [Military Academy in Virginia] my senior year in high school and came straight here and had seen my family only a handful of times. It was hard on me and affected how I played,” Fergusson told ESPN.com.
He expressed this sentiment to the school: “I told them that I wanted to leave to go to a smaller school, that I needed more one-on-one smaller classes,” he stated. “Four hours later I got an email on the decision that it was more beneficial for me to stay in Miami, at FIU. It was puzzling. I had never met them. They didn’t know me. I wanted to be near my family, a big family that I don’t ever see.”
Although his decision was often linked to the firing of his coach, Isiah Thomas, his request actually preceded the dismissal of his coach. Unfortunately, his request was denied first by the athletic department and then by a “three-person academic board” who sent the following email.
After considering your email appealing the decision of the Athletic Department to refuse to grant you permission to speak and transfer to another institution, and after listening to you during the appeal hearing, the appeal panel affirms the Athletic Department and denies your appeal.
We believe it is in your best interest to continue your studies here at FIU. We would particularly encourage you to apply yourself to your courses for the rest of the semester.
Fergusson’s experience is evidence of everything that is wrong with college sports and why I have lost “that lovin’ feelin’.” For one, Fergusson, frustrated by the lack of support for academics and the difficulty he faced because of the structural inefficiencies surrounding academic services and an overall culture that made clear that academics need to be secondary. The mere fact that he was not given a release so that he could go to a school that better met his academic needs highlights what is important within collegiate sports.
Secondly, it points to the failures of the NCAA’s monitoring system, which punishes programs when student-athletes leave if not in good academic standing. Rather than emphasizing education or creating a good experience for student-athletes, the APR has turned America’s collegiate athletics into athletic and graduation factories, both of which care little for learning, and the maturation and long-term prospects of today’s athletes.
Thirdly, it makes clear how little power student-athletes have in the face of the NCAA, coaches and college administrations. Whereas coaches can leave for other jobs, universities can decide not to renew a student-athlete scholarship, student-athletes lack the basic right of movement. They lack the basic right to decide where to best work toward their dreams.
According to Fergusson, his experience at FIU was a stark reminder of what Dave Zirin describes as collegiate sports’ “sham-amateurism.”
“It was like I was held hostage,” Ferguson said. “They made me feel like I could never leave here.”
While coaches, fans and administrators often balk at any invoking of the phrase slavery to describe collegiate sports, it is hard not to connect to the history of servitude. As noted by Taylor Branch, in The Shame of Sports:
Slavery analogies should be used carefully. College athletes are not slaves. Yet to survey the scene—corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as “student-athletes” deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution—is to catch an unmistakable whiff of the plantation. Perhaps a more apt metaphor is colonialism: college sports, as overseen by the NCAA, is a system imposed by well-meaning paternalists and rationalized with hoary sentiments about caring for the well-being of the colonized. But it is, nonetheless, unjust. The NCAA, in its zealous defense of bogus principles, sometimes destroys the dreams of innocent young athletes.
The NCAA today is in many ways a classic cartel.
The experiences of Fergusson are emblematic of the cartel model embraced within collegiate athletics. The power of the NCAA and their respective members are able to restrict the movement and opportunities available to student-athletes. Isn’t this by definition a cartel? Unable to transfer to a school that met his academic needs and his desires to be close to home, Fergusson has decided to enter the NBA Draft, one of the few paths available to him in his search for freedom.
So next time a commentator laments “one and done,” or next time David Stern and Mark Cuban call for an increase in the age restriction, why not ask them to help reform collegiate sports. Rather than blaming student-athletes for not focusing on education, how about we take a look at a system that not only discourages learning but encourages young men to turn their attention elsewhere?
Why not look at a system that leaves their pockets empty and their options limited? It is time to look at the corruption and exploitation, the injustices faced by Fergusson and Jamar Samuels, as a symptom of a rotten system.
“All these stories about corrupt institutions tend to write around the NCAA’s culpability and to obsess over the subordinate clauses of the larger narrative, attacking the symptoms rather than the disease,” writes AJ Daulerio. “This only serves to embolden the system and derail the careers of well-intentioned students and coaches who are, more often than not, trying to enrich their own lives and build winning programs.”
And until we demand treatment of both the symptoms and the larger disease that is the NCAA and collegiate athletics, I will remain a former collegiate athletic fan.
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author of the just released After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press) as we as several other works. Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan, layupline, Feminist Wire, and Urban Cusp. He is frequent contributor to Ebony, SLAM and racialicious as well as a past contributor to Loop21, The Nation and The Starting Five. He blogs @No Tsuris. Follow him on Twitter @drdavidjleonard.