In 2011, this column appeared in the newspaper, and today, I’m liberating it from behind the Hanson Pay Wall. In our fast-moving world of ephemeral meaninglessness, some of the topical references have aged better than others, but the gist remains precisely the same: When it comes to the artful fiction of student athlete amateurism amid rampant, monopolistic and profiteering hypocrisy, college basketball is tops.
A labor theory of basketball value.
Numerous sources agree that on average, Americans spend at least four hours a day watching television, and although three decades of competitive beer drinking have atrophied my basic math skills, I’m fully capable of calculating this amount to a weekly total of 28 hours and a yearly tally of 1,456, give or take a TV evangelist’s sermon or three.
In truth, it’s probably a lot more than that, and speaking personally, I can’t fathom it. Wasting one’s life watching television makes less sense than squandering valuable agitation time asleep. Both are better done when dead.
Reading and writing, or staring passively at someone else’s creative output, assuming “reality” TV can be “creative”?
Walking and biking, or another numbing episode of Two and a Half Men?
I’d rather mow grass or even put up hay bales than subject myself to Glee, American Idol or any show about comic book criminal forensics, and if refraining from these vapid intrusions, and avoiding the even more disgusting commercials accompanying them, means I’m missing out on a shared “cultural” experience, that’s fine by me. I’ll listen to Duke Ellington instead.
However, exceptions prove the rule. While spending nowhere close to 28 hours a week staring at the tube, I enjoy selected sporting events – a few baseball games in summer, and National Basketball Association (NBA) contests.
‘Round here, the merest mention of my preference for the NBA usually is enough to incite anguished howls from those with rooting interests in universities that many rabid fans have never visited, and couldn’t locate on a map even if map reading were a widely shared skill in Christina Aguilera’s America.
In my admittedly obtuse and distended world, colleges and universities are places where students go for an education, the overall contempt for which severely punishes our American battered work force in a time of increased global competitiveness.
Conversely, America’s (and recently, the world’s) finest basketball players are paid to play in the NBA, which functions vaguely as a market economy, with laborers remunerated in a manner somewhat commensurate with the wealth they assist in creating.
In the NBA, it’s all about the money – and refreshingly, not a single person involved ever bothers denying it.
In American college basketball, it’s also all about the money – and alarmingly, almost every person involved constantly denies it.
As products competing for the entertainment dollar, sporting voyeurism in both the NBA and college hoops is a paying proposition. Fans pay to watch athletes play, and make no mistake: At both levels, without the presence of athletes out there actually playing basketball, no one would ever pay to attend. Remember this whenever college or pro basketball’s “cult of the coach” rears its pompous, idiotic head, because there have been no recorded instances of fans tithing for the privilege of watching Bob Knight or Phil Jackson bark instructions to an empty court.
Given that basketball players are the means of generating profit from nothing, a significant proportion of the money generated by NBA players comes back to them in the form or salaries and endorsements, and that’s as it should be, even if it took until recent times to rightly end the sort of artificially maintained monopoly/cartel at the professional level that merrily and deleteriously persists in college basketball to this precise moment.
In short, while the NBA is far from perfect, at least it’s free of hypocrisy.
Meanwhile, in college basketball, a strikingly small percentage of the money generated by the players comes back to the players, not as pay, but in the form of scholarships and grants. Before Cards or Cats fans begin waving this bogus “free ride” statistic in my face, recall that NCAA Division One basketball players generate billions of dollars of revenue.
Yes, the players are lightly “paid” with wholesale-priced scholarships, representing what amounts to sweatshop wages in proportionate terms, as well as being “rewarded” with the opportunity to work more often than study. All of it is hypocritical and exploitative, and the system as currently constituted is to the detriment of higher education, as Murray Sperber concludes in his classic study, “Beer and Circus.”
In the book, Sperber (who the iconic Knight understandably detests) charges that Big Time Universities knowingly entice students not with bang-for-the-buck learning, but with the siren’s lure of party culture and upper echelon NCAA athletics, hence the term “Beer and Circus,” which consciously echoes ancient Rome. Distracted by parties and ballgames, students hopefully fail to notice that their educational institutions fail to provide them a quality undergraduate education … and tuition never decreases.
In a nutshell, that’s why I can no longer watch college basketball. The sham is too much for this hardened cynic, even if every once in a while a school like Butler comes along to encourage us to giddily swallow the bait and get all touchy-feely about the alleged triumphs of amateurism, but wishing doesn’t make it so.
To maintain the populace’s preference for the fiction of student athlete amateurism amid the rampant, monopolistic and profiteering hypocrisy, why not institute a program of delayed gratification?
Take a percentage of the revenue generated annually by NCAA basketball (just think of the advertising monies generated by March Madness alone) and use it to pay the players according to an agreed upon wage scale — but deferred, not until they graduate, or failing graduation, when they reach a certain age.
Until then, how ‘bout them Heat?