Will Coy-Geeslin: Alchemy and the Shibboleth of “Amateurism” — My Letter to the UK President

Dr. Eli Capilouto

President, University of Kentucky

Office of the President
101 Main Building
Lexington, Kentucky 40506
                                                    
Dr. Capilouto,                              
I write in my capacity as a concerned UK alumnus. (B.A. 1995, J.D. 1998, M.L.S. 1999) I have recently come to the conclusion that college athletes have an equitable right to a fair distribution of the $6 billion revenue that their labor generates.[1] My goal is to persuade you to lead an initiative to recalibrate college athletics in a manner that achieves social justice for the players and restores higher education’s integrity. This letter will discuss how I became disillusioned with the status quo. I will then share my thoughts regarding a path forward that builds on reform ideas that Joe Nocera outlined in the New York Times Magazine.
I became sensitized to the issue by a thoroughly demoralizing article entitled “The Shame of College Athletics” by civil rights historian Prof. Taylor Branch.[2] I grappled with its implications throughout the 2011-2012 basketball season. Like many UK alumni, I have fervently followed UK basketball for the majority of my life. The inequity inherent in the fact that Rodrick Rhodes received no compensation as a result of my 1993 purchase of a 12 jersey never occurred to me. To the extent that the unpaid labor issue crossed my mind, I figured that the entertaining performers on court at Rupp Arena receive plenty of benefits: free tuition, lodging, coaching, food, travel, access to UK doctors etc.
My thinking evolved after reading Prof. Branch’s article. I learned that the value of the in-kind benefits that revenue sport athletes receive is a small percentage of the money that their labor produces: “[t]he average Football Bowl Subdivision player would be worth $121,000 per year, while the average basketball player at that level would be worth $265,000.”[3]
I finally decided that I could no longer consume college basketball in good conscience. The product is produced on the backs of a young, mostly unsophisticated (mostly black) group who are not permitted to have a voice to represent their interests. I am not content to merely avert my individual gaze. I hope to persuade you to take a public position in favor of UK’s withdrawal from the NCAA, market-driven compensation for the players and ending UK’s support of the myth of the “student-athlete.”
Alchemy and the Shibboleth of “Amateurism”
Prof. Branch eloquently argues that  “‘amateurism’ and the ‘student-athlete’ are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes.” He expanded this point in an NPR interview: “[t]he hoax is that it’s the only place in American society where we impose amateur status on someone without their consent. They’re not amateurs because they’ve chosen to be. They’re amateurs because we said that’s what you have to be.”[4] Prof. Branch’s article outlines the sad history that explains how the “student-athlete” concept was created to shield schools from workers’ compensation liability for incidents where players died or were paralyzed on the college football field.
Mark Emmert seems to perceive a threat in the expanding criticism of the NCAA cartel. In an apparent attempt to mute calls for reform, he instituted an annual cash stipend for college athletes in 2011. This was met with enough resistance by athletic directors that it was rescinded. The self-serving position that universities are unable to afford to pay $2000 a year to the performers in a $6 billion dollar entertainment industry brings the gross inequity of the status quo into stark relief.
On January 10, UK Athletics announced that it will fund the construction of new buildings on campus. It is hypocritical to suggest that paying the players would destroy the integrity of the competition but that it is okay for UK to spend the money without the players’ consent. I fail to understand the alchemy that leverages the shibboleth of “amateurism” to launder the otherwise corrupting loot into something virtuous when it funds UK facilities.
Recent incidents provide further evidence that the status quo is unjust. It was revealed on January 23 that the investigation of Miami football was compromised by NCAA investigator improprieties. The Miami controversy prompted Mark Story’s January 24 Lexington Herald-Leader column that asks this important question: “What if major college sports dropped all pretense of amateurism, adopted the Olympics model and allowed athletes to make whatever money the free market will yield?”. As Joe Nocera has written, the Olympics thrived after dispensing with silly amateurism absolutism.
Cleansing College Athletics: A Path Forward
Prof. Branch persuasively makes the case that college sports is shameful but he does not address the contours of what a fair system would look like. Joe Nocera added to the conversation by providing a viable path forward in his subsequent article entitled “Let’s Start Paying College Athletes.[5] His ideas for reform strike an admirable balance between fairness and reality. I want to offer some additional thoughts of my own that build on his piece. There are a host of other issues that would need to be carefully considered in any reform initiative. My purpose is to argue for a general paradigmatic shift that hinges on both a literal and philosophical withdrawal from the NCAA. Defenders of the status quo tend to find refuge in the thicket of details that would need to be addressed. My comments are based on a firm belief that the academy has sufficient expertise to debate and resolve them.
I think that we should acknowledge the reality that participating in big time college sports crowds out any opportunity for the athletes to receive a meaningful college education. Tensions between academics and athletics are always resolved in favor of the latter. As one example in a tsunami of others, a 9 p.m. Tuesday UK tip-off in Oxford, Mississippi is obviously incongruous with a reasonable academic schedule.
It is best to dispense with the charade that requires both the institutions and players to engage in Student-Athlete Theater. It is a self-evident facade that these people are equally interested in both athletics and academics.[6] Forcing de facto professional athletes to go through the motions of pursuing a degree corrodes higher education’s integrity. The players refer to this as Majoring in Eligibility: lowered admission standards (“special admits”), no-show classes, less-than-rigorous grading, and even outright academic fraud in the preparation of athletes’ work etc.[7] Rejecting the hoary sentimentalism that requires fealty to the “student-athlete” fiction would remove the incentives that drive academic corruption.
The players should have the same freedom as coaches to earn market-driven salaries and endorsements. Players who wish to become legitimate students can return to campus when their athletic careers end.Conforming to the requirements of the Kabuki Theater of Amateurism degrades higher education’s integrity. It also does great violence to the notion of fair treatment for the players.
In addition to a market-driven compensation that Joe suggests, I propose that revenue sport athletes receive a 1.5 year tuition credit for each year that they perform for universities. I think that a reasonable cap would be 6 years of tuition that can be used at any point during the athlete’s lifetime. The business of college sports can sufficiently fund this benefit if current growth is assumed. A lifetime credit would provide a fair opportunity for the 99% of athletes who do not end up in the NBA or NFL to achieve success beyond athletics. They would then actually be able to “receive [the] quality education” that you said they deserve in the Herald-Leader on June 19, 2011.
Universities should withdraw from the NCAA and bring the management of the business of college athletics into the academy. Universities have sufficient expertise to administer this system. Tenured faculty are expected to contribute to the campus community. Administration of of the business of college sports would fit within a reasonable expectation of their academic duties. Let’s return the nearly $300 million that the NCAA kept in the 2011-12 academic year to the players and universities. Let Mark Emmert find a new job that has a $1.7 million annual salary that is not a product of rent-seeking from powerless young people. Unmooring college athletics from the myth of the “student-athlete” would obviate any ontological justification for the NCAA.
The core fundamentals of a post-NCAA architecture should mirror other American pro sports: 1) roughly 50/50 split of the revenue between players and owner/universities; 2) the creation of a union that negotiates the terms of employment in a collective bargaining agreement; and 3) establishing a trust that will help provide affordable care to athletes that suffer long-term adverse health outcomes from playing college sports.
The tipping point of reform in college athletics appears to be approaching. There has been a rising tide of national criticism that has been published since Prof. Branch’s article.[8] The sordid affair was the topic of Frank Deford’s recent NPR commentary. He said that he seeks one college president to publicly admit that “the NCAA is a sham and we should get out of it.”[9] I ask that you demonstrate national leadership in the areas of integrity, institutional accountability and social responsibility by accepting Deford’s invitation.
In summary, I encourage you to revisit your thinking regarding the morality of the University of Kentucky’s support of a $6 billion dollar entertainment business that exploits young people and corrupts higher education. I ask that you read “The Shame of College Athletics” by Taylor Branch, “Let’s Start Paying College Athletes” by Joe Nocera and watch Frontline’s “Money and March Madness.”[10] The University of Kentucky’s regal college basketball history makes it uniquely qualified to be the institution that leads the movement to achieve social justice for the “student-athletes” whose interests the academic community purports to serve. The prospect of your publicly repudiating the cynical hoax of amateurism may seem difficult for you to imagine. However, the University of Kentucky should never be criticized for “dreaming too little dreams.”
Sincerely,
Will Coy-Geeslin
Cc: Dr. Richard Angelo, The Atlantic, Prof. Lowell Bergman, Jay Bilas, Prof. Taylor Branch, Coach John Calipari, Chronicle of Higher Education, Frank Deford, The Drake Group, Mark Emmert, Patrick Hruby, Romogi Huma, Sarah Jaffe, Matt Jones, Ashley Judd, Prof. Michael LeRoy, Lexington Herald-Leader,  Mike and Mike in the Morning, NAACP, Joe Nocera, President Barack Obama, Prof. Dan Rascher, Jalen Rose, Kevin ScarbinskyProf. Ellen J. Staurowsky, SVP & Russillo, Mark Story, Derek Thompson, University of Kentucky Board of Trustees, Up with Chris Hayes, Dick Vitale, Travis Waldron, Prof. Frank X. Walker, Dan Wetzel, Mary Willingham and Prof. Andrew Zimbalist.

[1] $6 billion is a conservative accounting. Prof. Dan Rascher, an economist at the University of San Francisco, explained to me that he erred on the side of exclusion in his analysis. A broader definition that includes other income (such as merchandise sales at university bookstores) as well as “non-revenue” sports income increases the figure to $10 billion. By contrast, the NBA earned $4 billion and the NFL took in $9 billion. The idea that college football and basketball are amateur nonprofit endeavors is at great variance with any reasonable definition of those terms.
[2] The Atlantic, October 2011.
[3] The Price of Poverty in Big Time College Sport, National College Players Association (2011).
[4] “The NCAA and Its Treatment of Student Athletes,” All Things Considered, September 14, 2011.
[5] New York Times Magazine, December 2011.
[6] Naturally, Ohio State QB Cardale Jones was suspended for questioning the visibility of the Emperor’s wardrobe in an October 2012 Internet post: “Why should we go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.”
[7] Tutors Knew of Lifted Passages in U. of North Carolina Athletes’ Papers,” Chronicle of Higher Education, October 1, 2012; “UNC Tolerated Cheating, says insider Mary Willingham,” The News & Observer, November 17, 2012.
[8] One notable example among many others is UK alumnus Travis Waldron’s January 25 essay for Alternet entitled “Is The Outrageous Exploitation of College Athletes Finally Coming to an End?”.
[9] Morning Edition, “Dear College Presidents: Break the NCAA’s Vise Grip on Athletes,” February 27, 2013.
[10] PBS, March 29, 2011.

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