SBJ/October 22 - 28, 2001/Opinion

Sports factories run on exploited workers

Michigan State's fabulous Flintstones — Mateen Cleaves, Charlie Bell, Morris Peterson and Antonio Smith — are the human interest part of this story. The four young black men from Flint, Mich. — the city made famous by Michael Moore's film "Roger and Me" — were childhood friends and superb basketball players who powered Michigan State's basketball team to a national championship.

After "Roger and Me" was released, Flint became the poster city for what happens when globalization and "to be expected" corporate greed strike at the heart of American industry, in this case the auto industry. The movie is about how General Motors, with initial layoffs of 30,000 workers, abandons generations of autoworkers and the city of Flint for greener (cheaper) auto production pastures in Mexico and other off-shore production facilities. GM's chairman of the board, Roger Smith, and his PR cronies justify his decision throughout the film with maddening disregard for the impact on the city of Flint and its citizens.

The people of Flint, many of them second-generation black immigrants from the South, are left holding the bag when virtually the only work in town has left.

Out of this crucible of a shattered city emerged four young black men who, with little prospect of following their fathers into the now nonexistent working class factory life, used their considerable athletic skills and determination to secure basketball scholarships at Michigan State. There, they became the core of a fine Michigan State team that won last year's NCAA men's college basketball championship.

The irony in the stories of the Flintstones and other big-time college basketball players is that as their fathers' generation got screwed by capricious corporate decisions, so will many of the sons, by a college sports industry that generates millions of dollars in revenue but does not pay its worker athletes.

Whether or not four years of basketball work is legitimately compensated by a college education and degree is an open question. Understanding the workings of big-time college revenue sports, I wouldn't bet on it.

College sport has historically been defined by the NCAA as serving an educational function at the college or university, much like the chemistry or English departments. This conception of the educational mission of college sport is the guiding philosophy that underpins an annual multibillion-dollar college sport entertainment industry.

If the top 50 or so power schools' athletic departments are multimillion-dollar sports entertainment enterprises, what do the athletes, the men and women who generate these huge dollars via their considerable athletic talent, gain?

The truth of the matter is, as a group, they don't gain very much at all, except to be used by these schools as expendable talent and possibly enjoy a brief moment of fame (or enjoy the pleasure of being choked by famed Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight). Are their interests being represented in this business? The answer: not at all.

The NCAA has made athletic scholarships the medium of payment for revenue-producing college athletes. Does this trade — four years of athletic service including games, practices, away game travel, off-season conditioning, six-month schedules including playoffs and bowl games (estimated to be 60 hours per week during the season) for a bona fide college education — work for the athlete?

The answer is no. In most cases, scholarship athletes participating in college money sports either do not graduate or they received degrees that are virtually useless in our modern job marketplace.

In 1999, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that graduation rates for scholarship college athletes in the NCAA's top Division I were at their lowest point in seven years. The Chronicle said 51 percent of football players and 41 percent of male basketball players graduated in six years. According to the same report, 33 percent of Division I black male basketball players graduated in six years, the lowest graduation rate since 1985.

The big-time college sports programs and the NCAA are really no different than General Motors or any of our country's major corporations in the way they treat workers or, in this case, worker athletes.

College athletic departments are commercial entities whose purpose is to cover costs, make a profit and bring glory and recognition to their parent universities. Athletic department costs include funding for the non-revenue sports which are paid for by the revenue sports (football and basketball), as are lavish administrative budgets and million-dollar-plus coaches' salaries.

The broader problems of race, worker exploitation and issues of economic democracy roil in the crucible of corporate America and college money sports. In both, auto workers and athlete workers have no input in the decisions made by the corporate structures of their respective work places. Autoworkers at least have the United Auto Workers union to represent their interests, though they still lack a place at the table when corporate decisions like GM's pullout from Flint are made. Revenue-producing college athletes have no one who speaks for their interests.

It is ironic that before GM left town, Flint's black auto workers were building cars for largely white middle-class consumption. In the year 2000, the four black Flintstones' athletic work made the money to fund Michigan State's mostly white middle-class college "minor" sports programs.

What is to be done? Clearly, in the case of revenue-producing college athletes, pay them.

David Meggyesy is a former NFL player and Western director of the National Football League Players Association. A version of this article was published in Heartland Journal.

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