Monday, August 31, 2009

On Working for a Living

I did not wake up early in college. I still don't wake up particularly early, but now I make exceptions for such things as cross-country flights and interviews and deadlines and brunches with in-laws and fire alarms. In college, however, I made very few exceptions at all, especially during the summer. And because it was such an anomaly, I remember one day in the summer of '93, when I woke up at 6:30 on a stiff and humid morning and walked thirty minutes across the campus to the student newspaper for a 7 a.m. interview with Kerry Collins. I remember thinking, It's summer. Practice hasn't even started yet. And the only time Kerry Collins is available for an interview is at 7 in the morning?

So let me begin by stating the obvious: Playing college football consists largely of drudgery, pain and fatigue. It is hours of misery followed by a brief window of glory; it takes the four greatest years of one's existence and renders it into boot camp*. And we are supposed to believe that this is the price athletes pay for that glory, that they should take pride in what they do because they are taking free biology labs, that they should exude the same irrational and hopelessly biased love for their schools that we do, that they should volunteer to give their lives away in service to their sport. This, after all, is, like, the spirit of amateurism, or something.

That seems to be the pushback to Michael Rosenberg** and Mark Snyder's weekend expose in the Detroit Free Press about Rich Rodriguez and his apparent insistence on requiring players to spend up to 12 hours a day focusing on football the Sunday after a game (among other demands). It is pretty much the same argument we hear anytime a scandal arises in the modern era: Everybody does it. What difference does it make? The whistleblower--in this case, a considerable quorum of current and former Michigan players--simply doesn't respect the implicit implications of the modern system. The whistleblower doesn't understand.

And maybe this is true. Let's say everybody does it,*** which seems to be the consensus of the nation's most plugged-in college football writers. Fine. If the allegations are true, this still doesn't excuse Rodriguez, and it still means he has a serious likability problem--but if everybody does it, and nobody really wants to do anything about it, then there is obviously a much larger problem here, far beyond Ann Arbor. And the problem is that we can't even see the problem for what it is anymore. The problem is that all know the system is ridiculous and skewed and unfair, but we just don't care. It's not that we can't handle the truth; it's that we've been handling the truth for so long that it's become background noise. We assume everyone is getting something out of this deal, and no one is innocent, and therefore, no one should complain, for fear of upsetting the delicate balance of this great thing we've got going for ourselves.

I will admit it--I often feel the same way. Being a college football fan, even of a supposed "bastion of integrity" like Penn State, is an inherently amoral and contradictory position. (I understand that I am essentially encouraging a flawed system, and yet I have still never been more excited for a college football season to begin than I am for this one.) But allow me to suggest a simple way to repair the problem at hand and ease our consciences at the same time.

Let us imagine every member of the Michigan football team--and every other member of every other Division I-A football team--was getting paid for their service to the university, for their ability to generate millions of dollars in revenue and sponsorship agreements. Let us imagine they were paid for twenty hours a week of workouts and practices. It wouldn't even have to be a great deal of money; it could even be set aside in an interest-bearing account and presented to the student-athlete upon their graduation. Let us imagine that for any amount of time they practiced or worked out or studied film beyond the NCAA restrictions, they would be permitted to apply for overtime pay. Let us imagine that they would be able to file complaints to their employer if they felt the overtime policy were being abused, or if they felt it was affecting their pursuit of an education. Let us imagine we treated them the way we treat every other American who generates a tremendous amount of income with his/her skill: As protected employees, as skilled practitioners, as college students with an especially demanding and high-profile part-time job.

The problem isn't that everybody does it. The problem is that nobody really cares about solving the problem anymore.

Update: As proof that the Everybody Does It camp of college football fandom can swallow up even the most intelligent of thinkers, here is esteemed New Republic writer (and Michigan graduate) Jon Chait making an absurd and borderline childish case for his alma mater, largely by attacking the messenger.

That said, given the genetic makeup of the female population on an SEC campus, this boot camp does have some excellent benefits.
**Who, it should be noted, also wrote this truly excellent book.
***Though everybody speeds on the highway, but I think we can agree there is difference between driving 72 in a 65 and pushing 120 in a construction zone.

No comments: