Legendary football coach Bobby Bowden spoke at the first Baptist Center for Ethics conference in 1992.
The now retired Florida State University coach drew to an ethics conference folk who probably would never have attended an ethics conference.
His presence and presentation also drew criticism from a few attendees aligned with the Alliance of Baptists.
In hindsight, that has been a mistake, especially after one considers Taylor Branch’s Atlantic article titled “The Shame of College Sports.”
Branch, the noted American historian who chronicled Martin Luther King’s life and wrote “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963,” offers a detailed critique of the corruption in college sports and the exploitation of so-called “student-athletes.”
He wrote that in 2010, during an economic downturn, the Southeastern Conference made more than $1 billion in sports revenue. The Big Ten cracked the $900 million mark.
“With so many people paying for tickets and watching on television, college sports has become Very Big Business. According to various reports, the football teams at Texas, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, and Penn State – to name just a few big-revenue football schools – each earn between $40 million and $80 million in profits a year, even after paying coaches multimillion-dollar salaries,” wrote Branch.
“When you combine so much money with such high, almost tribal, stakes – football boosters are famously rabid in their zeal to have their alma mater win – corruption is likely to follow.”
Branch references only a few of the recent scandals – Auburn University quarterback Cam Newton, Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel and a University of Miami booster.
“For all the outrage, the real scandal is not that students are getting illegally paid or recruited, it’s that two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence – ‘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,” wrote Branch. “The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not.”
Branch cautioned about using the slave analogy: “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.”
Whiff of the plantation?
Well, consider Auburn University’s exploitation of star quarterback Newton.
“[W]hile the NCAA investigated him and his father for the recruiting fees they’d allegedly sought, Cam Newton compliantly wore at least 15 corporate logos – one on his jersey, four on his helmet visor, one on each wristband, one on his pants, six on his shoes, and one on the headband he wears under his helmet – as part of Auburn’s $10.6 million deal with Under Armour,” wrote Branch.
Branch rhetorically asked what a “student-athlete” is worth to a university.
Given the amount of time that the TV cameras were on Newton last year, Under Armour had a sweet advertising arrangement that benefited the corporation. Auburn had a sweet revenue deal. And Newton didn’t get a slice of that financial pie.
If that isn’t economic exploitation, what is?
And please don’t think that the cost of his “free” college education is commensurate with what the university made off of him, what the NCAA profits from his performance.
As one who watches college football, I will be watching this season to see whether any TV announcers and ESPN commentators reference Branch’s article. I’ll look for newspaper sports columnists to tackle the “whiff of the plantation” ethos. I’ll await the confession of sin for the corporate exploitation by the NCAA and universities of “student-athletes” during the traditional prayer led by local ministers before the kickoff.
Perhaps when the “players” huddle after the game in the middle of the field to give God the glory, a social justice Christian will remember the biblical prophet Amos and pray that justice will irrigate the lives of college athletes the way the university’s high-priced sprinkler system keeps the football field lush and green.