The bizarre American genius for making major events out of meta-events—the pre-Oscar broadcast; the before-the-debate spin on the after-the-debate spinning—includes our sports, where in some ways it first began. The N.F.L. draft, arriving this week, has become a spectacle of its own, with “draftniks,” day-long previews, and winners and losers announced before the draftees are. The stories of those who might get picked—this year, for the first time, they include an openly gay player, the University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam—often overshadow the stories of how the players already picked are playing.
The N.F.L. draft is also the moment on the calendar when the intersection of college sports and capitalism comes into clearest focus, and this year brings into view a couple of timely, overlapping crises: one of health care, the other of inequality. The first lies in our growing awareness that football played at any level of competition puts players’ bodies and brains at real long-term risk. (The problem isn’t unique to football; hockey, lacrosse, and even soccer produce head injuries at about the same rate, but football depends on collisions in ways that the other sports do not, at least not so entirely.) There is a growing sense that watching football is really watching bright young men turn themselves into broken old ones. President Obama’s remark that he would have to think long and hard before letting a son of his play football may be one of those small social markers which loom large in retrospect. As Jack Kennedy to hats, so Obama to helmets: Presidents can make once accepted elements of life look suddenly dated.
These crises are added to by others—the slow-footed investigation of a rape allegedly committed by a Heisman Trophy winner; academic departments that offer non-courses to student athletes who may not even be fully literate—and all of them point to the same thing: that the ideal of the “student-athlete,” long crumbling, is now pretty much in rubble. A regional National Labor Relations Board has ruled, in what many expect to be a precedent-setting decision, that student-athletes at Northwestern University can begin to unionize. The rationale for the players’ demands, which include concussion-testing, extended medical coverage, and more manageable practice schedules, is based on a real inequity. Football makes lots of money for schools—Northwestern says that between 2003 and 2012 it made two hundred and thirty-five million dollars in football revenue, including lucrative TV deals—and the thought is that those who create the value ought to share in it, particularly since a sports scholarship, instead of being a guarantee of four years of free education, often lasts only as long as a player is producing. The union vote is a subset, in turn, of a larger, much talked-of move to pay student players to play sports. This, too, sounds reasonable. Nick Saban, the head coach at the University of Alabama, makes around seven million dollars a season; shouldn’t those who do the work share the wealth?
Yet, sympathetic as these ideas seem at first look, they become dubious at a longer one. They all tend to redefine a set of students as a class of employees, ending the pretense that they are anything else, perhaps, but also pointing out why that pretense has always been such a lousy one to perpetuate. The idea of paying athletes to play begins to dissolve as the details hove into view: If you pay all athletes, women cross-country runners alongside left tackles, then no one can possibly construct a rational fee scale. If you pay only those athletes in the few men’s sports that make money, you’re accepting that those sports are essentially a stand-alone business, not to be considered in any way part of the broader mission of the university—which is what the critics of college sports say is the problem with having them in the first place. If a college drama program made a lot of money by putting on Disney-style adaptations in Broadway-size theatres, and paid its faculty directors millions of dollars a year, that might be a reason to pay the student actors, too. But it would be an even better reason not to describe it as a college drama program.
In college sports, there is a simpler solution. The N.F.L. and the N.B.A., which profit indecently from the free development of talent provided by colleges, need to start their own minor leagues, and the colleges should threaten non-participation in events like the draft in order to pressure them to do so. In basketball, a gifted few already move directly from high school to the pros, but the standard development of players enforces a route, however hypocritical and short-lived, through a college team. In football, prospective professional players have essentially no choice but to attend college, or feign to. Establish credible minor leagues in these sports, as already exist in hockey and baseball, and the young athletes who want to play sports for money would be free to do so, and the ones who want to get a college education first and then play sports for money later can do that, with the knowledge that they will be able to do something else if a sports career doesn’t work out.
The students who most deserve sympathy in the existing arrangement—the underprivileged athletes who are good enough to win sports scholarships but not good enough to play pro sports, and who often fail to graduate—should be guaranteed that, even if they’re cut from a team, they can keep their scholarships as long as they do the academic work. (A kid discovering that he’d just as soon study as play sports is a good thing for a college, not a bad one.) And, of course, all student-athletes should get all the medical coverage that their sport requires.
The attachment of alumni, in particular, to the current dispensation may make such a plan quixotic. But if we think that other values than market values matter—that we are enough our brother’s keeper not to tempt him into selling his maturing mind too cheaply in his youth, and that places where you go to learn really ought to be places where you go to learn—then we ought to find a way to keep cheering without the cynicism, and the concussions, that the present circumstances enforce. (It might be easier to ease up on the repetitive violence of college football if it wasn’t sold primarily as a mass spectacle made for television.) If along the way we can make scholars out of sportsmen who didn’t know that they were, all the better for our student bodies, and better still for their brains.