“A brilliantly devised, evil scheme”

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The quote is from Arian Foster, the Houston Texans’ star running back. He is referring to big-time college athletics and says it in the forthcoming documentary, Schooled: The Price of College Sports. The three-minute trailer is damning. In it, Foster says that it was frequently true that, while playing his college ball at Tennessee in front of 107,000 fans at Nealon stadium, Foster didn’t have enough money for food or rent. He admits that he was “getting money on the side” during his final season with the Vols, wondering whether the admission would draw an NCAA investigation to Knoxville. He also told this extraordinary story:

There was a point where we had no food, no money, so I called my coach and I said, ‘Coach, we don’t have no food. We don’t have no money. We’re hungry. Either you give us some food, or I’m gonna go do something stupid.’ He came down and he brought like 50 tacos for like four or five of us. Which is an NCAA violation. [laughs] But then, the next day I walk up to the facility and I see my coach pull up in a brand new Lexus. Beautiful.”

I have heard similar stories from friends who work with college athletes – that they are frequently low on cash for things like lunch money. And these friends, fearing NCAA violations, can’t buy meals for the athletes. The NCAA, of course, insists that it is giving the players something invaluable – an education. But in many cases, that’s simply a joke. In the trailer, Mary Willingham, the former UNC learning specialist in athletics who started speaking out last year about how much athletes were being educationally shortchanged at Chapel Hill, says that the players might be getting degrees, but they are not getting education. And the NCAA’s frequent claims about the superior graduation rates of their athletes, including African Americans, is the result of statistical hocus pocus. When relevant factors are properly accounted for, the graduation rates for athletes in big-time collegiate athletics fall well below that of full time male students at their institutions, and the gaps are especially large for African American athletes (disclosure: the linked report’s lead author, Professor Richard Southall, who also appears in the documentary, is a friend and colleague and we’ve co-authored a paper together about the NCAA which is under review at an academic journal).

It’s important to remember as well that Arian Foster is one of the lucky few among college football players who are drafted or make an NFL roster at some point. Estimates suggest that somewhere between one and two percent of all college players make the NFL, however briefly. That figure includes all divisions of college football, so the figure among those who “make it” from major college programs is closer perhaps to five percent. But the number of guys who actually stick in the league long enough to make real money, as Foster has, is extremely low.

So after four years, even if the players get a degree, they typically face pretty bleak prospects. In the mean time in the biggest revenue generating sports – football and basketball – a cohort of predominantly African American, and frequently poor kids will have labored for a system that is generating billions of dollars in revenue and, oh by the way, helping fund athletic opportunities in sports like fencing, golf, swimming and tennis, that are mainly populated by white students from affluent backgrounds.

The system, as currently constituted, is indefensible.

Update (9/23): This weekend, Dickie V. called Arian Foster a “prostitute” for having taken cash while he was at Tennessee. Vitale later apologized for the choice of words – apparently his wife disapproved. But not for the underlying sentiment. That Vitale is entitled to become a wealthy man calling college games but that the players themselves aren’t supposed to make anything might be construed as a breathtaking instance of hypocrisy.

Michael Smith, at Pro Football Talk put it politely:

And that’s common: Many of the people who have made the most money off college sports — coaches, broadcasters, administrators — are the people who are most outspoken against athletes taking some money for themselves. And when a player like Foster pulls back the curtain and reveals that “amateur” athletics aren’t really about amateurism, sometimes those multimillionaires fear that their golden goose is being threatened.

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