Tailbacks of the World, Unite! Debunking the Myth of the Student-Athlete

by Tobias Peterson

19 December 2005


With images of holiday-themed festivity thrust at us from all corners of the marketing world this time of year, we can’t escape the message that now is the time to show our love by opening our wallets. But it’s not just about gifting, this is also a time for tradition; whether that means buying this year’s version of Coca-Cola’s stuffed polar bear, watching It’s a Wonderful Life for the umpteenth time, or engaging in the annual family arguments over turkey dinner.

For the sports world, too, tradition comes to the fore during the holidays. Late in the year, storied rivalries are renewed, moments of triumphs past are recalled, and debates rage anew. For college football, particularly, such traditions run deep and enjoy a high profile during the holiday season. With rivalry games such as Harvard vs. Yale, Army vs. Navy, and Texas vs. Texas A&M reaching back more than a century, collegiate football’s storied legacy is a key selling point for the sport, much the same way that baseball’s gestures to yesteryear help to reinforce the credibility of the MLB’s current incarnation.

Another, less marketable source of college football tradition, however, can be found in the yearly debates surrounding the sport’s playoff system. Each year, the Bowl Championship Series is scrutinized, attacked, revised, and again upbraided by fans and sportscasters for its repeated failures to produce a consensus national champion. Eschewing a playoff system, the Bowl Championship Series instead assigns teams to particular bowl games, reserving four Bowl Championship Series bowls (the Fiesta Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, and the Rose Bowl) for those teams who (in theory, anyway) rank highest. The difficulty with such a system, however, is that this can result in more than one team with an identical record at the end of the season. In 2003, Louisianna State University and University of Southern California (USC) both received backing as the country’s number one team, just as USC and Ohio State divided the vote the year before.

The result of the system’s shortcomings has been that, just as the holiday sales are announced, critics emerge as if on cue to lambaste the powers that be in college football. They take the Bowl Championship Series to task for failing to institute a decisive playoff system and satiate the fans’ need to identify an undisputed king of college football. This year though, as luck would have it, only two teams finished the season with undefeated records (USC and Texas), sparing the Bowl Championship Series from its usual helping of holiday ire since only one team will be left with a perfect record after they meet in the Rose Bowl. But what remains worth noting, however, is not this rare occasion when the collegiate football system actually worked, but the less obvious and far more consistent legacy of the sport’s repeated failure with respect to its players.

The time-honored Bowl Championship Series debate, seen from this perspective, is as vociferous and predictable as it is misplaced. The real travesty of college football is not that it fails to regularly account for a champion, but that it fails to account at any point for its players. Still, it’s significant that one criticism informs the next. The logic underlying the misguided Bowl Championship Series system is universally understood to be an economic one, and the same basis applies to the unequal treatment of college football players. The real reason that the bowl system is not dismantled is because there is too much money to be made by perpetuating it. To illustrate, consider a sampling of this year’s bowl games: the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl, Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, Nokia Sugar Bowl, and FedEx Orange Bowl. Some bowl games, like the Champs Sports Bowl and Capital One Bowl, have dropped the pretense of a non-corporate sponsored theme altogether. Clearly, there’s more at stake in these games than school pride. Corporations use the college bowl system as a prime advertising platform, as even the most obscure bowls stand to reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions of potential customers. The stars of this commercial glut, however — the players — get nothing in return.

All of these corporate dollars are further compounded by the television revenues generated by each of the 28 bowl games, the money spent by thousands upon thousands of traveling fans, the payouts awarded by the game organizers (from $750,000 up to $17 million), and the frenzied merchandizing of team memorabilia. With so much money to be made it’s little wonder that nearly half of the teams in Division One college football will find their way into a bowl game this year, though only two of the 56 teams playing stand a chance at winning the championship. The real travesty of the bowl system, however, is not the age-old story of these sponsors’ corporate greed preventing the purity of a playoff system, but the traditionally overlooked story of the exploited workers that take the field in these games.

To articulate this exploitation, particularly when it comes to college football players, is a rare enough thing. But the fact is that schools get paid, television stations get paid, and shoe companies get paid, while the players — the ones responsible for putting on the shows that generate all of this money to begin with — never see a dime. In fact, the NCAA expressly forbids athletes from accepting any form of compensation while playing sports at the collegiate level, be it cash, a new car, or merely a free lunch. What’s propping such a restriction up, lamentably, is the enduring myth of the “student-athlete”, a term that codifies the priorities of college sports participants as precisely in that order. The reward for all the hard work put in by these athletes, the reasoning goes, is a free education in the form of an athletic scholarship. Such an academics-first construction, however, demands that every athlete fulfill the scholastic expectations placed upon any other student in college, before assuming any of the responsibilities of being an athlete.

The trouble with this notion is that (particularly in the case of college football players) college athletes constitute a group that is fundamentally different from the other students they are expected by the NCAA to emulate. Aside from the added demands of practice and publicity, these students are responsible for generating income for their schools at a level unparalleled by other students. A top 25 Division One college football program most likely surpasses even prize-winning faculty or celebrity alumni in the amount of publicity and immediate revenue that the school receives. Yet despite all this, despite the extra work and risk of physical injury, despite having their bodies turned into mobile advertisements bearing sneaker logos, and despite earning countless millions for their schools during bowl season, all while meeting a minimum grade point average, college football players are expected merely to be happy to be there.

And for those unable to pay their bills with such happiness, and who take steps to secure their own economic stability, criticism and censure is ever present. ESPN’s Outside the Lines recently ran a self-styled exposé on several Virginia Tech football players who, after qualifying for government housing assistance, used the money from their school housing stipends on frivolities like food and clothing. The players were seen as a source of scandal, dishonestly bilking those deserving federal assistance out of their housing stipends. Lost in the wake of such indignant accusations, however, is the question of why these players, whose work generates income for the school and its associated corporate sponsors, have to stoop to take advantage of such loopholes in the first place. Had they been paid a living wage to begin with, logic dictates, perhaps not even a fraction of a percentage of the money they bring in, none of this would have been necessary.

Sadly, though, logic has very little to do with the plight of the modern college football player. Instead, a steadfast and knee-jerk insistence on the sanctity of the student-athlete prohibits any sense of equality and prevents the most talented players from enjoying the proceeds of their own labor. This myopia is the result of a 19th century conception of a 21st century cultural phenomenon. For those retro-fitted minds who would understand college football as a pristine space in which students play for the pure love of the game without the influence of outside companies and business interests, there is a place for you, but it is not in today’s incarnation of Division One college football. For those longing for hand-painted signs instead of sponsored scoreboards, for a local fan base instead of a wealthy mob jumping on the latest bandwagon, there is hope, however. Smaller programs, found mainly at Division Two and Three schools, offer a decreased chance of corporate infiltration and therefore an increase in the likelihood that players will not be piggy-backed by outsiders looking to make a quick buck. But the realities of Division One college football, and certainly for those schools who rank among the top 25, are much different.

Here, an emotional attachment to the purity of the sport has been replaced, for better or for worse, by the cold calculations of profit margins and corporate revenue. Here, collegiate athletics play by a different set of rules, and its players should be treated accordingly. All college athletes suffer some exploitation, but few risk so much for so little reward as college football players. Granted, the barest percentage may advance to a professional career in the National Football League, and an even smaller number of those may last long enough in the league to recoup the funds previously handed over to the school and the company(s) along the way. For the majority, however, what lies beyond college football are nagging injuries and painful obscurity, with their best years passed in the service of institutions who have long since moved on to the next installment of this unpaid labor force. All the while, what keeps this system going is the anachronism of the student-athlete, a fantasy that persists stubbornly, illogically, against all evidence to the contrary, and to the continued benefit of everyone involved with college football but the players on the field.

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