Duderstadt comments on NY Times college sports op-ed

by Shaun Manning on January 12, 2012

New York Times columnist Joe Nocera sparked no small amount of controversy with his January 1 opinion piece, “Let’s Start Paying College Athletes.” Nocera argued that the current system, in which student-athletes are forbidden from accepting payment of any kind under NCAA rules, “enables misconduct to flourish” because players feel that the universities, conferences, and NCAA are taking advantage of their skills. Unlike most intercollegiate sports, the columnist said, college football and men’s basketball are a big business, with sometimes millions of dollars paid to coaches and billions paid for advertising on televised tournaments. Nocera notes that “having universities in charge of a major form of American entertainment is far from ideal” but says the best approach is to acknowledge, rather than deny, the commercialization, “pay the work force.”

James Duderstadt, President Emeritus of the University of Michigan and author of Intercollegiate Athletics and the American University: A University President’s Perspective–which is highly critical of the commercialization of college sports–offered the following response to Nocera’ op-ed.

I had several conversations with Joe Nocera during his development of this article.  Actually, I think that he believes that the best solution for higher education is to reject the commercial entertainment business of big-time college sports and return to an Ivy model.

But the question is how to get from here to there. By first making a powerful case that the current model is built on the exploitation of young student athletes–-they live in poverty, less than half will ever get a college degree (and those that do usually get a meaningless degree), and they put their future health at great risk–-all for the obscene wealth of coaches, ADs, presidents, the NCAA, the networks, and others and then proposing that if you are going to exploit them, you at least ought to pay them, the hope is that folks will realize just how crazy it is to depend on colleges to offer this public entertainment.

Nocera’s proposal to pay college athletes could light a backfire to control the further spread of commercialism in big-time college sports by suggesting that the real “stars” of this entertainment industry are being exploited and deserve some compensation from greedy coaches, ADs, NCAA brass, and university presidents. By suggesting that  big-time football and basketball are really commercial entertainment industries based on a “plantation” philosophy (aka Taylor Branch) of exploitation, Nocera might create an Occupy-like groundswell of demands that the players deserve their fair share (which certainly isn’t the current model of athletic “scholarships” controlled by the coaches, which amounts to indentured servitude. )

One would hope is that this possibility is terrifying enough to the current forces controlling the enterprise (ADs, presidents, perhaps even governing boards) that they will be receptive to throttling things back a bit.

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