John Oliver on the NCAA

by Phillip Witteveen on March 25, 2015

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In its most recent episode, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver did some muckraking on the controversies of “amateur” student-athletics; as one of his rapid-fire segments, Oliver reported: “Fun fact: The very first executive director of the NCAA stated that he ‘crafted’ the term ‘student-athlete’ in the 1950s, explicitly to avoid worker’s comp for injured athletes. And 60 years later, that term is still working.”

That “very first executive director” was Walter Byers, during whose long tenure (’51 – ’87), the NCAA became a multi-million dollar commercial enterprise (with, for example, 68.2 million on the table for televising the NCAA’s ’88 basketball season). In this way, Byers has had a far-reaching influence in what is now a contentious and long-standing issue in college sports: The competition has become too commercialized to be fairly conducted in an amateur spirit, even though that is how it started in Byers’ day. “Student-athletes” don’t get paid, or receive compensation for disenfranchising injury; they are, in other words, not treated like employees, despite the (very high grossing) work they put in. They are treated like students volunteering outside of school.

So when a crippled basketball player loses their scholarship because they can’t play, they aren’t compensated because they are a “student-athlete.” This is where Last Week Tonight comes in; but it’s interesting to note that the line on “student-athletes”—quoted by Oliver—is, in fact, taken from Byers’ own book, Unsportsmanlike Conduct, which is not the memoir he would absolutely have enough material for, but is, rather, a “challenge to the present system of college athletics,” uniquely qualified by that biography. It’s an exposé, and a thesis, going from individual cases of corruption, to the greater norms and standards that limit athletes in programs that are no longer just extracurricular activities.

You can watch Last Week Tonight‘s take on the NCAA here. To fully explore the evolving nature of college sports from Byers’ unique perspective, check out Unsportsmanlike Conduct.


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