Friday, September 23, 2011


It's no surprise that a High WASP wannabe like David Brooks would look at the issue of whether college athletes should be paid and side with "the amateur ideal," concluding that what worked for Princetonians in 1914 is appropriate in 2011, even for poor, indifferently educated inner-city kids who desperately hope to parlay athletic talent into professional sports careers, against very long odds.

At Princeton, Hobey Baker was the glittering star of college sports, dominating in both football and hockey. He was also famous for his sportsmanship. He had only one penalty called on him his entire college hockey career. After each game, he went to the opposing locker room to thank his opponents for a good match. He was acutely modest when people spoke of his triumphs.

(Because sportsmanship is categorically impossible if you take payment for playing. That's why professional golfers are always beating each other over the head with clubs while on the links.)

Oh, and of course, liberals hate amateur sports because we have no moral compass:

Today's left-leaning historians generally excoriate the amateur ideal for its snobbery and the hypocrisy it engendered. The movie "Chariots of Fire" popularized their critique. In the film, the upholders of the amateur ideal are snobbish, anti-Semitic reactionaries. The heroes are unabashedly commercial and practical. Modern and free-thinking, they pay people so they can win.

Thus did the left-wing critique welcome the corporate domination of sport.

(Yes, because these are our only two choices: limit sports to well-heeled toffs or turn the whole business into the war of each against all. There's no possibility of regulating sports so there's a middle ground.)

Brooks actually acknowledges that there are abuses in modern college sports:

Quarterback Cam Newton was investigated for violating the amateur rules. Meanwhile, there were at least 15 corporate logos on the uniform he wore every week. A.J. Green, a wide receiver, was punished for selling his jersey. While he was serving his suspension, the school continued selling replicas of his No. 8 jersey for $39.95 and up.

... one of the reasons schools fight to keep the student-athlete tag on their players is to keep from having to pay workman's compensation if they get hurt. Kent Waldrep, a running back, was paralyzed while playing for Texas Christian. He sued to get some compensation for his sacrifice for the university. T.C.U. fought him in court and won.

And so, while it's clear that he's coming down on the side of the Playing Fields of Eton and the Old School Tie, you expect him to leaven his defense of amateurism by recommending something to restrain the greed of universities and broadcasters.

But no.

Think of this as if it's any other business. The players are labor; the universities are management; the broadcaster's are management's business partners. Brooks sees greed and commercialism poisoning all three groups. Guess which of these groups needs to refrain from being paid?

How exactly would you pay [the athletes]? Would the stars get millions while the rest get hardly nothing? Would you pay the wrestling team, or any of the female athletes? Only 7 percent of Division I athletic programs make money, according to the N.C.A.A.; where would the salary dollars come from?

(I don't know, David -- where do the million-dollar coaches' salaries come from? And isn't your usual answer in these cases to let the market decide? Aren't you just backing away from this because you simply don't want any athlete to be paid anything?)

... A competitive society requires a set of social institutions that restrain naked self-interest and shortsighted greed.

What you mean is "A competitive society requires a set of social institutions that restrain some people's naked self-interest and shortsighted greed -- or maybe just their desire to make a buck for doing their job." Playing big-time college sports is a job, David, whether you like it or not.

The amateur ideal, though faded and worn, still imposes some restraints. It forces athletes, seduced by Michael Jordan fantasies, to at least think of themselves partially as students.

Sure -- when the schools aren't pushes them extremely hard to play, and pushing them equally hard to downplay academics.

It forces coaches, an obsessively competitive group, to pay homage to academic pursuits.

Stop, you're killing me.

I guess this is the same sort of "shared sacrifice" people like Brooks propose after financial fat cats destroy the economy -- and I guess it's also the same kind of even distribution of blame that we get after such a crisis. Football-factory schools, big broadcasters, and poor 19-year-olds are equally driven by greed, just as "we" are all responsible for the repacking of liar loans on Wall Street as Triple-A securities. And everyone should pay, with "everyone" meaning "everyone who had no power within the system."