Our daughter Jana is an excellent writer. (She gets it from me!!!) Recently she was irritated by a interview which she heard on NPR. Not content with just expressing her viewpoint to those around her, she wrote this essay to submit to NPR. It's a marvelous essay, if I do say so myself!
By Jana Steiger, world class essayist:
On Sept. 14, I listened with gritted teeth as NPR's Melissa Block
interviewed Taylor Branch, the author of an article alleging that the
NCAA is a cartel which exploits student athletes, and that amateur
status has 'the whiff of the plantation.'
Saturday, I had a reminder of why this idea offends me so much as I
attended a football game at my alma mater the University of Michigan
-- with the largest football stadium and most numerous alumni in the
country, surely one of Branch's major cotton fields of student
Before kickoff, Michigan honored its other varsity teams that have
achieved division or national championships this year. I suppose
Branch would have yawned and fidgeted as swimmers and divers, gymnasts
and the softball and hockey teams ran out through the tunnel and
leaped to touch the M Club's Go Blue banner. But we in the stands
cheered for our champions, many of whom compete before scant crowds of
parents and roommates when they are lucky.
These student athletes work just as hard as those in the money-making
sports. They have pushed themselves -- without benefit of TV cameras
or record-breaking crowds -- to make it to the peak of their sport.
And their programs and coaches, facilities and uniforms, travel and
lodging and scholarships are all made possible by football profits.
In fact, a quick Google shows that Michigan currently has 765
scholarship athletes, 365 of whom are women, in 26 varsity sports. For
some, this is their ticket to an education they could otherwise never
afford; for others, it's the pride of the letter jacket and passion
both for the sport and their school that keeps them pouring everything
they have into cross country or field hockey, wrestling or rowing.
Certainly most of them never expect to be professional athletes. Even
at Michigan, which produces more pro athletes than any other school in
the country, in 2009 the number of Michigan alumni pros in the 5 major
leagues was a whopping 68 out of the thousands of student athletes who
had graduated in the previous 15 years or so.
So, if we pay student athletes, for the vast majority of them it will
be the only time in their lives they are being paid to play their
Later in Saturday's game, during a TV time out, our women's gymnastics
NCAA all-around champion Kylee Botterman bashfully stood in the end
zone as the loudspeaker resounded her achievements. 110,000 fans
stood and cheered, thrusting our fists into the air as we sang The
Victors just for her. I wonder how much Branch would pay Botterman.
Do you pay her for what she has achieved (and what dollar figure do
you put on that?), or do you say sorry Kylee, we only pay those
athletes whose sports generate millions in ticket and concession sales
and lucrative TV deals?
Even if you limit the discussion to football, I counted on the
sidelines Saturday nearly 100 suited-up players, the vast majority of
whom have no realistic NFL dreams. In fact, many of these players
never really hope to get in a game, on a team as deep and competitive
as Michigan. These guys practice just as hard as the first string
players, and suit up every game. They do it for the opportunity to
wear the maize and blue, and because what they learn on the field
about teamwork and collaboration, about discipline, and
sportsmanship, and about themselves, will serve them as much in their
future careers as what they are learning in Michigan classrooms.
In the interview, Branch dismissed this kind of thinking as
"romantic." What he doesn't understand is, the players are not there
for our benefit. They are students. They are learning, and we are
watching them learn and cheering them on. Amateur status makes this
clear -- students, you are here to learn and train and raise the bar for
yourself and your sport. Your school is here to teach and coach and
inspire you to greater levels of excellence. Those people in the
stands? They are here to support you and live vicariously through
you, because of the shared love you all have for your school. Those
people at home cussing at their TVs? Who cares. They have no place
in your education. You owe them nothing.
That relationship between the school and the athlete and the fans gets
turned on its head if the students become paid employees, which I
think is Branch's real goal. I don't believe Branch is bothered by
exploitation, I think he's fine with it as long as students get a cut
of the profits he believes it is their purpose to generate. If Branch
were really upset about exploitative athletic programs, perhaps he
would work to prevent bloodsucking parasites from lining their pockets
by turning amateur athletics into a multi-billion-dollar industry
where profits come before the needs of the sport and the students.
Branch is confusing college stadiums with box offices, where revenues
are driven by star power. In college football -- at Michigan, anyway
-- that's not what people are paying for. Sure, we like to see our
stars make great plays with fancy moves and lots of razzle dazzle. But
nothing chokes us up so much as seeing a 4th-string senior finally get
in for just one play. We cheer ourselves hoarse when this happens,
out of respect for that player's persistence and love of the game.
I guess that's because we're romantics. I think Branch could use a
healthy dose of romance.