The Athlete’s Labor

I watched last night’s Orange Bowl rout, and I have to say, while it was hardly a suspenseful game, it was oddly enjoyable, in a head-shaking kind of way. I mean, my jaw dropped when Bradley tried to pick up that punt and go with it, and then when he got stripped, I just started laughing. And even without mistakes like that, Oklahoma was outplayed every step of the way. I’ll admit, as an aside, that while I certainly wasn’t rooting for U.S.C. (after Sam Walton’s grand-daughter graduated from there by buying every paper she turned in, the epithet “University of Spoiled Children” kinda stuck in my mind), I was definitely rooting against the Sooners, and I guess I got what I was hoping for.

But that isn’t really what I was wanting to talk about. UMass is Division 1AA for football, and in the midst of our recent budget cuts, there was some talk from the athletic program about spending a ridiculous sum to go Division 1A, with one of the rationales offered being that it would bring more money into the school. And, certainly, as Derek Bok and Murray Sperber point out, college athletics is a big, big busines: I’m sure the U.S.C. Trojans and the Oklahoma Sooners brought millions of dollars to their respective universities by going to the Orange Bowl.

So, with my recent focus on looking at student labor within the university as economic labor, how should we think about the labor of U.S.C. quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart? What sort of transaction does his labor constitute?

His recompense for helping to bring in millions of dollars to U.S.C. is free tuition. But the football team here certainly doesn’t bring in millions of dollars to UMass, and Liam Coen is making approximately the same amount as as Matt Leinart: free tuition. Now, one reason I emphasize ‘approximately’ is because tuitions vary, of course. But then we also get into the question of the value of that tuition: some might argue that a U.S.C. football scholarship, if you’re majoring in Computer Science, is worth considerably less that a football scholarship at Carnegie Mellon, which has a Division III football team. My point is that the scale of compensation for student labor within the university — in relation to the monetary value of that labor to the ’employer’ — varies hugely. Some might say that the scale of exploitation varies hugely.

I don’t have any answer to the football question, although I will say that I’m adamantly opposed to play-for-pay for college athletes: I mean, c’mon, you’re in school to get an education. What I’m trying to get at here, what I’m trying to untangle, is a way of understanding or characterizing the various transactions students participate in as economic beings within the context of the college or university. A tuition payment is a market-based exchange transaction, yes? How does the labor of a work-study assistant in the library, or the labor of a resident assistant in the dorms, differ in kind from the labor of a student athlete? Ought one student’s proofreading of a peer’s paper during a first-year writing class session to be considered a non-market gift transaction? To use Marxist terminology, when a student labors by cramming for an exam, we might assume that she is appropriating the value of her own surplus labor — but where, exactly, is the ‘surplus’? And is her labor part of a market-based exchange transaction, and if so, how is that exchange transaction connected to the initial transaction of a tuition fee in exchange for education? And, of course, this brings me back to my old question: how is the labor of writing a paper valued, and how is that value distributed to the participants in the transaction (student, institution, instructor), and what sort of a transaction is the writing of a paper? Market? Gift? Hell, could it be a feudal transaction?

As noted above, the shifting values of institutional context make these questions even more complicated. The other complicating factor lies in asking how different economic perspectives might understand the nature of a student’s economic activity. When we look through the lenses of exploitation and appropriation, what do we see? What do we see when we look through the lenses of supply and demand, of individual tastes and preferences?

The Athlete’s Labor

9 thoughts on “The Athlete’s Labor

  • January 6, 2005 at 7:54 am

    Lots of interesting issues here, Mike. I know a lot of smaller colleges in the Midwest use athletics to generate revenue from the athletes themselves. I can think of at least two NAIA schools in Missouri who added football in recent years simply to bolster campus life, fill the dorms, etc. They might get 300 fans at a game, but the presence of a football program allows them to attract 100 student-athletes (plus “follow” recruiting”) to the college (for full or partial tuition waivers), then *mandate* that they live in the dormitories, which, most places, are quite expensive. Although the university where I worked never adopted such a system, it was quite common in our conference for schools to recruit on what was (un-technically) called “an average scholarship system.” If, let’s say, a full scholarship (room, board, books, tuition and fees) is 18k, an average scholarship system would give coaches license to recruit as many student-athletes for a team as possible at an average scholarship of 6k, no matter if that meant a men’s volleyball team ended up with 30 players. So the coach can bring in one student-athlete for 14k and two more each at 2k, meet the average scholarship threshold and bring money into the institution, much like other warm-friendly scholarships and enticements offered to non-athletes (come to Our U. and you’ll get this prestigious $2k Presidential Scholarship, which basically just a discount). Afraid I haven’t said much about the connection between the labors of the student-athlete and the labors of the writing student–nothing like what I thought would come together when I set out to comment. I basically wanted to point out that too many of the discussions of intercollegiate athletics using the “blight” framework of college athletics (from profiteering, corrupt recruiting practices, exploitation, to modified admissions standards, etc.) focus on the elite 10% of high ed institutions–the sports giants in the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big Twelve…, when the dynamics at lesser-known places, from jucos to never-heard-of four-year schools, are shaped by many of the same forces (Title IX, recruiting/budget numbers and the institution’s market niche).

  • January 7, 2005 at 12:30 am

    This is the crux of your post: “How does the labor of a work-study assistant in the library, or the labor of a resident assistant in the dorms, differ in kind from the labor of a student athlete?”

    Does the mental labor outweigh the physical? Do the advantages gained (if opted) by the university owed to the sweat of a collective brow outweigh, equal, or submit to the labor of the intellectuals.

  • January 10, 2005 at 8:34 pm

    Hey, Derek, we folk at community colleges don’t much like being called “jucos”. What happens is that sports writers/commentators have decided that community colleges are really junior colleges and continue to refer to them that way, though the term disappeared as the general category for the institutions at least 20 years ago. And “CoCos” wouldn’t be any better.

    I tried to post a long response to Mike’s comments over the weekend, but somehow it didn’t post. Don’t know if I messed up or if a technical problem occurred.

    Broadly, I was noting that the labor of college athletes in the sports with major professional leagues function on a marketplace basis: many compete for a limited number of spaces, with those coming out on top getting the greatest rewards. No. 1 in NFL draft gets about $20 million.

    But there are other outlets for the non-elite athlete (like the euphony?). One of the mid-level execs from the Forty-Niners who accompanied John York on his interview of the Patriots Romeo Crennell on Saturday was a 28-year old accountant who played nose guard in one the kinds of programs Derek describes. So sports management is another outlet. Sports broadcasting still another. So we do have some lucrative possibilities for those who labor in college sports.

    But the real problem is the gap between hope and reality. The NBA has about 250 slots on its rosters. But how many million adolescent kids are hanging around gyms and playgrounds thinking they can be of those 250? An awful lot of time/energy/labor is put in where the odds are so against any real payoff.

    The whole situation is muddied by the issue of recreation and fitness. One could argue that the “corpore sano” is served by all the activity expended by young athletes and that greater rewards are just gravy.

  • January 11, 2005 at 4:31 pm

    Didn’t mean to be flip with the jargon, particularly in any broad construal aimed at characterizing community colleges unfairly. Sorry about that, John. Of course, since we’re parsing it out, I’d probably go for more nuance on the “sports writers/commentators” being named as the perpetuators of misguiding tags for two-year colleges, their athletic programs or their relative institutional statures. Plenty of the student-athletes themselves refer to their two-year alma maters as “jucos”–at least many of the teammates I played with from Penn Valley, Shelby State and others. “Where’d you play?” “Oh, I went to juco at Penn Vally.” But it could be a regional commonplace. It’s just that I didn’t know it was out of circulation for twenty years! Could also be the NJCAA; the governing assoc. for athletics at two-year institutions has buttoned the acronym down with JC rather than CC, so that probably helps keep it afloat, too. Particularly in the Midwest, many two-year institutions have a reputation for functioning like minor league farm systems, especially in baseball. In a sense, they give the dream-chasing student-athlete a flash of hope, steered by a message of “take two years here then transfer to a Big Twelve program” rather than sitting the bench as a freshman at a smaller four-year institution. So I’d say we’re in agreement on most of the other.

  • January 11, 2005 at 8:53 pm

    Yeah, I think you are right about the usage being spread by players and coaches and echoed by sports writers. And I suspect the usage varies by region; almost everything about community colleges is local, so generalizing is always hazardous.

    Separate from the names of organizations and specific colleges (e.g., Santa Rosa Junior College), the generic “junior college” was consciously replaced by the generic “community college” starting sometime in the 70s and usage was pretty well established by the 80s–except in athletics, which seems to run this parallel universe.

    And many CC sports programs consciously operate as feeders for university programs. When Aaron Rogers got no scholarships out of high school, he went to Butte College in Chico, CA, put up great numbers and got recruited from a few places, including Cal. Now he’s slotted for a first round pick in this year’s draft. That’s the kind of story that will be told to kids all over, convincing them to start in a community college and then go to a big program where you have a shot at the pros. I suspect the ratio of that kind of success is pretty low, but the big successes get megaphoned.

  • January 12, 2005 at 12:47 am

    Thanks for the feedback, y’all. I’ve been slow getting back into the swing of things; much of the past couple weeks has been consumed by start-of-the-new-year housekeeping, literal and metaphorical.

    Derek, the insight you offer re how the funding works is helpful in pinning down the specifics of the problems of student labor within the university, which leads me to John and Michelle’s points. I think it’s interesting, John, that you move immediately from the “come to our college” analysis to the “here’s what it’ll get you after college” thoughts, when what interests me most is understanding students as economic beings within the context of college. It’s a really difficult move not to make, since we’re so accustomed to thinking of economics as somehow exterior to the pedagogical/curricular work of higher education: we know economic concerns affect students prior to college in terms of who gets in, and we know economic concerns affect students after college in terms of the job they get (whether it’s as an NFL superstar or as a sports journalist), but it seems really hard for composition/academics (I’m not quite sure who I’m talking about here) to admit that students in their day-to-day lives within the institution are economic beings. Even Ira Shor and many of the working class studies folks take the economic backgrounds of students prior to college and their economic circumstances outside of college as the exigency for their work, with the implications that (1) college itself is inherently non-economic, and (2) even if economic concerns existed within higher education, they have no place within the curriculum. Compare this stance to the pedagogical stances of those who focus on concerns of ethnicity, gender, or sexuality within English studies and composition: I suspect that today, were anyone to suggest that such concerns stop at the classroom door, that person would be summarily tarred and feathered by a black-masked strike team comprising Marjorie Perloff, Judith Butler, Michael Bérubé, John Guillory, Nancy Miller, Kwamé Anthony Appiah, and the rest of the MLA executive council. So why the hesitancy to imagine the classroom as an economic site?

    In that sense, Michelle, you’re quite right in pointing out my central concern of how various types of student labor differ from one another, in asking how the labor of a work-study in the library differs from that of an RA and how that differs in turn from a student athlete. But there’s something you’re leaving out, too: how do all of those types of labor differ from the labor of a student writing a paper?

    Ah, someone will say, but that’s learning. Their labor is of direct benefit to themselves, perhaps along the lines of working towards the mens sana in corpore sano mentioned by John.

    Does that mean, then, John, that you weren’t learning when you wrote your December 2002 CCC article? When academics publish, are we merely regurgitating the fruit of past labor? For academics, is scholarship something different or separate from labor? This seems to be a curious inversion of the way English has historically privileged scholarship over pedagogy — or perhaps not. Perhaps the habit of thinking of pedagogy as somehow base or common, as opposed to the transcendence of scholarship, came about precisely because of an understanding of pedagogy as labor, measureable in increments of time spent in the classroom or responding to papers in a way that is more difficult to apply to the labor of scholarship, the labor of learning.

  • January 13, 2005 at 11:03 am

    Mike–don’t know if this relates to where you’re going with this, but I’ve found it hard NOT to think of my students as economic beings when: so many of them must go to school part time to support themselves (and their families, in some cases); so many of them have to leave campus right after class to get back to their kids who are being babysat; so many of them refuse to write in textbooks or mark them up in any way because they want to be able to sell them back at the end of the semester; so many of them are able to go to school because they have grants and scholarships. Lastly, the Women’s Studies Food Pantry is around the corner from my office, and every time I pass by it I am reminded of how, even in Montgomery County, there are people who have nothing to eat.

    Just about all of these examples have to do with how economics affects students, rather than how students are used for their labor. I am aware that you framed the question as being within the “university,” and wonder if you meant to include the CC student in your argument, or if that would create a whole ‘nother dissertation.

  • January 13, 2005 at 11:53 pm

    Joanna, love your observation because I was a student who made trips to campus for class on my lunch hour after I’d exhausted all the night class possibilities. It wasn’t an effort to get back to my kids at home but an effort to get back to my job (earning) for my family. I never had time to hang around a prof’s office and that’s such a simple but valuable component to education: the ability to be there and talk. You miss out on a lot when you’re a hit and run student.

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