Turning Turkey Into Tofu

It is time to climb out of the rabbit hole and face the reality of what college sport is, an exploitative system that violates the fundamental rights of workers by denying their existence.
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Indianapolis, IN - November 23, 2011... In a historic move, the National Collegiate-Vegetarian Association (NCVA) announced today that Turkey has been reclassified as a vegetable -- specifically a legume -- paving the way for student-vegetarians across the country to enjoy a guilt-free turkey dinner for the first time in collegiate vegetarian history. Adopted following a hastily convened NCVA Board of Directors meeting, the impetus for the decision was a series of embarrassing episodes involving high-profile student-vegetarians exploring their free-range options, trading in their celebrity in return for steak patties and bartering their much prized golden-carrot charms. Dr. Lewis Carroll, NCVA president, said turkey's reclassification is consistent with NCVA Bylaw 3, which excludes meat from student-vegetarians' diets. Carroll reiterated meat will never be served to student-vegetarians. He also disputed the suggestion that allowing NCVA cafeterias to serve turkey as early as this coming Thanksgiving is a move in that direction.

"We're still adamant that student-vegetarians should not be allowed to eat meat," said Carroll, a former University of Washington rabbit-hole researcher. "Our students are vegetarians, not carnivores. When you move from a vegetarian model to one in which students eat meat, then you no longer have a vegetarian meal. We already have that. It's called a hamburger. And I will guarantee one thing, 'Hamburgers will not be served on my watch.' "

The above faux-press release is easily seen as an attempt at literary nonsense; turkey is not a vegetable. However, while vegetarians will once again have to 'make do' with Tofurkey this Thanksgiving, college-sport fans and the media are seemingly deaf to the NCAA's 'steady drumbeat' of Alice-in-Wonderland platitudes that characterize its aggressive public and media relations agenda surrounding the recent pay increase for the association's least- compensated employees (NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision football and D-I men's basketball players). To date, few so-called college-sport experts have questioned NCAA President Dr. Mark Emmert's contention that directly paying college athletes an additional two-thousand dollars is not "pay" or salary. What has gone almost totally unchallenged is the ludicrous claim that this salary increase is simply "cost-of-living" cash.

For decades, the NCAA has been winning the public relations war and legal battles over their obvious "pay for play" system through the deployment of propaganda and deft regulatory maneuvering. As former NCAA executive director Walter Byers noted in his memoir, "The colleges are already paying their athletes. The colleges, acting through the NCAA in the name of 'amateurism' installed their own pay system called the athletics grant-in-aid or athletics scholarship... we crafted the term 'student-athlete'... We told college publicists to speak of 'college teams,' not football or basketball 'clubs,' a word common to the pros."

The NCAA's newest "curiouser and curiouser" term of art is The Collegiate Model "... created [in 2003] by Myles Brand as a surrogate for -- but not a replacement for -- the concept of amateurism" and designed to ensure any dialogue surrounding college sport remains trapped in the false consciousness of the endless NCAA definitional "rabbit hole." The constant invocation of this sacred model is a conscious attempt to counter the waves of skepticism inspired by the ever-increasing commercialism and visible inequities in the college-sport system. This strategy is intended to position big-time college sport as a morally-superior educational endeavor and protect a world view in which the proposition: "Amateurism describes the participants, but not the enterprise" can continue to go unchallenged.

As Emmert continues to claim $2,000 in cash paid to NCAA athletes is not pay he is -- within the NCAA's reality -- speaking the 'truth.' However, it must be pointed out his truth is not bound by an objective external logic, but rather based on NCAA Bylaw 12.02.2, which reads: "Pay is the receipt of funds, awards or benefits not permitted by the governing legislation of the Association for participation in athletics."

Once the NCAA Division-I Board of Directors approved what any "real-world" underpaid employee would view as a $2,000 salary bump, it ceased to be PAY and instead magically became simply part of an NCAA "grant-in-aid" (GIA). A GIA is -- of course -- also NOT PAY. The circular reasoning continues in Bylaw 12.01.4 of the NCAA's legislative tome (The NCAA Division I Manual):

A grant-in-aid administered by an educational institution is not considered to be pay or the promise of pay for athletics skill, provided it does not exceed the financial aid limitations set by the Association's membership.

By repeating the mantra, "A $2,000 stipend is not pay!" the NCAA has seemingly succeeded in removing the definitions of 'stipend' and 'pay'( as well as any accompanying synonyms) from every English-language dictionary. Through such industrious application, the NCAA and its officials have so far overcome more than 600 years of common usage and transformed a $2,000 stipend from "a periodic, fixed or regular payment" to an ephemeral "something else entirely." In the process, it has achieved what people in sport circles refer to as a two-fer. Not only is a $2,000 fixed and regular payment suddenly magically consistent with the NCAA's Collegiate Model, it is also "... an effective constraint on practices that threaten to estrange intercollegiate athletics from higher education or from those firmly held perceptions that endear college sports to the American public."

To confront this subterfuge is to understand NCAA officials are not opposed to paying athletes a tightly regulated 'stipend' or turning their performances into mass-mediated spectacle. As a result, college athletes consistently lose 'scholarships' for poor athletic performance. What the NCAA opposes is not paying athletes, but allowing this unrecognized workforce to exert their human and employee rights. If nothing else, the NCAA's symbolic universe, the production of the nation's legal and higher education communities, serves as a lesson in how money, power, and media converge to diminish big-time college sport's athlete-employees' value and strip them of their rights.

Just as his NCAA predecessors have done before him, Emmert paternalistically lectures interviewers and audiences alike on the fundamental tenets of the Collegiate Model, which hinges on the impression, belief, and assertion that "College athletes are students, not employees." This model is a nonsensical alternative to what the NCAA describes as the "doggerel of cynics," who argue college athletes have long been paid employees. However, these employees' pay is artificially capped by the NCAA and its members, and they are denied access to the multi-billion dollar commercial market. Ominously, Emmert warns "misinformed skeptics" and adoring fans alike that to accept college athletes as "paid" employees would reduce the Collegiate Model to an evil and odorous "Other" -- "The Professional Model."

What makes the Collegiate Model distinct and unique, however, is it's capacity to obscure the practices that routinely deny employee rights to the athletes who contribute most to the economic engines that drive the college sport enterprise, most specifically football and men's basketball players. It is not accidental that college athletes are denied access to legal counsel, the ability to collectively bargain, negotiate specified contracts, and perhaps most importantly -- given ongoing antitrust litigation -- access to the college-sport marketplace. In true "Chicken Little" fashion, the NCAA professes that if college athletes were to gain any of these basic rights, "College sport as we know it would cease to exist." To date, this solipsistic and apocalyptic argument has been accepted by the courts, intercollegiate-athletic administrators, fans, Congress, and many college athletes.

As we mark this national holiday of Thanksgiving, it is useful to be reminded that just because some vegetarians who crave 'meat' may gladly accept the Tofurkey masquerade, only the delusional would believe tofu is turkey! A few weeks ago, with one legislative stroke, the NCAA succeeded in turning turkey into tofu. Will the American people continue to accept such a flimsy rationale for protecting "college sport as they know it"? Is that really the kind of college sport they want to know?

It is time to climb out of the rabbit hole and face the reality of what college sport is, an exploitative system that violates the fundamental rights of workers by denying their existence.

Richard M. Southall - Associate Professor - The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Ellen J. Staurowsky - Professor - Drexel University

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