An Attempt At A Coherent Defense of Cam And Cecil Newton

December 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Earlier today I listened to Dan Levy interview Orson Swindle. Ranging from jersey sales to the great American tradition of telling one’s father to fuck off, the discussion covered a lot of college football and wandered into the controversy surrounding Cam Newton and his father and the idea of compensating a young man for his athletic prowess. Orson referenced the idea of someone giving a “coherent defense” of Cam and Cecil’s action, and suggested that such a task could be accomplished. Allow me a chance to do just that.

One of the hoariest lines in the sports world is that bemoaning the influence of filthy lucre on the amateur athlete. One of the hoariest truths of the sports world is that money and compensation have been a part of all sports from the moment that crowds started to congregate to watch the games. Whether it be a high school quarterback receiving a free Camaro or a Cuban pitcher receiving favors from the Communist government, humanity’s best athletes have been rewarded for their natural abilities. This truth may not be the prettiest one and may run counter to the platonic ideal of competition we’ve had shoveled down our throat by the movies and television, but a truth it remains. Money and favors should perhaps be forbidden, but to deny their existence is folly. As the Zen line goes, “it is only that flowers, while loved, fall; and weeds while hated, flourish.” Sometimes life is impure and icky. But we are poorly served if we choose to ignore reality for an ideal. For whatever animalistic reason, we reward those who perform athletic feats better than us.

Here’s where, if I were a more stentorian and established journalist, I would write out the Merriam-Webster definitions for “professional” and “amateur” and point out that few athletes we watch, at any level, could be considered truly amateur. I don’t think that’s necessary, however, because I believe most of us already know that these people aren’t amateurs. In fact, lots of us enjoy discussing the friendlier side of compensation, whether it be free shoes, bowl packages, or the number of beautiful women the players can bed. But travel too far outside the acceptable range of benefits and suddenly our sense of justice is rankled.

And so it seems that Cecil Newton, in seeking a six-figure compensation for his son’s services, has rankled the collective mind of the college football fan. But why should it? If one may ask, who was the victim in this so-called crime? The sense of competitive justice? If one believes that previous Heisman-quality players weren’t treated better than average or that such selfish behavior doesn’t happen every year in sports, one should probably not proffer their opinion on sports. The year that someone can identify as untainted from backroom deals and one of pure amateurism will be the first year that humanity attained perfection.

Others, such as Levy, have suggested that if we begin to openly pay players we will begin to drive the haves and the have-nots apart in an ever-widening chasm. With all apologies to Levy (a former coworker of mine at The Sporting News and whose podcast is one of the best out there and serves a daily antidote to the DERPiness of sports radio), but I would ask him and those like him: what mythical sport of evenness has he been watching? Every sport out there is an altar to inequality and especially collegiate athletics. While I might love the idea of a pluralistic arena of equal opportunity, it doesn’t explain away the fact that my alma mater Michigan is already a “have” in contrast to 98% of the schools it competes against. Do such critics actually believe that Utah St. and Duke are remotely close in their race for a basketball recruit? Forgive me if I struggle to see the difference between one school offering $100,000 to a recruit and another that dishonestly convinces a recruit of his chance at the NFL by parading around dozens of professional alumni.

If there is a victim in the Newton affair, it is the duplicitous administrators’ and NCAA officials’ lies and deceitful blather about the “code of amateurism,” a story that is laid to waste by the numbers surrounding their sports.

The numbers are as follows: 37.4 million attendees. Hundreds of millions of dollars.  College football, by most any metric, is one of the most rabidly followed sports in the world. 20 million more people attend FBS games a year than NFL games. The total attendance of college football triples the numbers of the top soccer leagues of Europe. Behind MLB (whose attendance numbers are skewed by the large amount of games), Division I-A athletics have the most attendees of any sport in the world, and it isn’t even close. And yet if you look at any of the salaries of the participants of sports comparable to the NCAA, be it the NFL, European soccer leagues, the NBA, or the NHL, only college athletics stands apart in the woefulness of their compensation. If you were to liberally estimate the current benefits conferred on NCAA athletes and peg it at $100,000 per year, that generous amount would still stand as a paragon of inequity. It is almost axiomatic to say: collegiate athletes are exploited. Coaches and athletic departments and networks are reaping millions of dollars while the players are hobbled by ahistorical and smarmy values informed by Hardy Boys books and Disney movies.

So it’s no coincidence that the loudest proponents of the status quo are those who benefit the most from its existence. As to whether the status quo is just, I would suggest the following passage. In his famous Letters from a Birmingham Jail*, Dr. King wrote:

“Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law.”

And so we see in collegiate athletics a system that compels a group of people to subscribe to a set of values and behaviors that they had no part in enacting or devising. So while an individual dissent against the unjust system might be the product of less than noble motivations (I can’t and won’t speak to the Newtons’ reasons), it hardly erases the moral rightness of the act of standing against an unjust and exploitative system. So I’m left asking: who are we to criticize the Newtons for getting paper? For grabbing as much as they can? The schools, coaches, bowl committees, and networks are never asked to be patient and wait for the payday down the road, why should the athletes be different?

My attention was drawn back to one of the most iconic scenes from The Wire recently. Omar, vigilante thief of the drug dealers, is in court to testify in a murder case against one of the muscle of one of the gangs. The gang member’s attorney tries to paint Omar as an exploiting and freeloading criminal who feeds off the underbelly of society’s problems. Omar’s witty response (around 6:55)?

It’s all in the game. What’s different here in sports than in the drug trade? The boosters and ADs and anchors have found a way to make quite a few dollars off collegiate football. Is Cecil (or Cam) any more morally culpable for trying to do the same? If your only response is that one obeyed rules and the other did not, I’m afraid we’re unable to see eye-to-eye. I like to think that our rules and laws best approximate morality and justice, not the other way around.

At one point in the podcast Orson mentions that America has been founded on principles of “independent and self-sufficient” people. I’d agree. I’d also point out that, at least in the case of the Newtons (and countless other “criminals” against amateurism), it seems that their independence and self-sufficiency are being undermined by those who write laws, and who are also those who would ultimately aim to lose the most by an independent and self-sufficient body of athletes.

*I trust you, faithful reader, to discern that I am not comparing, in any way, the state of collegiate athletics and the terrible conditions of African-Americans in mid-20th century America. The rhetorical points, however, can still shed light on modern athletics.

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