Bill Frezza has tough words for the NCAA, likening college football to slavery. Is that a fair charge?
Many of these athletes forego a level of earnings they will never approach for the rest of their lives. In return for what? A shot at pro football? A fortunate few may go on to the NFL but the vast majority will spend the rest of their lives hobbling around on damaged knees. What did they get for it? A brief moment of glory and what often amounts to little more than an honorary degree.
I am sympathetic to the argument that the majority of college football players will never be signed to a pro contract, and that playing this violent game puts them at serious physical risk (e.g. long term brain damage). But I don't think the larger point passes the common sense test. If I had the physical talent to play college football, it wouldn't be a tough decision. I would have played. As for pro prospects, "few" is not the right adjective. With 32 NFL teams restocking every year, compared to about 100 top college teams, the odds are pretty good that a player can "make it" to the pros for at least a couple of years, and that is huge money.
But would it really be so hard to find a way to compensate these young men? That's Frezza's key point, and it's hard to dispute. A creative deferred compensation payout, weighted towards those who sustain career-ending injuries, wouldn't be very hard to design.
As for the slavery claim, Frezza does a fine job of provoking thought, but I think it goes too far. The game was fully integrated in the 1960s. Not long ago the 12-time NCAA champion University of Alabama refused to let blacks play on its team, whereas just this weekend the first Heisman trophy ever awarded to an Alabama player was put into the hands of Mark Ingram, the school's running back who happens to be an African-American. So should Alabama be critized for playing too few?
Upon beginning his Heisman acceptance speech, Mark Ingram finally broke down after uttering the following words: "I'm just so excited to bring Alabama their first Heisman winner."
The good people of that state waited a long, long time for this night. Few place more importance on college football history, and no fan base lionizes its gridiron heroes more than those of the Crimson Tide's. They'll be the first to let you know they take a backseat to nobody -- 12 national championships, 22 SEC titles, 57 bowl berths.
All this points to the larger issue of compensation in a generally wealthy, highly unequal, and supposedly free, society. At least these young men have a choice to "work" for free. In contrast, by increasing the minimum wage three times in two years, Congress has all but made it illegal for many low-skill blacks to find any work at all. With an unemployment rate above 30 percent, the real scandal is why football is one of the few opportunities young African American men are given to escape poverty. I would argue the NCAA isn't a plantation, rather one of the few ways out.