The Shame of Sports

First off, if you haven’t read Taylor Branch’s 13000 words about the NCAA in the Atlantic.  Go read it.


I’m lucky enough to support a school which actually maintains a degree of academic integrity. At the same time, I’m seriously rethinking my general interest in college sports. We’ll see how long the feeling lasts.

One of the most amazing things about sports is how it appeals to our irrational side. Beyond the raw emotions of watching a game or rooting for a team, we really don’t want to know the truth about the bigger picture. Most of us also go out of our way to be ignorant and will go to extreme lengths in order to maintain the illusion that all is well.

This willingness to be deceived is dangerous enough when it concerns specific-team-based hyperfanaticism. But it’s shocking to see what happens when it concerns the actual structure of the sport itself.

The NCAA has problems. Too much money and the actual product is being exploited. If we’re going to be generous we can say that a student-athlete receives ~$60,000 value (not cash) in compensation* for a single-year contract, the renewal of which depends on athletic performance. The school can cancel any time. The athlete cannot. And it’s not really a contract since the athlete isn’t counted as an employee. In the case of serious or permanent injury, no workplace safety/compensation laws apply.

*The yearly cost of attending a private school (including room and board). Yes, as a parent of a 2-year-old, this scares the crap out of me.

Yet so many of the reactions to Branch’s piece still cling to the idea that this is not exploitation and suggest that this is a GREAT deal for the athletes. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read, “if this is exploitation, exploit me this way.” Please. Yes, the athletes aren’t being forced to do this. No, it’s not slavery. But it is exploitation. We just don’t want to see it that way. We would rather believe in the myth of the student athlete than accept the reality that many athletes are not, and were never intended to be, scholars.

I suspect most of us also harbor some resentment against the perks that we saw athletes get while we were students. It’s apparent now that, as with high school, a lot of them were experiencing the zenith of their life then and have not been prepared for anything past their early 20s.

The past decade of college sports has been a story of us ignoring the truth. It’s obvious that the system is messed up but we don’t want to know. Not really. Every couple of years another accomplishment or record is erased in order to “repair” some violation caused by the lack of balance of money and power in the system.

Every time we mess with history this way, we temporarily feel good. But we’re making ourselves feel worse since we’re making the problem bigger. Every time we mess with history, we devalue the present.

Baseball’s steroid issues over the past decade are another great example of this. No one wanted to know and so we all denied it as long as possible. And then some. We still don’t really know what’s to be done about that era. We can’t rewrite what happened but we’re certainly trying to do so as any players suspected of taking steroids are being blackballed from the Hall of Fame and their achievements are being devalued.

We want our sports to correspond to the myths. It’s harder and harder to do that these days but the more we stick our heads in the sand, the worse things will get. Because we also want our sports to become the myths of tomorrow.

We all grew up being told the stories and learning the sporting myths and legends of our parents and grandparents. I read about them in books all through my youth and they’re a part of the fabric of our history. We’re trying so hard to hold our current sports to that standard that we’re erasing everything which doesn’t measure up.

I grew up with Roger Maris and 61*. Unless we actually try to accept the problems with sports rather than trying to wipe everything away, we’ll have no chance to fix or improve things and my son’s generation is going to grow up with an entire record book of asterisks and redactions. They’ll learn that any sporting event they witness may be revoked in a subsequent year.

Sport lives on myth and dreams. It satisfies something deeply irrational in us. And we’re getting increasingly closer to killing it for ourselves and the future because we wish to deny the truth.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

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