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Two tensions in modern American sport

2008 November 19
by Skip Sauer

1) Athletics vs. academics on campus

The allocation of time spent by student-athletes between sport and study is a long running source of tension on America’s campuses. This rather lengthy piece at USAToday focuses on a University of Minnesota task force that dealt with the issue. It should be clear that a school has a problem when degree programs are established or designed for the purpose of athletes (using funds meant for general education), although the article doesn’t quite get to that point. Support programs which allow student athletes to compete with their peers in the classroom — but not cheat, which was an issue at Minnesota — are the right way to enable students to excel both off and on the field. I find the approach of the Minnesota wrestling coach on this point (to paraphrase, athletes can get an MA later if they are interested in a real degree) somewhat annoying.

Update: Via Glenn in the comments, I see that the story linked above is part of a spread at USAToday. The lead story is “Athletes guided toward ‘beating the system’.” Glenn points to a particularly interesting graphic, “Same team, same major.” The graphic itself is a bit kludgy to use, but the data can be seen in Table form by clicking the “View List” button on the right. You can narrow the list by clicking on your favorite school and or sport in the “Show Results By” box. For Clemson Football, the major is “Parks, Recreation, and Tourism.” But note that the stats are for teams with 25% or more of the athletes in the same major, and the figure for Clemson Football is 11 out of 33 players. Some sports have most of the team included, but for football the figures are uniformly low for most schools. The highest number of players listed in football is 59 at the Naval Academy, where 20 are majoring in …………….. (drum roll) …………….. Economics!

2) Retired vs. current NFL players

I missed this when it came out, but in case you haven’t seen it, here is a snip from Alan Schwarz’ report on a class action lawsuit between retirees and the Players Association:

Ending the three-week trial in United States District Court, the jury on Monday found that the union’s licensing subsidiary, Players Inc., had used the identities of thousands of retired players without compensating them. A key example was the union’s agreement with EA Sports, which generates at least $25 million a year for the use of player identities in the popular Madden video game series.

The majority of sports licensing revenue derives from the use of active players. The Madden game features more than 100 past teams, like the 1966 Green Bay Packers, and players on those teams argued that although their names and pictures had not been included, many of their individual characteristics — talent level, experience, height and so on — were. The players argued that the group licensing agreement they had signed with Players Inc. required that revenue from such deals be shared with them.

Herb Adderley, who played cornerback on the 1966 Packers, was the name plaintiff for the class that filed suit.

“They betrayed us,” Adderley said of the union in a telephone interview. “We put our trust and faith in them, and they betrayed us.”

Here is Schwarz’ story in the NY Times, and here is a transcript of the closing arguments. Apparently, the NFLPA took an active role in “anonymizing” the former players in the Madden video game. It’s not clear to me why this would be in the interest of EA Sports. If I were to “re-play” the Ice Bowl on Madden NFL, I’d want Herb Adderly, Don Meredith, Bart Starr et al. to be an explicit part of the experience. It is possible that “likenesses” for well known players and explicit anonymity for all was the optimal solution for EA Sports, but that doesn’t negate the right to licensing revenue for the people who took part in the original performance.

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