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Big-time College Sport’s Contested Terrain: Jock Capitalism, Educational Values, and Social Good

By Richard M. Southall, EdD, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Director: College Sport Research Institute and Mark S. Nagel, EdD, University of South Carolina, Associate Director: College Sport Research Institute




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There is no question big-time college sport occupies a central place in American culture. In his 2009 State of the Association speech, Dr. Myles Brand, the late president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) noted college sport “…has become integral to many of our universities and colleges, institutions which are the guardians of our traditions and histories and the harbingers of our futures” (Brand, para. 13). While recognizing the cultural significance of big-time college sport, critics contend the NCAA’s current collegiate model (Brand, 2006a, 2006b) should more accurately be labeled “jock capitalism,” derived from what Sack (2009) identified as “...‘academic capitalism,’ an approach to university governance that emphasizes the importance of ‘the bottom line’” (p. 78). Consistent with this bottom-line approach, jock-capitalist athletic departments utilize similar marketing practices to exploit the same revenue streams as professional leagues such as the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Football League (NFL). Interestingly, defenders of the NCAA’s collegiate model do not deny the model’s characterization as jock capitalism. Instead, they consistently argue the clear line of demarcation between big-time college and professional sport is not whether college sport is a business, but whether college athletes are unpaid amateurs. Importantly from Brand’s (2006a, 2006b) and the Internal Revenue Service’s perspective of jock capitalism, athletic scholarships do not constitute “pay for play.”

While the NCAA, university administrators, and college-sport consumers seem to see no contradiction between jock capitalism and espoused educational missions of higher-education institutions, critics of big-time college sport – as well as numerous researchers - have identified apparent conflicts (Baxter & Lambert, 1991; Baxter, Margovio, & Lambert, 1996; Case, Greer, & Brown, 1987; DeBrock, Hendricks, & Koenker, 1996; DeVenzio, 1986; Eitzen, 1988; Frey, 1994; Lapchick, 1986; Padilla & Baumer, 1994; Sack, 1987; Southall and Nagel, 2008; Sperber, 1998). Historically, criticism of big-time college sport has focused on a conflict between its emphasis on winning games and generating revenue, and higher education’s expressed goal of educating students and searching for knowledge through conducted research.

College-sport proponents are clearly aware of the historic tension between jock capitalism and espoused educational goals. At the beginning of the 21st century, some college-sport marketers feared increased calls for “academic reform” might result in things going “…back to the dark ages” (Smith, 2009, p. 28). College-sport marketers applauded continued NCAA and university presidents’ support for jock capitalism and their belief “…there should be more, not less, [commercialism] as long as it stays within the framework of amateurism and promotes the accomplishments of the athletes and their teams” (Smith, p. 28). The desire for a supportive environment is clearly evident in the 2009 statement of Tim McGhee, executive director of corporate sponsorship at AT&T (NCAA Corporate Champion), “I see an NCAA that is more responsive to corporate partners and how we market our products and services” (Smith, p. 28).

However, Bob Lawless, NCAA Executive Committee Chair, seemed to recognize the possibility of a proverbial “slippery slope”, noting “There’s a realization that when you receive a certain amount of revenue from a network that they’re going to generate revenue in order to meet the agreement of the contract” (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2002, para. 6). College presidents are seemingly unperturbed with “…a corporate partner essentially ‘sponsor[ing]’ the NCAA’s educational mission,” as long as such sponsorship is “…done well and tastefully” (National Collegiate Athletic Association, para. 2, 6).

Within jock capitalism’s framework the NCAA is compelled to provide an “amateurism” defense of associated business practices. This defense was clearly articulated in Dr. Brand’s 2006 State of the Association address

Our mission is to ensure that intercollegiate athletics participation is an integral part of the higher-education experience…Using ‘business’ and ‘college sports’ in the same sentence is not the same as labeling college sports as a business. It is not. College sports exhibits business aspects only when it comes to revenues – the enterprise is nonprofit on the expenditure side.…[W]e will be inflexible in our devotion to principles and in our commitment to higher education (Brand, 2006a, para. 2, 10, 16, emphasis in original).

A fundamental premise of jock capitalism is that engaging in big-time commercialized college sport is necessary to achieve unspecified, but entirely “good” educational goals. Since it is a given that NCAA “principles” - to which the organization is inflexibly committed – are good and correct, Brand argues that such desirable “nonprofit” ends justify involvement in a somewhat sordid commercial enterprise. Jock capitalism presupposes that since the ideal of amateur college sport is a priori a “good” educational enterprise, any associated activities – even those which are highly commercialized and mimic those of professional sport in all ways except for player compensation - are innately still acceptable insomuch as they support an educational goal. Therefore, revenue generation is not only worth retaining, it should be continually enhanced.

As long as such commercialism and revenue generation within big-time college sport is tastefully done, it does not conflict with the NCAA’s brand attributes: “Learning. Balance. Spirit. Community. Fair play. Character” (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2009b, para. 2). However, discussions of unrelated business income tax (UBIT) and university athletic department’s tax exempt status reflect the apparent conflict between big-time college sport’s jock capitalism and higher-education’s espoused educational missions. Big-time college sport seems to be an economic system grounded in market capitalism, and reflective of an organizational identity in which revenue sports are more and more primarily business ventures, modeled on their professional counterparts. These revenue sports must generate revenue for the rest of the athletic department, in order to provide athletic and academic opportunities for non-revenue sport athletes.

NCAA representatives, athletic-department administrators, and corporate and broadcast partners consistently argue “life lessons” learned from participation in college sport are as important as educational activities within traditional classrooms and provide evidence of college sport’s educational nature. Citing such educational benefits and other examples of social good, big-time college-sport proponents deflect calls for changes to athletic departments’ tax status or UBIT scrutiny. Such claims seek to refute any conflict between educational and commercial institutional logics. However, critics argue such life-lessons are not endemic to collegiate sport, but can - by definition - be learned in any “life” setting. Specific to sport this perspective would seem to support a contention that any sport event or experience from which an athlete or fan learns anything (including NFL and NBA games) should be termed educational.

However, in his response to congressional inquiries, Dr. Brand (2006b) clearly did not support such a view. Instead he argued professional sport has no educational purpose:

[There are] …clear distinctions between the collegiate and professional models of athletics. Professional sports’ sole purposes are to entertain the public and make a profit for team owners. The purpose of the collegiate model is to enhance the educational development of student-athletes. (p. 5)

Clearly, Brand views professional athletes as employee-commodities who can be traded from team to team, often without their input or consent. By contrast, in the collegiate model college athletes are students, not employed to play sports, nor able to be traded from school to school. However, critics note professional athletes have several rights denied jock capitalism’s college athletes: access to legal counsel, benefits of collective bargaining, negotiation of specified contracts, and perhaps most importantly – given recent intellectual property lawsuits - retention of the right to their images (McCormick and McCormick, 2006, 2008). Such critics claim jock capitalists (e.g. NCAA representatives and college athletic-department administrators) misrepresent collective-bargaining facts and obliquely play on many college fans’ fears that “their” beloved team will leave in the middle of the night if it were not imbedded within the college or university (McCormick and McCormick, 2006, 2008). Citing lack of substantive voting rights within the NCAA Division-I governance structure (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2006, 2009a), athletes-rights’ advocates contend Division-I revenue sport athletes are less than employees, akin to indentured migrant workers (Hawkins, 1996, 1999, 2001).

As these comments reflect, there is sharp disagreement whether or not, and to what extent, college sport is a unique educational enterprise that should not be confused with professional sport. If one accepts the NCAA’s professed collegiate model, one most likely would agree tax exemption is warranted. Proponents of a jock capitalist perspective are likely to support calls for increased athletes’ rights and changes to the tax code. Such disagreements are fundamentally derived from the adoption of conflicting institutional logics and are contested in a terrain that provides a setting ripe for additional analysis and discussion.


For more information visit:

College Sport Research Institute Website: www.unc.edu/csri

2010 Scholarly Conference on College Sport: www.csriconference.org

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