Some Thoughts about a College Football Players Union

Some things to keep in mind while thinking about a college football players union

  1. In order to be paid fairly, colleges and universities in the big power conferences will have to pay their athletes more than they pay the highest paid professor.  And in some cases, such as big sports schools like Alabama or Notre Dame, a fair wage for some of the players would be in the millions of dollars.  Currently head coaches command most of the money in college football.  But that is only because they are the ones that currently wrangle free labor.  When this practice ends, so does paying coaches outrageous sums of money.  There’s a reason why coaches in pro sports make a lot less than the athletes.  It is because they are a lot less important to the final product.
  2. Similarly, the difference between the highest paid professor and the lowest paid professor vary wildly according to many factors something as basic as which department the professor works for.  You will see a similar thing happen to different sports.  Football players should be paid more than say the water polo team because they generate more money.  However, at the same time, this system is inherently sexist (and probably racist, and definitely homophobic) in a way that should be completely antithetical to any college or university’s mission.  Compliance to Title IX will be impossible and say goodbye to fringe sports such as rowing or tennis.
  3. The big colleges will be able to better support better programs because they have alumni stupid enough to donate money towards paying players.1 What this means is that smaller colleges will fade from any kind of relevance in college sports.  When making a decision, a recruited high school player will and SHOULD make their decision based on who can compensate them the best.  Just look at this chart.  No more Cinderella.
  4. Colleges and Universities actually owe billions of dollars to college athletes who played previous to this year, so good luck sorting all that out.
  5. Colleges and Universities can hardly get a handle on paying their teaching assistants or their support staff a fair wage.
  6. But it kinda doesn’t matter because if colleges and universities pay athletes fairly, then most of the revenue generated by college sports will not go towards supporting the teaching and research function of the university – which by the way, it already doesn’t – it will go towards supporting athletic departments (you might say that the revenue generated by college sports end up being athletic supporters.  TRY THE VEAL!).  Sports will no longer be a cash cow for the university and therefore, they will actually have very little incentive to maintain them at all.  This again is especially true for smaller schools.  Seriously, look at this chart.
  7. I have not even broached the cultural problems that big time college sports contributes to.  See Penn State, Jameis Winston, students running onto the court for no good reason.  These problems will most likely be exacerbated, particularly at Division I schools.

What I’m getting at here, is that while it is a good thing that the Northwestern football players won the right to unionize, this brings us closer to a system where one of the central function of the university will be managing a multi-billion dollar sports and entertainment business.  It is IMPOSSIBLE for colleges and universities to do this without undermining their core mission, which is educating students and producing knowledge via the research process. 

I know what you’re thinking.  Oh Bob!  You’re so reactionary!  Surely everyone will figure out a way to divide up the money fairly and in a way that benefits everyone.  Well, you’re wrong.  Most colleges and universities can’t even do this within their own academic departments. Come on people, this is America!  As the pie gets bigger, it doesn’t get divided more fairly, the opposite happens.

To reiterate – I am in complete support of college athletes organizing and fighting to be compensated fairly for their labor.  The system is a little less exploitative and that’s a good thing.  However, saying that paying players is going to fix the issues that college sports creates is like saying abstinence education is going to fix teen pregnancy (SPOILER ALERT: IT DOESN’T).

So, while the NRLB decision is a victory for student athletes,2  I don’t know if it is really a victory for higher education in the US.

  1. And let’s be honest, they are where they are because they already do this. []
  2. Honestly, I’m pretty sure that the NCAA will still find a way to exploit these kids []

Somebody owes me NBA All star tickets

This was published last year on True Hoop, ESPN’s basketball blog – so basically the world’s largest sports news outlet:

We asked readers for suggestions on how to improve All-Star Weekend, so take it away, Bob Ngo!

The X games used to structure their best trick contest the similar to the dunk contest. Each contestant would get three chances to do their trick, and like the dunk contest, the trick took a few seconds, the announcers would go crazy, and the crowd would cheer and then that was it. It was ok, but there was a lot of downtime between tricks, between skaters, and this was especially felt if the skater did not land the trick.

Recently, they’ve switched to a “jam session” format, which I find to be much more compelling. Basically, skaters take turns, but they go immediately after the previous skater attempts a trick. I mean, I guess there are a few seconds between skaters but it feels like non stop skating for twenty or so minutes. This gets the crowd fired up and it gets the skaters fired up. Each skater gets caught up in the moment and knows that to do well, he has to outdo the trick that the previous skater just landed. It also, gets rid of the interminable time after a missed dunk because someone else is going right away. What you get is a contest where with each attempted trick, the tricks get increasingly more difficult, and increasingly more tense. By the end of it, the whole crowd is going nuts!

They say basketball is like jazz. In jazz, the true moments of genius come out of improvisation. Why not give the dunkers a format where they can show us their genius.
I dig this because I hate watching high flyers awkwardly walk around mid court, blowing on their cold hands while trying to generate some energy and enthusiasm in the current, over-produced format. Let them hype up each other (and the crowd) by creating a live mixtape of eye-popping dunks!

And these are the new rules for the dunk contest this year:

In the Freestyle Round, each conference will get 90 seconds to perform as many dunks as they can. This will basically be like what you see when a team goes up against the 2013-14 Los Angeles Lakers. Just a constant stream of dunking goodness.


RIP Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall 1932-2014

There are lots of things being written about Stuart Hall today after he passed away last night.  Most of the stuff that is being written is about how he is the “father of multiculturalism” and one of the first public Scholars from England to really transcend the boundaries of the academy.  And this makes sense.  His writing on gender and race in Great Britain has been extremely influential in the way modern leftists conceive of oppression and social justice.  He is indeed a towering figure in the intellectual world.

I would write more about this, but to tell you the truth, I really don’t know much about that part of Hall’s work.  No, I know him more as one of the leaders of a group of Scholars out of Birmingham, England in the late seventies and early eighties better known as the cultural studies movement.  This group of scholars heavily influenced the way that I and many other in the field of popular culture studies understand the role of popular culture in our lives. Additionally, the entire field of American Studies can be considered an extension of the cultural studies movement.

Hall never actually wrote that much about popular culture.  In fact, the one piece that he is known for is only 15 pages.  The piece I speak of is called Encoding/Decoding.  When I teach popular culture studies classes, it only takes about half a class period to go over the basic model.  The encoding/decoding model is a generalized model for the production and the reception of culture, and the thing about it is, it’s perfect.  As someone who spent a great deal of the last 10 years thinking about and researching popular culture, I have yet to find an situation where it is not applicable.  In fact, when people ask me what was the main takeaway from my dissertation about Sabermetrics is, I tell them that “Stuart Hall was right and encoding/decoding works for everything.”1

We academic types spend a great deal of time reading other’s people work with the specific goal of trying to find weaknesses in theories and arguments, and despite it being published in 1977, I have yet to find a valid critique of the model.  Which is why I consider this to be Hall’s greatest achievement.  The model itself is fairly simple – producers of culture encode messages that are influenced by the producers social and economic circumstances, and in turn, those messages are decoded by consumers of culture in a way that is influenced by their social and economic circumstances.  Despite it’s simplicity, it has proven time and time again to be a powerful and illuminating way to understand how popular culture “does” things.  A simple concept that almost completely explains a social phenomenon – what else could one want to achieve in life as a scholar?

Do yourself a favor and take a few minutes to read Encoding/Decoding.  If not as a tribute to a very smart man, then at least do it to make your stupid self just a little bit smarter.

  1. The other thing I tell them is that Pierre Bourdieu was right and Distinction also works for everything, but he died years ago []

Things we learned today on February 2nd, 2014

1.  Nearly almost all of the things that you do unrelated to football, specifically being emotional after a victory, have exactly zero influence on how good of a football player you are and how you and your team perform during a game.

2.  Relatedly, no matter how much of a douchebag you were as a coach at USC and in real life, it does not affect your ability to lead a team and organization.  Denver looked completely unprepared.  Did they not know that there would be pressure on the edge?  Did they not know that Champ Bailey was a shell of his former self?

3.  We already knew that the Seahawks defense was historic.  But now we know that they are another level of historic as they completely shut down the greatest offense in football history.  The Seahawks D should be mentioned in the same breath as the 2000 Ravens and the 2002 Buccaneers.

4.  Vegas makes lots of money on the Super Bowl.

5.  Bruno Mars is like really really really really short.

6. Joe Namath does not give a fuck what you think.

7. Neither does Bob Dylan, but in a bad way.

8.  Stay away from smack kids.

2 thoughts on Macklemore’s performance at the Grammys

Watch the performance below if you haven’t seen it yet.1

1) The decision to include straight couples in the mass weddings seems like a choice made to soften the impact of the image of gay marriages on national TV. In turn this reduces the impact of the performance as a political statement. Last I checked no one is trying to prevent straight people from getting married. If your response to this is “The point of the song is that marriage is for everyone, gay and straight,” then I think you might have a real misunderstanding of the social problem of discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Also, that actually may be the message that Macklemore intends, which speaks to the issues with using this song as some kind of protest song.  And when you think about it, it speaks to the problem of gay marriage as the principal LGBTQ issue in the public’s mind.

2) I saw the West coast broadcast so it wasn’t live and I don’t know how it played out on live TV. However it was obvious that on the broadcast that I saw, the editor/director made sure to show as little physical affection between same sex couples as possible. Every time a same sex couple would move in for a kiss, the camera would cut away abruptly to Macklemore or Queen Latifah.  I can’t emphasize how super shitty this is.  Basically, someone took a giant crap all over the political statement that the song was making.  Whether it was for personal beliefs or whether it was in the interest of avoiding angry phone calls or emails – it shows that even with more and more states legalizing gay marriage, we are no where near where we want to be on this issue.  If something as simple as two newly married people kissing each other immediately after getting married is still something that needs to be edited out of a national television broadcast, then we as a culture are still discriminating based on who you want to make out with.

I promise that I’m not just trying to shit on a shitty rapper.2  After all, it was nice that some kind of social justice issue was engaged with at all on national TV.  But what should have been a very nice and touching moment was marred by CBS’s desire to ‘sanitize’ the broadcast, so you know, eff those a-holes.

Bonus thought on Grammys unrelated to Macklemore’s performance as political statement – Macklemore3 winning best rap album over Kendrick Lamar is like a poop on rye winning best sandwich over the Monte Cristo.

Both of these white guys have extremely stupid haircuts.

  1. Before it gets yanked from Youtube that is []
  2. See what i did there? []
  3. Did you notice I never mention that clown Ryan Lewis.  He doesn’t do shit except press buttons on his Macbook and jump around like an asshole.  A John Oates for the new century []

Richard Sherman

The flack that Richard Sherman is getting is exactly the same that Muhammad Ali got. History has shown that Ali was not only one of the greatest athletes of all time, but also one of the greatest human beings of all time.  Part of what made him great was that he did speak his mind.  It remains to be seen if Richard Sherman will be as much of a towering cultural figure as Ali, but I think it’s safe to say that the backlash against him is as motivated by race as much as it was for Ali.

Bob’s Top 10 Albums of 2013

Obviously, I’m not a professional music critic, so this is limited only to the music that I’ve been able to spend quality time with.

1. Rhye – Woman
The androgynous mystique of the vocals only enhance an already lush and full album.  I would have never thought that an indie version of Sade would work so well but it does. Basically, I want to make out with this album.

2. Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob
Everything that the critics are praising HAIM for, Tegan and Sara did it first on this album. They also did it way more successfully.

3. Lorde – Pure Heroine
While I am not sure that the narrative of Lorde as Kurt Cobain is completely accurate, the combination of her ethereal voice with the expertly produced minimalistic drum and bass is irresistable.

4. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady
Third albums in three part concept albums about bisexual androids have never been more funky.  I regularly twerk to this album.

5. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
Neko continues her streak as every album she’s made since 2006 have been clinics in songwriting.

6. Icona Pop – This is…Icona Pop
Very worthy heirs to the great tradition of Swedish pop music. Perhaps it was due to the wild success of the single “I Love It” as a club anthem, but the rest of this album has been very overlooked.

7. Kanye West – Yeezus
This is a little surprising since this album is not nearly as good as the previous two.  But even Kanye’s B-roll is catchier, more interesting, and more compelling than almost anything else out there.

8. Brandy Clark – 12 Stories
Pretty much all the good things about country music before it went full redneck-son-of-the-south around 2002.  Like Neko Case’s album, this is a showcase of extremely competent songwriting.

9. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
The critics pretty much nailed it with this one – this album is the complete fulfillment of Daft Punk’s potential as the ones to take electronic music mainstream.

10. Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe
I’ve had trouble figuring out exactly what I like about this album so much.  All I can tell you is that I play the crap out of it when I surf the web.

Came close but no cigar
Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety (It killed me to not put this one in the top 10)
Beyonce – Beyonce (This might have made the list if I was able to spend more time with it)
Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap
Jason Isbell – Southeastern

Didn’t come out in 2013 but I started listening to them this year and love these albums
Lydia Loveless – Indestructible Machine
Vijay Iyer Trio – Historicity (High School Jazz Band Drummer Bob here – this album is a stunning achievement)

Album that I have to admit I liked at least a few songs despite hating their last two albums
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Albums that the indie kids seemed to like but I didn’t get at all
Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold
Arcade Fire – Reflektor – I seriously hate this album, but not as much as….

Worst Album of 2013
HAIM – Days are Gone

Jason Collins: How Hegemonic Masculinity Frames the Gay Athlete

It’s been a little over a year since I’ve done anything remotely resembling this, so please forgive me as I relearn how to write.

If you’re not really a sports fan or if you have been living under a rock, Jason Collins became the “first” active pro-athlete from any of the big 4 sports in the US to come out as gay.  As you might imagine, a zillion things have been written about this on the internet.  Most of this has been overwhelmingly positive, praising Collins as being super brave, marking his coming out as a historic moment in sports and for the most part, I’m on board.  This is absolutely an important moment in sports and an important moment in the country’s attitudes towards LGBTQ folk.  And of course, this is 100% a good thing.  Any time a gay person feels comfortable enough to be out, no matter what the situation, is a good thing.  And it is extra good when that situation is within the context of the traditionally homophobic atmosphere of professional sports.  However, as with any of these kinds of things, the issue is much more complicated than “Yay! Gay athletes!”  This is further complicated by the fact that today’s political climate make the chances of anyone writing or saying something negative about Collins are virtually nil.1  Don’t get me wrong, this is a good thing, but it also obscures how we as a nation actually feel about gay people.  For every feel-good Jason Collins story, I can point out a zillion examples of where coming out doesn’t go so well.

So here are some things to mull over as we celebrate our progress towards not being jerks to people based on who turns us on.

1.  It actually does matter that Jason Collins is not that great of an NBA player.  Don’t get me wrong, he’s a had a respectable career as a big man who will rebound and play defense.  But at no point in his career would Collins be considered a “top center” in the league.  The fact that he is on the tail end of his career doesn’t help matters as it remains to be seen if he will even be playing in the NBA next year.  This is important for a lot of reasons, but I think the most important reason is because there will be a chance that we will not be able to test whether or not America is “ready” for a gay male athlete.  Collins is currently without a contract, and if he does not get a contract offer, it will be difficult to know whether he didn’t get one because he just doesn’t have the skills to play in the NBA anymore or he didn’t get a contract because no team wanted to deal with the accompanying media circus that would come with having an openly gay player on their team.  The converse is true.  If he gets another contract, you can believe that there will be people who will use the terrible affirmative action argument and say that his signing is some kind of publicity stunt.2 To reiterate, Jason Collins coming out is nothing but a good thing, but in terms of changing people’s perceptions of the relationship between being a great athlete and being heterosexual, the impact will be minimal because Collin’s success as an athlete is limited by his ability.  This is actually super important for reasons that I will elaborate on later.

Relatedly, because he is not that great an NBA player, he really doesn’t have any “fans”.  Well, he probably does now, but I doubt sincerely that any team was making any money by selling Jason Collins jerseys before now.  It doesn’t really force any one to confront their own homophobia in relation to someone who they admired before.  If someone at the top of his game who does have lots of fans – say Kevin Durant – were to come out, we would be able to see more clearly whether or not the knowledge that he is gay would affect public perception of him.  The truth is, none of us really had an opinion of Jason Collins one way or the other up until now.  And most likely, our opinion of him now is determined how we feel about GLBTQ issues in general.  But beggars can’t be choosers, so we’ll take any positive vibes we can I guess.

2.  The sport matters.  I found it interesting and encouraging that scores of NBA players, past and present, showed their support (albeit via twitter :/ ) for Collins.  I also found it interesting that the most notable twitter “objection” came from a football player.  I find super duper interesting that to my knowledge no one on a Major League Baseball team has said anything.

For some it is actually surprising that the NBA would be the site of all of this since the NBA is the “blackest” of all of the sports leagues.  That is because those people are racist dickholes.  The fact that this happened in the NBA should not be surprising at all.  Basketball, in addition to being the sport that is most influenced by African American culture, is also the sport that is most influenced by urban culture.3  And as we know, urban attitudes tend to be more liberal.  In this case, urban sensibilities about masculinity contribute to a more accepting attitude of gay athletes.4 Which leads us to the most important thing I have to say which is….

3. The culture of hegemonic masculinity in sports shapes the way Collins’ coming out is framed and communicated to the culture consuming public, and does so in a problematic way.  Some of  you know that I wrote my dissertation on masculinity in sports, and one of my major conclusions was that in sports, challenges to masculinity are not really challenges, but rather re-articulations of masculinity that leave the core tenets of hegemonic masculinity in place.  The narrative that Collins and the sports media have chosen is “Gay athletes can totally play pro sports!”  Let’s look at Collins’ own choice of words in his coming out essay:

I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay? But I’ve always been an aggressive player, even in high school. Am I so physical to prove that being gay doesn’t make you soft? Who knows? That’s something for a psychologist to unravel. My motivations, like my contributions, don’t show up in box scores, and frankly I don’t care about stats. Winning is what counts. I want to be evaluated as a team player.

The use of the words “aggressive”, “physical”, and “winning” are all characteristics that are associated with traditional hegemonic masculinity.  The move that Collins (and the rest of the media) is making is to decouple being gay with femininity.  This is important because for this to go smoothly, Collins has to be the “right kind” of gay person.  Something that has helped Collins is that he is a 7 foot tall black man.  He looks masculine.  This is reflected in how sports columnists have written about this.  They all subtly reinforce hegemonic masculinity and marginalize other types of gay identity.

Imagine if Collins held a press conference and came out in the same way that Magic Johnson’s son came out.  What if Collins’ wore a feather boa and spoke like RuPaul?  I suspect that the reception would be less welcoming towards Collins.  Dennis Rodman all but said, “I really enjoy a penis in my mouth” and the media never hailed him as being courageous.

And while it is true that these can be examples of bad stereotypes about gay people, they can also represent direct challenges to heteronormative gender roles, which in turn, represent a direct challenge to hegemonic masculinity which places white heterosexual males atop the hierarchy.5 Collins’ own emphasis on his masculinity does not challenge this and encourages conformity to sexist gender roles.6

This is where the fact that Collins is a mediocre basketball player comes into play because his coming out still does not fully challenge the notion that to be the very best athlete you have to be straight.  Collins still is able to fit into the hierarchy the same way as before – below heterosexual males that exhibit masculine traits.  Which is why it would be a more transformative moment if Lebron James came out.  Hell it would be more transformative if he was simply a starter on a halfway decent team.

I know it seems like I’m pissing all over the feel good parade, but I promise, I’m really not trying to do that.  Let me say one more time, this is a historic moment and one that I think will contribute much to the dialog about gays in sports.  I think Jason Collins should be lauded for his courage and he will make a fine example to everyone.  I am also not saying that Collins needs to be “gayer” or anything.  He can do his sexuality any way he wants to.

However, sports and sports media still filter his story through the lens of hegemonic masculinty, in a way that marginalizes a large portion of both sports community and the GLBTQ community.  IE – women have been out in sports forever and no one seems to want to call Britney Griner a hero.7   I guess what I’m worried about is that people will see this event as “problem solved!”  for gay issues in the same way a lot of people seem to frame Obama’s election as “racism solved!”

The way that the Collins story is circumscribed within the framework of the hegemonic masculinity of sports provides an opportunity to examine the ways that gayness and gender are bound up together.

  1. Don’t worry, I’m sure someone will []
  2. This has nothing to do with anything, but if Tim Tebow gets signed by a team, I’m pretty sure it’s only because he’s super Christian []
  3. Urban in the actual meaning of the word as in urban/rural, not in the racist way that Paul Ryan uses the word urban []
  4. I acknowledge that I haven’t fully fleshed out this argument, but I do think that there’s something here []
  5. This is why baseball players have not said anything – It’s the whitest, and I suspect also the most homophobic (which is totally related) of the big sports so hegemonic masculinity is especially important to baseball culture.  Yes I know that hockey is probably whiter, but their Candian-ness makes them more accepting of gay people, eh? []
  6. You can also see examples of this in the way his agent Arm Tellem talked about this, “He makes the hard fouls. He doesn’t allow easy baskets.” []
  7. or Martina Navratilova, or Nancy Leiberman, or Megan Rapinoe…you get the point. []