On March 26, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that athletes at private colleges and universities have the right to try to form unions. Making that happen will be a long process, and students at state schools will have to proceed under the patchwork of state law. But whatever comes next, the NLRB has made a firm statement of an idea that makes institutions of higher education uncomfortable for financial reasons, and a lot of fans anxious on emotional grounds: Players have jobs, not hobbies.
The idea that elite college athletes are amateurs who devote their college careers to playing sports for nothing but love is of a piece with a larger contradiction in the way American audiences approach athletic competition. Professional sports are an absolutely giant business. In 2012, Major League Baseball signed three television deals covering eight years of broadcasts for $12.4 billion, bragging that the figure represented “more than a 100-percent increase in annual rights fees to MLB over the current arrangements.” But when athletes themselves dare to follow the examples of their owners and their leagues and prioritize their contracts over loyalty to any given city, fans can go ballistic: Witness the frustration vented at Robinson Cano when he left the New York Yankees for the Seattle Mariners.
If we make sports the embodiment of American ideals, it makes a certain amount of sense, however irrational it is, that we want athletes to focus on something other than money. It would be too uncomfortable to acknowledge that the games we set up as objects of worship are really just a way for us to venerate a few talented people for extracting the highest possible compensation in exchange for their gifts.
But the lie the myth of amateurism lets us tell about college is at least as pernicious as the one it perpetuates about our love of sports. Suggesting that the hours athletes spend training, in practice, in strategy sessions and on the field or court represent just an activity, rather than a job, is a way of trying to shrink the definition of work to a level we are comfortable with. If we have to face up to the fact that high-level college athletics are a hugely time-consuming job that genuinely trades off with academics and the cultural experience of college life, we would also have to reckon with the fact that almost 80 percent of American students work an average of 19 hours a week while they are in school.
Athletes are generating revenue for their schools through ticket sales and broadcast fees, while their peers may be simply working for the money to pay for tuition, room and board, and books. But either way, they are participants in a system that makes a lot of money for colleges and universities, even as students spend time working rather than having an idealized and balanced college experience. And if we decide we are not comfortable with athletes foregoing the classroom and the social life of college for a job, we need to acknowledge that there are other students having similar experiences in less-glamorous circumstances, with less chance of a big payout at the end.
College sports, and college sports fandom, might be healthier if we could acknowledge amateurism as the cover story that it is, and start finding ways for athletes to get better medical care and a fairer share of the profits they help generate. But none of this has to take away from the beauty of play itself. As Annie Savoy, the fanatical baseball fan played by Susan Sarandon in “Bull Durham” put it, “Baseball may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time, but it’s also a job.”