David Cook: The whiff of the plantation

David Cook: The whiff of the plantation

February 5th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Everytime I watch them on TV, I think the same thing: It's wrong. The way they're being treated is just plain wrong.

The nonstop work. The powerlessness. The sweat-and-tears devotion to a system that barely rewards them past room and board and scraps from the master's table.

The way they're treated violates all the things we hold dear: freedom, fairness, the end of the kingly power. We're not meant to be servants!

What's that you say? It's just the way it was back in 1920s England?

But I'm not talking about "Downton Abbey."

I'm talking about college athletics.

"The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not," writes civil rights historian Taylor Branch in The Atlantic's "The Shame of College Sports."

Our Southeastern Conference pulled in $1 billion in sports money in 2010, Branch reports. None of it would happen without college athletes.

Unpaid college athletes.

"Last year, CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting paid $771 million to the NCAA for television rights to the 2011 men's basketball tournament alone. That's three-quarters of a billion dollars built on the backs of amateurs - on unpaid labor. The whole edifice depends on the players' willingness to perform what is effectively volunteer work," writes Branch.

It is like a closed-loop system: universities recruit the top athletes, then receive zillions in TV rights and merchandise profits. Yet little trickles down to the people upholding the entire system: the athletes.

Just look at Wednesday's National Signing Day.

Across the nation, we will gush and gloat over 18-year-olds in the razzle and dazzle that is modern recruiting: a spectacle that heaps upon the psychologically fragile backs of teenagers god-like glory and fame.

Take Vonn Bell, the Ridgeland High safety. He's been recruited by the tops; at one point, the crowd at a UT-Knoxville basketball game began chanting his name.

Is he even old enough to vote?

This Wednesday, he will choose a college, promising to play football for them in the years to come. Sure, he'll get a free dorm room, and meals, and free tuition, which shouldn't be taken lightly. But in return, the university could make millions off his labor, a distorted and crooked relationship that brings to mind several connotations from our nation's past.

"An unmistakable whiff of the plantation," writes Branch. "Perhaps a more apt metaphor is colonialism."

To argue that paying college athletes would ruin an otherwise pure sport is fictitious. The landscape has been littered for years, and every road leads back to an unchecked profit.

From Penn State to Saban's millions each year to Cam Newton to Jim Tressel to Reggie Bush and back again.

Yeah. Integrity. Sure.

This week in California, a federal judge gave the green light on a court case - plaintiffs include Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson and Ed O'Bannon - which argues that student-athletes should receive fair compensation from profits made from clothing, video games, other merchandise and broadcasts of games.

"Television broadcast revenues of college sports have soared to nearly $2 billion a year. College sport merchandise licensing revenue - from items like T-shirts, caps, jersey, shoes and video games - was estimated to be $4.6 billion in 2012," according to Mark Koba of CNBC.

It is the branding of college athletes. Players, being played.

There is only one thing worse than being a servant in the house of lords.

And that's not knowing you are one.