Just How Exploited Are My Students? An Adventure

Yesterday, I tweeted this out:

Screenshot 2016-01-19 14.46.11

 

It’s gotten a certain amount of traction (Twitter tells me around 20,000 people have seen that Tweet) and so I began to be concerned that I was being irresponsibly provocative.  So let me explain how I got that number.

The Indy Star reported that the NCAA made $769.4 million off March Madness in 2013 ($681M from CBS for TV rights, $82.3 in ticket sales, and $6.1M in ancillary revenue streams).  So, partly for fun, partly out of curiosity, but also out of the conviction that the labor of performing athletes is the primary driver of these revenues, I divided the total revenues by the total player minutes to come up with a figure of $30,224.91 generated per player minute of the 2013 NCAA D1 Men’s Basketball Tournament.  Based on that figure, my five students together “generated,” with their 1017 minutes of basketball over 6 games, $30,738,733.50.

Incidentally, some other facts I discovered in the process: 674 players saw action during the tournament, sharing a grand total of 25,254 minutes of playing time.  Of course, common sense would tell you, since half the teams are eliminated after the first round, that the players on teams making deeper runs are going to have a higher share of the minutes.  What I found, though, was pretty amazing

  • Just 14 players used 10 % of the total minutes.
  • Just 36 players used 25 % of the total minutes.
  • Less than one tenth of players used more than half of the total minutes.
  • Just one third of the players used 75 % of the total minutes.
  • Half the players used 85 % of the total minutes.

People go to NCAA games and watch them on TV to see basketball players play basketball.  In a very real sense, minutes of basketball played creates revenue dollars for the NCAA, a fact not lost on the NCAA which has increased the number of minutes played by expanding the tournament.  If so, then imbalances in the distribution of overall minutes matter. They matter no matter what. But they matter doubly, I would argue, when we consider that black players are disproportionately represented among the group of players using most of the minutes and so generating most of the interest and dollars (11 out of those top 14).

But minutes and NCAA revenues are just one way to frame the story.

Even someone who values the performance of these athletes as much as I do, who knows that if it weren’t for their hard-work and talent there would be no March Madness, must also admit that arenas, coaches, training and all other manner of capital investments (laid out before and during the tournament) also contribute to the madness and so to the revenues.  It also reduces player labor to a single quantity: minutes, which isn’t the worst way to do it, especially from the NCAA standpoitn.  Though I recognize the NCAA will make a bit more or less money depending on who makes a deep run in the tournament, it essentially makes its money regardless of who wins.

But there’s a reasonable argument to made that the productivity of a player, measured in terms of contributions to wins (which generate revenues) matters more, at least at the level of individual institutions.  So while I think my $31M figure illuminates, albeit roughly, the correlation between minutes of player labor and revenues, I wouldn’t necessarily go the mat with an economist arguing that it’s the best way to measure exploitation.

So, to begin get a more precise sense of the exploitation of those five students of mine during the 2012-2013 season, I’m borrowing a page from Dave Berri, who in 2014 wrote a useful primer on the economic exploitation of college athletes for Time magazine.  Let me walk you through that.  Berri defines exploitation as “paying a worker less in wages than their economic contribution to the firm.” In terms of college athletes, exploitation occurs when the value of the scholarship, housing, and any stipend the athlete receives in exchange for competing is lower than the amount of revenue the athlete generates for the school. So, though I’m not mathematically adept, I believe we can turn this definition into relatively simple formula (as Berri goes on to do).

Exploitation (E) = Scholarship Value (SV)/Revenues (R) x 100%

Following Berri, I begin by getting the basketball revenue figures reported by Michigan to the Department of Education and posted on the latter’s “Equity in Athletics Data Analysis Cutting Tool” and discover that Michigan basketball reported $13,636,966 that year.  Let’s just call it $13.6M.

2012-2013 University of Michigan Men’s Basketball Revenues = $13.6M

According to Berri, “Currently the NCAA restricts the payment of athletes to essentially the cost of attending the institution. But in a typical labor market, the payment to workers is unrestricted.” So the question is, what would Michigan have to pay its basketball players in an unrestricted market?

To get at this, we follow Berri in adopting the revenue sharing proportions used in the comparatively unrestricted major professional sports leagues in the United States, including the NBA, where the collective bargaining deal (because, you know, NBA players, unlike “student-atho-letes“, have a union) stipulates roughly a 50/50 revenue split between owners and players.  (Berri notes that the labor market for professional athletes in the US is, in fact, still restricted and that the proportion of revenues they’d receive would likely be higher in a truly unrestricted market, but whatever.)

So, if the 15 players on Michigan’s roster were to receive 50% of the 2012-13 revenues they’d be splitting $6.8M, which works out to $400K apiece.

2012-2013 University of Michigan Average Men’s Basketball Player Revenue Share (In Unrestricted Market) = $400,000

The University of Michigan estimated the cost of attendance for out of state freshman and sophomores living on campus for 2012-2013 at $51,976.  Let’s be generous and call that $52K.

2012-2013 University of Michigan Cost of Attendance = $52,000

Now let’s plug these values back into the exploitation definition/formula Berri gave us before.  E (UM) = 52K (COA/player)/ 400K (1/2 hoops revenue/player) x 100 %.  Do the math and I come up with Michigan players getting about 13 % of what they generate. Or, to put this another way that makes more sense to me: Michigan netted about $348K in profits off each player on the team in 2012-2013.

Average University of Michigan Profit Per 2012-2013 Player = $348,000

Here I hit a wrinkle that Berri does not account for (and I welcome anybody reading this to correct my efforts to do so). The University told the Department of Education that it cost about $7.5M to operate the men’s basketball program in 2012-13. I don’t have a breakdown of those costs (though I assume scholarships are figured in there and so I’m probably double-counting that expense).  But just for fun, let’s subtract that from revenues.  Doing so ($13.6M-$7.5M) gives us $6.1M in profits. Now let’s split that 50/50 with our players, leaving them $3.05M to split 15 ways.  They’d each get a bit over $200K, which is still 75% more than the school’s own COA figure.  In other words, by the most generous calculation I can come up with, the school made nearly $150,000 off each and every member of the 2012-2013 men’s basketball team.

Adjusted Average University of Michigan Profit Per 2012-2013 Player = $148,000

This gives us the average rate of exploitation.  But, Berri, recognizing that pro franchises don’t pay all players the same amount but rather pay them to win games, applies a further calculation to factor in an approximation of each player’s contribution to the team’s wins. He takes the total revenues divided by the team’s wins to get at the value of a win, and then multiplies these by each player’s “win share” (or contribution to total wins, calculated through this complex formula, but also available here) to get at what he consider to be a more realistic and so equitable estimate of each player’s share of the revenues based on their actual productivity on the court.

[Caveat: I’m not really on board, philosophically with the individualistic, laissez-fair economic principles driving these calculations so you shouldn’t take this to mean that I argue that these numbers alone should dictate solutions to the problem of college athlete exploitation. But I think these numbers should be the starting point, after which we need to factor in other things that have value, even though that value isn’t reflected by an unrestricted market.]

Let’s go back to the five students I started with, who also happen to be the five players on the 2012-13 roster who led the team in win shares: Trey, Glenn, Nik, Tim, and Mitch.  And don’t forget, if I were using Berri’s values, which do not subtract expenses from revenues, these figures would all be about twice as high. Here’s how that turns out:

Screenshot 2016-01-19 12.49.03

That’s annually.  In other words, when productivity is taken into account using win shares, we find that the University of Michigan made $1.3M off its $52,000 investment in Trey Burke.

Now, for each of Michigan’s 31 wins during that season, the numbers look like this:

Screenshot 2016-01-19 13.44.14

Okay, now, let me also go back to my other starting point:  March Madness, where Michigan got five of their 31 wins before losing to Louisville in the title game.  How much did my students contribute to those wins? How much revenue did those five wins generate? How much did the UM pay for the players’ services in those five games? And how much profit did UM make off each of those players?  To be really precise, I’d have to calculate the WinShares for each player for the five March Madness victories and I don’t have time.  But to give an estimate, we just have to multiply the per win figures above by 5 (the number of March Madness wins).

Screenshot 2016-01-19 13.55.29

Lastly, I want to relate all this to minutes.  Basically, I want to know how much the UM made per minute that each of my students was on the floor during March Madness. So I’m going to take the total UM profit for each player for March Madness (the right hand column above) and divide it by each player’s total minutes.

Screenshot 2016-01-19 14.01.37

So that’s the bottom line for me. The University of Michigan reaped just under $1,000.00 off of every minute of Trey Burke’s performance during the 2013 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

I want to say that I recognize I am neither an economist nor a statistician, and that both are real scholarly disciplines that people take years to master, just as I spent years mastering the skills involved in cultural interpretation.  So perhaps I have something wrong here. If so I welcome corrections.  I have not intended to mislead, but simply to find my way through a thicket of ideologies and numbers to get a sense of what the school I work for is doing in its contractual relationship with the students whose educational well-being and, in some sense, overall growth, I am entrusted to protect.

Lastly, a word on the term “adventure” in my title. I take it from Ian Hacking’s remarkable book The Emergence of Probability, in which, at the point in question, he describes four different kinds of “experiment” in early modern Europe.  One of these is “the adventure,” which he describes as follows and in the spirit of which I have conducted my own little experiment:

Screenshot 2016-01-19 15.20.57

 

 

 

 

“Ball Don’t Lie!” Is Coming Soon (Here’s a discount code!)

I’m very excited!

Here’s the flyer for my book, Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball, which comes out in March.

There’s a code at the bottom for a discount on orders prior to 3/1/16.

Also, if you or someone you know is interested in an advance review copy of the galleys, there’s contact information for that.

I’ll be very grateful if you could share this widely via e-mail and on your social networks.

If you have any questions, please write me at yagocolas@gmail.com.

Thanks,

Bad Prof

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NCAA’s Hypocrisy on Time Demands Issue

The NCAA is holding its annual convention this week.  Yesterday, time demands on athletes surfaced as a major issue.  College athletes must find ways to attend classes, complete their school work, and participate in the various training and practice sessions necessary to prepare for competition in their sports.  The NCAA officially limits the amount of time that they can devote to “countable athletic activities” to 20 hours per week in season, and 8 hours per week out of season.  This is known colloquially as the 20 hour rule.Screenshot 2016-01-15 09.16.13

Many who read this and recall their college days working part time jobs on or off campus, perhaps while also participating in some recurring extracurricular activities may wonder why it should be a big deal to ask college athletes to devote 20 hours per week to their sport? After all, you might say, they chose to play college sports and should have known of the rule when they signed up.  And, anyway, they get their education for free in return.

Sure, but the—or rather, one—problem is, as Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney told the Indianapolis Star last May, that the “Twenty hour rule is a misnomer.  NCAA studies have showed us over time that in Division III, it’s in the highs 30’s per week, Division II the low 40’s. In Division IA, it could be higher, probably in the mid-40’s.”  That’s right, even in Division III, the actual amount of time athletes devote to their sports is nearly double the 20 hours allowed.  In Division I it’s higher than what you’d have spent on your job during college, even if you were working full time.

Part of this occurs as a result of the ambiguity created by the NCAA’s phrase “countable athletically related activity” (incidentally, the NCAA seems, as much as anything, to be in the business of generating ambiguous phrases—”student-athlete”—that appear on the surface to clearly define something, while in fact creating a tremendous amount of maneuvering room for everyone involved but the athletes: National Collegiate Ambiguity Association?).  When you look at the chart below, taken from the NCAA’s own document explaining the 20 hour rule, you see along the right hand all the activities that athletes have to devote to their sport that are not counted against the 20 hour rule.

Screenshot 2016-01-15 09.19.17

Speaking anecdotally, the one that athletes I teach complain most frequently about (and this is across the board: male,  female, revenue or non-revenue generating sports) is what the NCAA calls “voluntary weight training not conducted by a coach or staff member.”  An athlete might receive word via e-mail or text from a coach or staff member or even a teammate, perhaps a team captain, that some of the guys are going to get together to life at 6 tomorrow morning, and do you want to come?

If you are an athlete, whose scholarship depends not only on your performance in practice and competition but also on the perception that you are a “team player” and “all-in,” do you really decide not to go that practice? Are you really making a free choice there in any meaningful sense of the word?  Can we really call that a “voluntary” weight training or conditioning session?  And that’s just one of the 13 categories of non-countable activities.  It’s not hard to see how the number of hours per week gets up into the 30s and 40s.

Coaches, whose jobs depend on winning games and avoiding scandal, understandably want to find ways to get more out of their athletes.  But in doing so, they sometimes, or apparently often, exploit the ambiguity in the 20 hour rule to coerce athletes into devoting far higher number of hours on their sport.

Under these circumstances, it’s no wonder that athletes feel that they are “owned by the coach.” And, of course, that they don’t like it.  The results of a recent survey conducted by the NCAA student-athlete advisory committee of more than 30,000 athletes are mixed, but they do indicate that many student athletes would like to see some form of reduction in the hours required of them: perhaps better enforcement of the 20 hour rules, perhaps a second day off per week (they are currently only entitled to one day off per week, and that “day off” is frequently filled with uncountable activities).

So it came as a surprise to me to read in yesterday’s USA Today article on the NCAA convention that President Mark Emmert explained that this was a “hard subject” because “these are very competitive young men and women.” As reporter Dan Wolken summed up Emmert’s concerns: “many athletes prefer not to be limited on the amount of time they can devote to training.”

Hmm. More ambiguity, now surrounding the word “many.” Which is it? Would “many athletes,” as the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, like to have more time away from sports? Or would “many athletes,” as the NCAA seems to think, “prefer not to be limited on the amount of time they can devote to training.”  We can go round on round on this. Perhaps the answer is both are true, and it depends on the athlete, the sport, their role on the team, their life experiences, opportunities for success outside athletics, and goals.

But here’s the part that really blows me away: since when does the NCAA take into account athlete’s preferences when formulating policies? Especially when formulating policies where those preferences (at least as interpreted by the NCAA) seem to run counter to what NCAA administrators profess to believe to be in the athlete’s best interests?

The NCAA doesn’t think it’s good for athletes to be paid for their labor.  Okay. But “many athletes” do think they should be receiving compensation above and beyond cost of attendance.  Does the NCAA therefore declare that the issue of payment is a hard one because, shucks, even though we don’t think it’s a good idea, these kids would like to get paid, and so, well, I guess we’ll have to go ahead and do that?  So why are they waffling on the issue of time demands and professing that it’s because “many athletes” would rather not have time demands?  Maybe it’s not hypocrisy, maybe it’s just bad thinking.

Update.  The convention is over for this year.  

But here are three more issues that the NCAA’s Power Five (the group of conferences—SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12—with the power to act autonomously from the NCAA) decided were complex to act on this year and therefore tabled:

  • Allow athletes to profit off their own name, image and likeness, even if it’s for non-athletic ventures.
  • Require schools to cover medical bills for sports-related injuries while an athlete is in school and for a period after college.
  • Create enforcement rules and penalties for schools that violate their own concussion protocol.

 

What I Did in 2015

This felt like a productive, and pivotal, year for me.  So I thought I’d gather together the links to some of my professional activities during 2015…because, well, I feel proud.

In my teaching, I continued to refine Cultures of Basketball, developed an entirely new course called “Writing the Sporting Body,” and completely revamped my large lecture course “Global Sports Cultures.”

Over the summer, I had a few successful blog posts, two of which seemed especially to strike a chord: my thoughts on the deeper cultural forces that might drive the collective love affair with Steph Curry and my commentary on LeBron James and coaching.

These led to some fun media appearances: one at Over and Back on the meanings of the late Darryl Dawkinsone discussing NBA narratives with Seth Partnow, another on coaching with Nick Hauselman, and what can only be described as a cameo in Tom Goldman’s NPR story on Steph Curry.

I published a couple of academic articles, one, related to my book, on the meaning of the phrase “Ball Don’t Lie” and another, long-coming, on the cultural and political significance of Manu Ginobili’s style of play. Another article, on the myths surrounding the invention of basketball, will be published in the Journal of Sport History in Spring, 2016. I also was honored to accept a position, alongside some scholars I’ve long admired, on the editorial board of the Journal of Sports and Social Issues.

Most exciting to me was finishing up my end of the production process for my forthcoming book Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball, which will hit bookstores in the spring and is already available for pre-order on Amazon.

I also began new administrative appointments at Michigan related to college athletics, which brought me new perspectives on some controversial issues such as athlete compensation and faculty involvement, both matters that I plan to get more involved in, both as a researcher and administrator.

Now, as for the pivotal part, I’m excited to announce that, with the support of Deans Andrew Martin and Angela Dillard of the Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, Jimmy King and I began to plan a public symposium dedicated to examining the legacy of the Fab Five to mark the 25th anniversary of their 1991 arrival on campus. We’re still figuring out the dates and details, but it will happen sometime in 2016 and I’ll be sure to keep everyone posted.

Lastly, I’ve kicked off two new essay-length research projects.  The first, in response to a call for papers on the topic of doing sport history in the digital era, is a history, contextualization, and cultural review of the rise of basketball analytics and its impact on various issues pertaining to basketball history.  The second will be something like a map of the hoops historical imagination of ESPN’s 30 for 30 basketball documentaries.

It’s been a lot of work, but the most rewarding work of my life, and I’m grateful to everyone who has played a part in this.  Thank you.

I hope you all have a prosperous, peaceful, and joyful 2016.

 

To go or not to go? A View from Inside Big-Time College Sports

A couple of days ago I received an e-mail from the Athletic Director (AD) at the University of Michigan, inviting me and other members of the Advisory Board on Intercollegiate Athletics (ABIA) to join the “University Official Party” on a trip, courtesy of the athletic department, to watch the University’s football team compete at the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida on New Year’s Day.

I have decided to decline the very generous invitation. It is not, I want to emphasize at the outset, that I think I have a complete understanding of this industry, and less that I believe mine is the only reasonable or morally appropriate response.  Far from it.  In fact, as I’m not a big football fan and the trip falls at a somewhat inconvenient moment, I really don’t think of my decision as having been primarily a moral one.

However, that’s not to say that I don’t think there are moral questions at stake, questions that go well beyond the specific issues and choices raised by this particular invitation.  Among these, I’m most interested in what role university faculty members, entrusted with the intellectual growth and overall well-being of their students, should have in relation to university athletic departments. So I share this information and, below, the feelings and thoughts that informed my decision about it in the hopes that it sheds light on the tensions at work in one small, but perhaps telling, corner of the massive entertainment industry that big time college sports has become.

Let me first share my reflections on sharing this information in this format, which I considered carefully. First, the fact that the athletic department offers this benefit to ABIA members is a matter of public record.  Likewise, all the information that I’m sharing concerning ABIA’s constitution and function come, as you’ll see if you follow the links, publicly available documents.  This is, I believe, as it should be: we are a public institution and I think our discussions regarding how to administer this institution should be available to the public. I don’t think we as a board should take positions or make decisions that we wouldn’t stand by publicly.  That said, I also respect my colleagues. Everyone I’ve worked with in this capacity has impressed me as sincere, thoughtful, and well-meaning, even when I disagree with them, and I do not wish to embarrass them or cause them discomfort.  For this reason, I have not here and do not intend in the future to share the remarks or views of my colleagues on the board, even in anonymized form.  I hope this will be sufficient to assure my colleagues of my intentions.

Now, I’m new to the ABIA and to the Academic Performance Committee (APC; a subcommittee composed of the faculty members on ABIA), having just started my first three-year term this Fall, so I confess I’m still fairly ignorant of how all this plays out in actual practice. But as I understand it, the ABIA’s role is to provide faculty input into the decisions made by the AD concerning the athletic department and the APC’s role is to provide faculty oversight concerning matters pertaining to the academic experience, performance, and eligibility of athletes—all this subject to the final authority of either the President or the Provost. There have been questions raised in the past at Michigan, and elsewhere, about whether this really constitutes adequate faculty control. (For details on the constitution and function of the ABIA and APC, and their history at Michigan, you can jump to the end of this post. As I say, everything there is drawn from publicly available documents to which I’ve provided links.)

But, seeing aside the historical details of ABIA at Michigan and beyond the specifics of the particular issue of the invitation to attend the Citrus Bowl, there remains the underlying, substantive issue, which I’ll frame in personal terms since that’s how I best process such questions: what (speaking now as a Michigan faculty member with a scholarly interest in matters of sport and society who regularly teaches students who are also athletes, and who know holds an administrative position on the only university agency through which faculty have input on the activities of the athletic department) should my role be?

I’d like, in part at least, to be the kind of person who, finding himself in this situation, can draw upon a set of stable, consistent, rationally derived moral principles to guide my decision making.  To my mild disappointment, however, I’m not locating such principles within myself.  Mostly, in fact, I’m encountering what feels like a pretty unstable mire comprised of visceral pulls and aversions, feelings, conscious and unconscious investments,  (some quite idiosyncratic, personal, and narcissistic), sparsely mixed with opinions whose strength is not quite matched by my still-growing knowledge about the issues.  It’s kind of a mess, and a mess that I find points my actions in different and sometimes contradictory directions at different moments depending on the the specific circumstances facing me.

That said, a promising, because relatively solid, starting point I find is my strong feeling of care for my students.  I’m not talking about students in general, nor about all students who are athletes. I’m saying I find I care very much about the well-being of my students, including those who are athletes.  But what does it mean, in this case, to act on that feeling? Some of my students are on the football team. I care about them and I remember that when I was an athlete, it meant a lot to me that teachers came to my games. I don’t mean to exaggerate the importance of this, but I’m sure that my football-playing students would feel some version of this.

On the other hand, they are also my students, some of whom have during this semester in my Global Sports Cultures course heard me describe the current state of research on the harmful effects of sub-concussive brain trauma sustained regularly by football players in the course of practice and games; or the vast sums of money that the NCAA and its member institutions, media conglomerates, and apparel manufacturers make off their efforts.  I’ve asked them, as I’ve asked all my students, to consider carefully their position in relation to these dynamics. What lesson—and I don’t mean this rhetorically, but genuinely—might they draw by my going to the Citrus Bowl—where they will collide with other young men as millions watch and millions of dollars are generated? I wonder.

Moreover, I care about my students not only as athletes or students, but in a holistic way; perhaps most of all in a holistic way. I feel responsibility for their growth and development and well-being as adolescent human beings.  As such, I’m concerned about the toll that their participation in college sports, as currently configured, may have on them. I don’t just mean the physical toll, but the psychological and intellectual toll. Don’t get me wrong: I’m aware that most of them would say that playing college sports is one of the most physically, psychologically, and intellectually satisfying parts of their life experience.  That may be true from their point of view and perhaps that is where my rumination should stop.  But I’m their teacher and mentor, not to mention their elder, with all the differences in perspective, for better and or worse, that comes with that. From that perspective, my concern only heightens precisely because they seem so innocently unaware of it. I worry, in other words, about their futures.

But I’m also a sports fan and have been for as long as I remember. What does that mean to me? It means that I’m drawn to the aesthetic beauty of athletic performance as a form of art and to the suspenseful narrative micro-dramas that unfold in the course of sporting events. It means that to some degree I’m identified with and invested in the success of particular teams, like those that represent Michigan, and to individual players, some of whom I know personally.

It means also, in my case, that I feel a desire to be in the close proximity of sports and of athletes.  I feel a rush from my personal acquaintance with athletes that others know only as distant objects, two-dimensional figures on a television screen or dots on a field or court far below their perch in the nosebleed seats.  Of course, I also know this is childish and perhaps foolish. I know—I just said—that they are just human kids and that their being constructed as heroic objects of veneration by fans, the media, and their institutions is part of the problem. In fact, this dimension of sports culture is part of what makes me averse and somewhat ashamed to be a sports fan when I’m talking to people who are not. And yet, there that childish, foolish feeling is, rising up and nudging me toward the thrill of seeing a bowl game in person (never mind that I’ve probably watched no more than a dozen of them on TV in my entire life).

Finally, what about my role as a faculty member on the ABIA? Can I really perform the independent advisory functions I have been appointed to perform when I am also accepting a gift from the university agency that I’m supposed to be independently advising and overseeing? Honestly, I feel that accepting the gift wouldn’t cause me to pull any punches I’d otherwise be inclined to throw. But maybe I’m wrong. Yet, even if I’m right, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a structural conflict of interest involved, nor does it mean that this conflict of interest should be ignored.

Some of my students, when I shared the situation with them in class the other day, suggested that I should go because, after all, that would put me face to face with decision makers and augment the scope of my influence over them.  Maybe.  Though, if I’m honest, I have to say I don’t really believe it.  For one thing, I’m not sure that a bowl game is a place where any matters that matter are going to be discussed. As I told my students, it’s not as though I imagine getting Jim Harbaugh drunk in the hotel bar and convincing him to agree, with tearful relief, to blow up the whole system like some NCAA Mikhail Gorbachev presiding over the dismantling of the Soviet Union. My wife, who has a talent for storytelling, thought this would make a great short story, especially if it ended with me, having broken him down, berating him to “get it together, man, ’cause, after all, you got a ballgame to win tomorrow!” I wish, kind of, but I don’t think that’s how it would go down.

In fact, since I’m being honest, I’m somewhat skeptical about the possibilities of anything that matters in college sports changing as a result of the discussions and decisions that are made in the meetings of the ABIA. That’s not because of anything that has occurred in my experience so far.  And part of me understands that meaningful change in human history has sometimes occurred in piecemeal fashion.  But I also understand that these sorts of piecemeal changes don’t always add up to meaningful structural changes; indeed, that sometimes they defuse the energies that might drive more significant changes.

In this case, though I reserve the right to contradict myself and change my opinion, I see college sports changing in ways that significantly address what I see as the injustices in them only because athletes rise up collectively and threaten, as the Missouri football team did a few weeks ago, to refuse to play unless changes are made, which is why I actively support the work of the College Athletes Rights and Empowerment Coalition (CARE-FC).  In the long run, I suppose my hopes for change lie in the belief that subsequent generations of athletic and university administrators, if drawn from the ranks of the more politically conscious of today’s younger generation, will imagine and implement a new system.  Maybe.

My therapist asked me today to imagine going to the game and sitting next to our AD, Jim Hackett, who in my few encounters with him has struck me as a sincere and caring person, one who has in his short time as interim athletic director left the program in better shape than he found it. What, my therapist asked me, do I imagine myself saying to him as we munch on Buffalo Wild Wings and watch, comfortable behind the plexiglass walls of a skybox, my students bashing into some Florida professor’s students on the field far below under the Florida sunshine? I had an answer straightaway. “Man, Jim, I love sports and I love my students, but I’m finding it hard to watch this.  They’re hitting each other so hard and I just can’t forget what I know may be happening to their brains on every play. What do you do with that?”  My therapist thought that would be a good thing to say. He said it sounded empathetic and inviting.  Maybe that would be good.  Certainly, I’ve found Jim to be an empathetic person.

But I must admit that the fantasies my imagination has generated—with and without therapeutic prodding—in response to this invitation suggest an investment I have in being important and being recognized as such; in being uniquely suited to somehow say the right thing, push the right button, and save the day.  “Bad Prof Fixes College Sports” the headlines in my imagination might read.  Those fantasies and the insecurities and investments they bespeak don’t feel like very promising ground from which to be making decisions.

So all this messiness might disqualify me in some eyes from holding the positions as professor, as scholar, or as board member, that I hold. I confess I feel that way myself sometimes.  But I wind up feeling that it shouldn’t be so.  On the contrary, I feel that faced with the enormous complexity of the situation called big-time intercollegiate sports in this country, and the powerful cocktail of emotions that situation stirs in just about everyone (even those who hate them and feel they have no place in universities) it might actually be better if more of the participants and decision-makers were honest with themselves and publicly forthcoming with others about their uncertainties and ambivalences.

It’s not that I’ve encountered any individuals who I’ve felt were insincere or deceptive in the their words or actions.  It’s more that I feel that there are systemic pressures in place that subtly lead all of us involved to disregard certain concerns or uncertainties as either out of place or unworkable or for some other reason not worth considering or not safe to say.  Airing these, as I’ve tried to do here might not lead to any immediate solutions. It might lead to some ultimately unproductive discussions.  Perhaps, even, it would create some chaos.  But imagine a conversation in which various “stakeholders” were free to say, “Man, we really love college sports, but this is a bit of a cluster fuck right now, isn’t it? Let’s try to do better!” or whatever their version of that might look like. Things could get interesting.  In any event, I guess I’m feeling that a little honest chaos would be preferable to what seems to me to be a somewhat dishonest order.

A History of ABIA, APC and Faculty Control Issues at Michigan

In accordance with the University of Michigan Regents’ Bylaws (section 11.58.1), I was appointed to the ABIA by the president from a panel of senate members chosen by the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, subject to the approval of the Board of Regents. The ABIA also includes two members of the faculty senate, the University’s Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR), two student-athletes, two alumni, the AD (who has no vote), and an executive officer of the University.  The Bylaws also specify that the faculty members on ABIA, myself included of course, will constitute—together with a representative from the  Registrar’s office—a separate committee, now known as the Academic Performance Committee (APC).

The ABIA’s functions are also defined by the Regents’ Bylaws. First, the ABIA advises the AD, who is supposed to seek and consider our advice on “all major financial and policy decisions with respect to the program on intercollegiate athletics.” Then, the ABIA makes, adopts, and enforces—”subject only to the ultimate authority of the president and the Board of Regents”—”the necessary rules and regulations governing all questions pertaining to the eligibility of players, intercollegiate relations, and membership in associations of universities and colleges organized for the regulation of athletics” (11.60)  As for the APC, its function is—”subject to the final authority of the provost”—”to examine and appraise the academic performance of intercollegiate athletes, to determine their eligibility for competition in intercollegiate athletics, and to take any other action regarding such candidates as may seem necessary or appropriate under the circumstances (11.59).”

Now, according to “Rule 3. Membership” from the Big Ten Conference’s 2011-2012 Handbook, “Only a university having full and complete faculty control of its intercollegiate athletic programs may hold membership in the Conference. Faculty control is achieved whenever authority over a university’s intercollegiate athletic programs is vested in a university agency composed entirely of faculty members or in which faculty members are in a majority.” I first encountered this passage before I’d been appointed to the ABIA and, at the time, I wondered whether Michigan had any such agency (i.e. “composed entirely of faculty members or in which faculty members are in a majority” vested “with authority” over the university’s intercollegiate athletic programs).

Colleagues with greater knowledge of our institutional history weren’t sure, but they explained to me that up until 2001, there was an agency with a faculty majority called the Board in Control of Intercollegiate Athletics.  This body appears to have been replaced by the ABIA and APC through amendments to the Regents’ Bylaws proposed by then University-President Lee Bollinger. Bollinger said at the time that “All of this is to make sure intercollegiate athletics don”t get out of control. The Athletic Department is not an independent body within the University but is subject to University policies.”  He went on to explain that the “Board in Control should be, and has been, unmistakably advisory the name should be changed to reflect that.”

According to The Michigan Daily‘s article on the change, “Bollinger said he wants to limit the authority of the Board in Control to issues in which academic and financial concerns collide, such as extending the sports season for playoffs even when such a move could compromise students” academic life by conflicting with exams,” but, quoting Bollinger now, “the question of whether our football players should practice in a national playoff should not be rested [sic] in the board.”

Apparently, some members of the faculty-comprised Senate Assembly Committee on University Affairs voiced concerns that this put the University’s policies at odds with both the Big Ten and the NCAA’s membership criteria.  Of even greater concern to the faculty at the time was the codification of the merely advisory function of the newly constituted ABIA: “‘If the president is the one making the final decision,” one faculty members asked, “is there a reason why the president should seek the advice of the Board in Control?'”   Bollinger, according to the article “said that although changes to the bylaws will place more power in the hands of the president, he does not believe the Board in Control’s concerns will be ignored or that the University”s Big Ten membership will be compromised.”  Some might argue that the APC’s authority over academic standards and eligibility or the President’s final authority on all these questions satisfies the membership criteria concerning “complete faculty control” described in the Big Ten Handbook.

I’m not so sure it does. But—surprise!—that might be okay with me since I’m not even sure that “complete faculty control” over athletics is a principle I support without qualification. I believe faculty with expertise in the matters constituting the intersection of athletics with the university’s mission (education, health and well-being, economics, ethics and culture) should be represented as the majority on a board that collectively has complete control. But I also believe that students (both non-athletes and, especially, athletes) should be on that board. Finally, I think it’s important to have representatives of the athletic department administration and the university’s central administration on the board, without a vote.

 

 

 

Pre-order “Ball Don’t Lie!” Today!

I’m really excited to say that you can now pre-order Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball from Amazon starting today.

The book is part of the exceptional Temple University Press series “Sporting” edited by the accomplished sports historian, Professor Amy Bass. And I’m truly honored to be in the company of the other authors in that series.

If you don’t know about the book, you can learn more about it here.

I’ve put all I have into this book, and, in some ways, I’ve been working on it all my life. But more importantly, I really believe that I’ve come up with some important ways of looking at the history of the game and that it’s an enjoyable read, whether you are a basketball fan, or just interested in sports, American culture, or race.

I hope that you’ll check it out and, while you’re at it, order a copy for the thinking fan (or thinking non-fan) in your life.

Thanks

Yago

Damn Horses! On Paying College Athletes

The Allrounder (which I love and am proud to be a part of) published an interview with Duke University political theorist Michael Gillespie about the issue of paying college athletes, which he thinks is a bad idea. I don’t agree with Professor Gillespie’s conclusion. But I do recognize that it is a complex simple issue that reasonable people can disagree could only possibly feel one way about.  However, there are several comments he makes along the way, seemingly in support of that central conclusion that really, really do bother me and that I feel compelled to address.

The first came in response to the question of high profile coaches’ compensation, a concern of many, including many faculty.

” As [Duke Men’s Basketball Coach Mike] Krzyzewski pointed out to me once, almost all coaches are fired: they almost never retire. Or as one of our former football coaches put it when I told him that some of our faculty were really upset about his compensation: ‘I’ll trade my salary for tenure.’”

I’m not sure who that former football coach was, nor his salary. But I do know Kryzewski’s salary: $9,682,032…for one year. I’ve just started my 24th year at Michigan, my 20th with tenure. My total salary over those 24 years combined is not 10 % of Kryzewski’s annual salary. Is my job awesome? Yes! Is tenure sweet? Yes!  I don’t want his job. I love my job!  Would I trade tenure for a guaranteed one-year pay out of close to $10,000,000, with the possibility of another year if my students performed well? Hell, yes, in a heartbeat!

Oh, and, by the way, don’t forget that if my students do well, I also get to collect earnings for endorsing products, like the clothes and shoes I can make them wear, and I get paid to speak publicly because—even though “it’s all about the kids”—people believe my students do well because of some kind of special sauce running through my veins.  I’m not even going to get into adjuncts, almost a quarter of whom require public assistance of some sort to make ends meet, cause that’s another rant.  I’ll just stop here and say, Coach K, you want my tenure? Make me an offer.

Then, when asked whether the “educational trust” is being violated “if colleges and universities are only using athletes as pawns to increase brand recognition and generate revenue,” Professor Gillespie offered the following:

Well, as the adage goes, you can lead them to water but you can’t make them think. Whatever students (athletes or not) we bring on campus, we can’t keep them from being lazy in college, or getting into drugs, or lured by other distractions. Some kids go to college to get an education. Some don’t.

Damn horses! Here I am, leading them to water, and instead of drinking (or thinking), they just lazily let themselves get into drugs or lured by other distractions.  It may be true that you can’t “make them think,” but as the basketball adage goes, you miss 100 % of the shots you don’t take.  I mean to say, however meager my compensation may be by comparison with Coach K’s, it is pretty much my job description to “make them think.”  Yes, some of my students are resistant to this, for many different kinds of reasons.  It doesn’t matter: all of them are capable of thinking and it’s my job to make that happen.  In fact, it’s my job to make them thirsty.  Of course I will fail to do so at times and I may get discouraged from time to time, but that doesn’t relieve me of the responsibility to do my best.  And it certainly doesn’t justify the violation of educational trust.

At the end of the interview, he is asked “what do you say to those who can’t see the bigger picture and broader values of college sports?”  His response:

A little more, or even a lot more money, is not going to help any of these kids maximize on their educational opportunity, or athletic experience for that matter. With football especially, we really need to ask ourselves, what would all these football players be doing if they didn’t have an opportunity to play at the college level? The fact is that they probably wouldn’t be playing anywhere. And let’s face it, some them are the kind of individuals who could be given to some pretty violent behavior if they didn’t have the physical and psychological release that a sport like football provides. What our culture offers in that regard is no small thing.

Let me just emphasize this:

let’s face it, some them are the kind of individuals who could be given to some pretty violent behavior if they didn’t have the physical and psychological release that a sport like football provides.

I’d like Professor Gillespie to elaborate on just what “kind of individuals” does he have in mind.

But let me be more direct, cause I have skin in this game.  Here’s how it sounds to me: some of my students (those who are football players at one of the very few schools whose football program turns a profit) would pose a danger to society if it weren’t for the fact that we let them play football in exchange for leading them to the water of education (which we can’t make them drink).

Sure, some football players could be given to some pretty violent behavior if they weren’t playing football. I would guess that “some” college professors also would be given to “some pretty violent behavior” is they weren’t able to do the the thing they love, the thing that they’ve come to consider one of the core aspects making them who they are. Who knows, it’s even possible that some people in other professions are the kind of individuals who could be given to some pretty violent behavior if they didn’t have the physical and psychological release that their job provides.

Of course, it could be that the conditions of their job actually increase the need for physical and psychological release. What working conditions might do so?

Well, what if the job involves getting hit on the head so frequently and with such force that they have 3 times the risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy than the general population, and that will lead 1 in 3 of them to wind up with brain damage? Pretty stressful.

Or what if their bosses required them to routinely put in overtime—despite regulations prohibiting this—and threaten them with the loss of their positions if they fail to do so, all the while also requiring them to do another full-time job at the same time, and do it well lest those same bosses be embarrassed publicly? Pretty stressful.

Or what if the job involves working for free. Okay, not for free exactly, but you know the old adage, you can lead them to water, but you can’t make them think.

Damn horses!

In short, an esteemed professor of political philosophy at one of the most highly rated universities in the world believes that the solution to his (f)antasy that some college football players would break bad if they couldn’t play ball is to make sure they play ball in exchange for nothing more than the opportunity to enroll in a university.

Maybe mass incarceration could be addressed by requiring inmates to play football at Duke.

I realize that this is merely my rebuttal to some parts of this argument against paying them. It is not my argument for paying them.  I’m working on that.  But, if you want an approximation, you might check out this essay by Spencer Hall, which is just the most recent of many excellent pieces of writing in support of payment.  An even more intriguing response, I believe, has been to support college athletes in their quest to be recognized as employees who deserve protections afforded such status.  I like that tack because it doesn’t presume to tell the athletes what they want, but rather just seeks to help them get the right to say what they want and to negotiate for it from a fair position.

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Troubleshooting the Sports Machine (Global Sports Cultures, 1st Lecture)

Yesterday I gave my first lecture in Global Sports Cultures (Comparative Literature 100).  After teaching the course for the first time last year, I retooled the syllabus both to make the material more concrete by prioritizing certain figures and moments as primary focal points for each week’s studies and also to facilitate my making my lectures more accessible, and more interactive.  I also put lots of time into creating an interactive online course concept map as a resource for students looking to find more about particular facts, ideas, or personalities or to explore comparative connections from week to week.  It’s still in progress, but I’m including it here below because I think it could a very valuable tool, and I certainly have been learning a lot putting it together. The image below gives you an idea of what that looks like (each of those “Thought” boxes is clickable and contains more specific thoughts), but feel free click here if you want to explore the course concepts for yourself.

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The fact is, I vastly prefer small groups and open-ended discussion.  But, as I told the students yesterday, we are at the University of Michigan and our administration wants us to have a certain ratio of student credit hours per faculty position: so here we are, 172 of them and me.  I’m not there yet, but I’m trying to find ways to flip this beast.

My goal for the first week’s lecture was pretty simple: to get them to use their own experiences and feelings about sport together with the readings they’d already done in order to get to three ideas: 1) that sports may be understood as a machine for delivering certain positive effects; 2) that it may not be running as well as it could; 3) that this class was about developing certain diagnostic skills and tools to begin to troubleshoot and fix the sports machine.  To aid me in this process, I prepared a power point presentation (I know, I usually hate them to, especially giving them) with some video clips and images that I thought would provide more concrete and so impactful ways for them to think about the positive and the negative effects of the sports machine.

I’m always nervous on the first day, but was even more so yesterday because: 1) 172 adolescent students in a big auditoriums; 2) technology; 3) trying to persuade sports fans that thinking critically about sports won’t ruin their love of sports.  But I donned my professorial uniform of khaki chinos and a navy blazer, laced up my pink Chuck Taylors and bravely stepped into the arena.

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The sound didn’t work on the powerpoint videos, which in one case was truly disappointing to me, but I think I rebounded from that pretty well.  By 9 pm on the day of lecture, students are required to post to a course website one quote from their lecture notes and then to explain why they selected it.  These went up pretty quickly yesterday afternoon and I was very heartened to see that many, if not most, of the students had chosen the sports is a machine metaphor and explained the choice by confessing they’d never really thought about it that way (or even really thought negatively about sports—one of them reported that this was the first time taking a sports-related course at Michigan that he’d heard a professor refer to a negative side to sports) and expressing their excitement to roll up their sleeves, pick up their tools, and get under the hood.

You can see for yourself what you think here.  A couple of technical notes, I’m sorry that, as I said, the sound on some of the videos didn’t work.  I’ll figure that out before next week.  And I’m sorry also that the only images are of the power point slide (if anyone care about that).  I’m going to try to change that setting as well so we get both the slides and the classroom.  Lastly, I’m sharing this in part because I welcome feedback, whether from students or other individuals who might, if they were at Michigan, take a course like this or from other teachers.  If you have suggestions that aren’t too terrifying and don’t make me feel defensive, I will most definitely consider them.  So, please click the link below, and enjoy!

Trouble Shooting the Sports Machine (Lecture 1, Global Sports Cultures, September 14, 2015)

 

Why We Need Better Basketball History—for Darryl Dawkins

I did see Darryl Dawkins play, a lot.  Not in person but on television.  He loomed large in the imaginary series my best friend Robb and I would play out in my driveway or at the park.  He’s dear to my heart, as the pictured tee-shirt demonstrates. I like wearing it to teach my hoops class and drop knowledge of Darryl on the young ballers and scholars.  Now, already others—Rodger Sherman’s and David Roth’s are among my favorites—have written fine elegies to Dawkins.  And, for my part, I’m going to be talking about Dawkins this evening on the Over and Back podcast.  To prepare, I went into my hoops library to see how Dawkins is remembered in the annals of basketball history as they now stand.

Now, admittedly this was a cursory examination.  I obviously didn’t reread every work to see what they had to say.  I either reread the chapters that I expected or knew would cover Dawkins’ period in the NBA or else scanned the index in those works that had one. For the most part, I was merely somewhat surprised—perhaps disappointed—that this giant of my memory should be shoved into so tiny a space in the basketball history.

Sure, there are brief entries in the standard reference works.   And there’s the title nod and a side-bar in Tom Ziller’s fine chapter—”Punch-Dunk Lovelorn: The NBA’s Lost Years Reconsidered” on the 70s from FreeDarko Presents The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History and Dr. J makes a few passing references to Dawkins in his recently published autobiography.  Reliable Nelson George does offer a few of paragraphs of phrase for “one of basketball’s greatest lexicologists” in Elevating the Game, and recognizes that his celebrity “was built on more than just talk.”  But mostly he’s just not there (y’all will surely let me know if I’m missing something).

So, with some reluctance familiar to my readers, I turned to The Book of Basketball.  Surely Bill Simmons’ massive tone, rhetorically positioning itself after all as the bible of the game, would rectify this.  And yet, amidst all the words strewn across the 734 pages of the book, the name Darryl Dawkins appears a grand total of five times (really in just three different contexts).  Still, I imagine, at least there’s that.

So I looked inside.

And then my disappointment turned to rage.

And if could, this is what I’d have done.

But I can’t do that.

So instead, I’ll have to settle for what I can do and hope that it is enough.

Exhibit 1.  p. 15.  In the course of describing the 1981 NBA Eastern Conference Finals between his beloved Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers, Simmons recalls the moment that the relationship between Boston fans and Bird changed:

Leading by one in the final minute, Philly’s Dawkins plowed toward the basket, got leveled by Parish and McHale, and whipped an ugly shot off the backboard as he crashed to the floor.  Bird hauled down the rebound in traffic, dribbled out of an abyss of bodies . . . and pushed the ball down the court, ultimately stopping on a dime and banking a 15-footer that pretty much collapsed the roof.

Dawkins, known for the strength, elevation, force and majesty with which he destroyed backboards, is reduced to a clownish foil, ineptly sprawled on the ground as Bird hits the game winner.  But you know what, that’s okay.  Really. Because in that part of the book, Simmons really isn’t claiming to do history. It’s a Prologue, and an abashedly personal one at that.  So okay.  I’ve got my own versions of that in my basketball autobiography and I won’t begrudge Simmons his.

Exhibit 2. p. 112.  Now we’re into history.  This is the long third chapter of the book that offers a season by season recap of pro basketball history, each season summed up by a specific notable event or theme.  The 1973-74 season, according to the Book of Basketball, is to be remembered for five distinct ways the NBA was suffering, the first of which is that “Bidding wars and swollen contracts damaged the new generation of NBA up-and-comers.”  Hmmm.  To explain, Simmons brings in no less an authority than ex-Celtic player and coach, Tommy Heinsohn who (Simmons dixit), “explained beautifully in his award-winning autobiography” that

Darryl Dawkins is the perfect example.  The guy could have been a monster, should have been a monster, but nobody had the controls. Armed with a long-term contract, Darryl had the security of dollars coming in. . . . Unless you’re talking about athletes who are truly dedicated to the game, the only time these guys bear down is when their security is threatened.

This is simply disgraceful.  Heinsohn’s presumption and prejudice, in itself laced with (hopefully) unconscious racism, may simply be read as an expression of his personality, which, after all, is what an autobiography ought to provide.  That context should signal to most readers than any assessment contained therein are to be taken with a grain of salt or discarded entirely.  But the disgrace comes in that Simmons, as part of a history, actually cites this as an authoritative assessment of the state of the league at the time and, more disturbingly, as an account of the interior life of Darryl Dawkins.

Exhibit 3. p 132. We’re still within the year-by-year history, now up to the 1977-78 season which Simmons calls “The Blown Tire.”  He’s square in my budding adolescence now (I was twelve during that season) so my pique is up.  This, he claims, is the NBA’s “most damaging season” ever.  And among the problems, the “most harmful,” Simmons tells his readers, is “fighting.”  He explains that fighting had always been part of basketball and offers a few famous names.  A page or so later, he will tell the story, so often told, of Kermit Washington leveling Rudy Tomjanovich in December 1978, an incident that devastated both men for some time.  But in between the short introduction and the main event, he remembers an “ugly brawl” in the 1977 NBA finals that, he admits, didn’t appall anyone. It’s not very important, in fact, and yet it is described in some detail.

It started when Darryl Dawkins tried to sucker-punch Bobby Gross (hitting teammate Doug Collins instead), then backpedaled into a flying elbow from [Maurice] Lucas, followed by the two of them squaring off like 1920’s bare-knuckle boxers before everyone jumped in.  After getting ejected, Dawkins ended up destroying a few toilets in the Philly locker room.

Dawkins has now been made into the poster-boy for the second of the two major problems responsible for the NBA’s “problem” decade.  And, as in the first anecdote above, he appears as an inept clown, first failing a dirty punch, he strikes his own teammate, then inadvertently stumbles into another punch and ends by tearing, not rims, but toilets off the wall, and not to the terror and delight of audiences across time and space, but in abject solitude.

Dr. J, incidentally, who was, you know, there, remembers the fight differently.  He describes  Lucas throwing the first punch and connecting with Collins by mistake. But you know, memory can be tricky, so I’m not going to go with Dr. J just because he’s Dr. J and I like his story better.  Here’s the video, for the record.

Here’s what strikes me in the video. It happens before the fight.  It’s Dawkins sprinting like a gazelle—this man is 6-10 and 250 pounds remember—to beat everyone downcourt, alter the Blazers’ attempt to finish their fast break and corral the rebound, tearing it away from Gross.

There’s so much to remember about Darryl Dawkins.  He was huge.  Breaker of backboards, sure, that’s awesome.  But also a talented basketball player and a breaker of codes.  And while his nicknames and quips and his imaginary planet are funky in a way that today we experience as charmingly goofy and harmlessly deracialized, we should perhaps also remember that he was also a giant black teenage boy entering a sport and a profession that at precisely that moment, even as it never stopped drawing them into its maw, was growing ever-more wary and controlling of individuals like Dawkins, ever-more ready to spit them out at the slightest misstep.

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Now, this doesn’t seem to part of the story that Dawkins ever told about his life and perhaps that is to his credit. And, as I said, there are several moving tributes to Dawkins getting lots of clicks right now. If it didn’t bother him, maybe it shouldn’t bother me.  But it does.  After all, whatever else I am, I am a book guy, still.  So the histories that get published matter to me.  And the histories that sell millions of copies matter even more.  And I believe we ought, at the very least, to be able to write a history of the sport that doesn’t feature Darryl Dawkins as an emblem of everything that the white basketball unconscious at some point decided was a problem with basketball (and with America). But awaiting that history, in the meantime—and even if Darryl didn’t care—I still think it’s important to shatter not only backboards, but also the crusted crap that some writers have smeared over some of the cherished glories of the game.

America’s Game

Independence Day always leaves me feeling a little bit out of place. Some of it is just an aversion to noise and explosions. But it goes deeper.  On July 4th, my social mediasphere splits pretty evenly between, to be it briefly: “Yay freedom! Go America!” and “Boo oppression! Down with America!” and I find myself on a slow motion fall into the abyss stretched open up by these polarizing tendencies.

It’s not that I don’t feel either of the sentiments.  On the contrary, It’s that I feel both, and strongly. I could intellectualize this and give you reasoned arguments justifying both of these sets of feelings.  But, whatever the more refined, reflective sources of this today, I’m more attuned to the tangled roots of this feeling in an upbringing in which I was simultaneously extremely proud to be American and extremely ashamed.  Basketball, then and now, I just can’t extricate from those experiences, or these feelings.

My parents immigrated from Spain to the United States in the 1962 via a brief detour in Cali, Colombia.  My parents and my oldest brother (then 15 months old) landed in Cali in May, 1957 right smack into a local manifestation of Cold War violence—a period actually known as “la Violencia“— that would make Game of Thrones look like Disney and that gave my father, though (or because) he grew up during the Spanish Civil War, cause to reconsider his decision.

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A few days later another brother would be born and about two years later, my sister.  I’ve seen pictures of this.  Crisp black and whites with the five of them under exotic foliage by a swimming pool, or perched near the peak of a mountain in the Andes.  My father was a scientist who, disheartened by the research conditions in Franco’s Spain, accepted a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation to found a department of biochemistry at the University of Cali.

A few years later, it seems the opportunities for professional advancement were not my father had hoped and he began to look for new positions.  As the story was told to me, he came to be offered two positions: one at the University of El Salvador and one at the University of Oregon Medical School in Portland. He preferred El Salvador, but my mother put her foot down: “If we move again, it will be to the United States or nowhere.”  And so they did, in 1962, to Portland, where I was born in 1965.

My father learned English in school and improved it while doing his Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh in the late 50s. My mother learned what English she knew (heavily accented until the time of her death last year) from a friend in Portland and from her avid reading. Their accents were always a source of embarrassment to me growing up.

My siblings learned it the hard way, on the playground of the elementary school they were thrown into upon arrival in the United States, not knowing a word of the language. But English was my native tongue.  My father fought hard to make our home an island of Spanish, protected against the forces of peers and popular culture. To this end, we had a penny bank shaped like a soldier on the dinner table every night into which, every night, we had to deposit a penalty for speaking English.

 

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I remember sometime during the Miami Dolphins undefeated season hitting upon a terrific idea for eliminating the mockery and subsequent embarrassment my strange name—Yago, Yoga, Yogurt, San Diego—caused me at school. I would change it! I knew that my full name, Santiago, meant Saint James in English, and that the short form, Yago, could be translated as James.  The Dolphins that year had a running back named Jim Kiick. His last name struck me as some kind of stroke of cosmic genius: a football player named Kiick! How perfect that his first name was mine! My proposal to change my name officially to Jim Kiick fell flat. In fact, it launched my Dad into a tirade about how his gringo son was betraying la patria. The lament, voiced in Spanish at top volume, that “these kids are forgetting Spanish” rings in my ears to this day.

Language was thus the beginning of my sense of strangeness and unbelonging at home and in my world outside the home, but it was only the beginning. There was the fact, oft-repeated, with pride, by my father, that I was by virtue of my birth the only Colás who could become President of the United States. But given his disdain for so many of the things that to me, influenced by my friends and their families, defined America—baseball, Hee Haw, the Brady Bunch—it was hard for me to know whether to internalize his pride or his disdain at this Americanness.

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Our national identity was, anyway, more declared than anything else.  After all, we didn’t eat American food (and when we tried to it felt weird), we didn’t do American things like going to rural Wisconsin town to visit grandma and grandpa or our cousins.  We had Thanksgiving turkey and on the 4th of July I was taken to fireworks, but, perhaps because there was no history of doing so, no existing family version of these traditions, the experiences—even if I couldn’t have articulated it in these terms at the time, even to myself—always felt performed, as though we were the foreign factory workers that Henry Ford used force to wear outlandish versions of their native garb as they climbed into a 20 foot “melting pot” only to emerge Americanized. Only we never got out of the pot since in so many ways my experience showed me all the ways we—and I, despite my claims on the White House—were not American.

But we did watch and play basketball.  And, though few of my friends families seemed very interested in it (by comparison with football, baseball or even hockey), I think I wound up depositing all of these fraught investments—like generations of second-generation immigrants before me—into the sport and the sense of belonging I believed it promised. Promised, and mostly delivered. Though playing with my Dad sometimes only served for me to emphasize his foreignness by comparison with other fathers, enjoying games together in front of the TV or at the arena helped me forget that he, and by extension I, was not American.  And the skills I developed first in our driveway in competition with he and my siblings landed me a spot on school teams and—despite the shame I’d feel when my name was announced over the PA system during starting lineups—helped attenuate the sense I always had of being different from the other jocks, and so somehow alone.

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All these childhood feelings come rushing forth on Independence Day, when everyone around me is either innocently or aggressively parading a prideful American belonging that I’ve never quite felt.  Everyone, that is, except those whose experience or education has led them to an acute sensitivity to all the ways in which the nation, from the time of its very foundation on ideals of liberty and equality, has fallen so short of realizing those ideals.  My education and my experiences (if only second-hand) have taught me to see this as well. But I can’t shake a possibly naive, perhaps even childish, desire for it to be true: for America to be the land of the free and the home of the brave, and for me to fully belong to it and it to me.

It occurred to me yesterday that in some sense—despite baseball’s longstanding and football’s more recent claims to the contrary—basketball is America’s game.  But upon a talking with my wife, who shares some of these feelings on the 4th, I realized it’s not that it is so more than any other game, not in a generalizable way. Basketball is, however, the game of Americanness for me.  And it is more than just that.  For there are ways in which basketball in this country harbors (again, not necessarily more so than any other sport) within itself the otherwise polarized opposing tendencies that cause she and I to feel so strange and alone on Independence Day.

That is to say that the world of basketball—I realize now the previously unnoticed importance of my having structured my forthcoming book around the metaphor of basketball as a republic, a state, and an empire and of my own participation in it as akin to a kind of dissenting citicenzship—offers all of the best and worst that America itself offers.  Basketball offers insane corporate profits, tasteless mass spectacle centered on glorified individualism, economic exploitation, racism, discrimination on the basis of gender and sexuality, authoritarian ideologies, and empty dreams.  But basketball also offers the ongoing attempt to address social injustice, the exhibition of individual initiative and creativity working smoothly in the interests of a collective, the demonstration that effort, persistence and dedication can level the social playing field.

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It’s so hard to hold all this together in my heart and mind.  I write the last sentence and I immediately want to qualify it, hearing the voices of others (inside me) pointing out all the ways in which these positive things are either not so positive or not the whole story.  I’ve written this kind of thing myself plenty of times.  But then I want to resist that, and argue back, but do you not see and feel the exhilarating freedom unfolding unpredictably with every movement of a basketball player on the floor? That, I want to say back, perhaps childishly, that is America.  And I’ve written that kind of thing plenty of times.  But, and here we go again, that is not all that is America.  And so I come to feel that the sport, no less than the country I think it embodies, will always leave me falling between two polarized extremes.

And then I think to myself: maybe the problem arises because of the myriad ways in which our current discursive fora in this country encourage the expression of extreme, one-sided views of things. I know, I’m not the first to point this out.  But what I feel that I hear less often than this complaint is the attempt to address it by offering, in public spheres like this one, more complex perspectives on the phenomenon in question; perspectives marked not only by reason (or rationalization), but by feeling and, along with feeling, by contradiction and paradox and a budding sense that one’s word is not the last word.  That the thing we’re arguing about isn’t really anything in the sense that it’s not one thing and that it’s not a done thing.  That we’re contributing, with every word we write, to the further elaboration of that thing.  It’s all unfinished, a work in progress.  America is unfinished.  Basketball is unfinished. And, if that could be the meaning of those things—America and basketball—then I feel pretty much at home because I, too, am unfinished.

 

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