7 posts from April 2014

April 28, 2014

Are College Athletes the New Proletariat?

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman

 A spectre is haunting [college sports]—the spectre of Unionization. All the powers of [college sports] have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: [Chancellors and College Presidents, NCAA and Corporate Sponsors, Governors and State Legislatures].

On March 26, 2014, Peter Ohr, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that scholarship football players at Northwestern University should  be considered employees of the college. Ohr’s ruling was based on the fact that players devote up to 50 hours a week on team-related activities (which, he noted, is “more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs [and] it is also many more hours than the players spend on their studies”), that coaches have tremendous control over these athletes, and that the university makes a huge profit ($235 million between 2003—2009) from the hard work of the players. As a result of this ruling, football players at Northwestern University voted on April 25, 2014 to decide whether to unionize. Although the results of the vote will not be known for months, the effects have already been felt in the world of college sports. 

In The Communist Manifesto (the first sentence of which I paraphrased at the beginning of this post), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels made the famous distinction between the bourgeois and the proletariats. In very simple terms, the bourgeois are the owners, the ones who run the business. The proletariats are the workers, the ones who make the products that bring profits to the bourgeois.

Ohr’s ruling makes a strong case that college football players at Division I schools such as Northwestern are part of the proletariat. Through the work that these athletes produce, the top Division I universities make an enormous profit from ticket revenues, television contracts, merchandise sales, and other licensing agreements. Even the major governing body of college sports, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), profits handsomely from these players with its yearly revenues approaching $1 billion.

Despite erroneous media reports to the contrary, the players are not even asking to be paid like salaried employees. According to Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA football player who is the head of the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA),the organization that submitted the petition to the NLRB on behalf of the Northwestern players, the college athletes are asking for the opportunity to engage in collective bargaining so that they can advocate for the following reforms and safeguards:

  • Guaranteed coverage for sports-related medical expenses for current and former players.
  • Minimizing the risk of sports-related traumatic brain injury.  Reduce contact in practices like the NFL and Pop Warner have done, place independent concussion experts on the sidelines, and establish uniform return-to-play protocols.
  • Improving graduation rates.  Establish an educational trust fund to help former players complete their degree and reward those who graduate on time.
  • Consistent with evolving NCAA regulations or future legal mandates, increasing athletic scholarships and allowing players to receive compensation for commercial sponsorships.
  • Securing due process rights.  Players should not be punished simply because they are accused of a rule violation, and any punishments levied should be consistent across campuses.

Peter Ohr’s ruling has garnered a whole array of responses. It’s been called well-reasoned and significant, unexpected and momentous, stunning and revolutionary, and landmark and historic. Not surprisingly, it has also resulted in both cheers and jeers. Some haill it as “major victory for the college athlete labor movement” and others claim it to be “a disaster for universities, for college sports fans and, most important, for student athletes themselves.”

Those who are most vehemently opposed to this ruling are the NCAA and Northwestern University. Mark Emmert, president of the NCAAA, has been on a campaign portending doom and gloom should this ruling stand and the players decide to unionize. Similarly, the Northwestern University football coach, Pat Fitzgerald, has urged his players to vote no. These sentiments are to be expected from the gatekeepers of the NCAA. Despite having a surplus for each of the past three years in excess of $60 million, as well as net assets of more than $627 million (nearly double that amount from 2007), this ruling as well as a number of other legal threats, has the NCAA worried about its free-flowing profits.

If Marx and Engels were alive today, they would not be surprised that Emmert and company defend the profit-making machine of the NCAA. After all, in The Communist Manifesto they critique the bourgeois for defending the status quo and working to protect the interests of the capitalist class. The bourgeois would never willingly give up its power or profits; however, as Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward demonstrated in Regulating the Poor, those in power may offer the impoverished some relief as way to avert unrest and dissent. I doubt that Mark Emmert has read this classic sociological book, but it makes me wonder given the NCAA’s recent proposal to allow schools to give their athletes unlimited food and snacks.

The case of college athletes unionizing is not only an issue of worker’s rights. This case has the potential to expose many other underlying and inexcusable problems with college sports such as the graduation gap between black and white athletes, the ongoing gender inequality in college sports, the skyrocketing salaries of coaches (many of whom are the highest paid public employees in their state), as well as a host of other “shameful” issues.

This dismal state of affairs calls out for action by college athletes so let me again turn to The Communist Manifesto (this time the very last paragraph of the text) for inspiration:

The [College Athletes] disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forceful eradication of these deplorable conditions. Let the [NCAA and Universities] tremble at a [College Athletes] Revolution. The [College Athletes] have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

[COLLEGE ATHLETES OF ALL COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES], UNITE!

 

April 24, 2014

The Sociology of “Zombie Ants”

Shawn photo2By Shawn Van Valkenburgh

Sociology PhD student, UC Santa Barbara

When Oscar Wilde wrote that “Life imitates Art,” he was playfully subverting  conventional wisdom about nature that dates back to at least the time of Aristotle, and continues to shape our unstated assumptions about the world.  We usually think about art as a human meditation about a “real world” that is separate from people.

This has its corollary in our epistemology, or the way that we come up with knowledge about the world. As members of a scientific culture, we tend to think of epistemology as a process of going out into that real world and discovering objective facts about nature. In this narrative, only bad scientists pollute their science with personal biases and politics. This is a story that says if we are diligent enough, we can discover what the world looks like when human subjectivity and error are filtered out of our perception, that we can find a “truth” which transcends the unique characteristics of our particular culture.

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April 21, 2014

Alcohol and the Social Construction of Social Problems

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

What do we know about the problems associated with alcohol, and how do we know it?

For many people, the first thing that comes to mind is that alcohol is a mainly problem of teens and college students. How do we know this? For one, we are taught at early ages about the dangers of teen drinking. Many universities include alcohol safety awareness as part of orientation programs. And we frequently hear stories in the news about young people who drink and drive or otherwise cause problems while drinking. Researchers study the incidence of teen drinking, often funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other government agencies. Then the results of these studies are reported in the news, helping us focus on teens as problem drinkers.

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April 17, 2014

Social Media: Windows, Mirrors and Bubbles

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

If you are anything like me, you have engaged in a heated Facebook exchange once or twice. Recently I’ve had two interesting chats with old friends—one of whom I’ve lost touch with for over two decades who has political views on the complete other side of the spectrum than me. Rather than a reminder of how technology connects people from far afield, both exchanges reminded me of just how rare it is for me to bridge wide social distances. Where do you get to interact with people who are different from you?

We imagine a time when an open public square was where a community could find that exchange of ideas. As German sociologist Jürgen Habermas wrote, the public sphere is “a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed. Access is guaranteed to all citizens. A portion of the public sphere comes into being in every public conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body.” But we don’t have a social space like this today.

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April 08, 2014

Dispatch from a Professional Sociology Conference

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

Oh, the anticipation of a professional meeting! As Im walking into to the airport to fly away to the conference, I think of all the times I have done this. I found sociology in 1981 and it quickly became my major. Its been twenty years since Ive been out of grad school and Ive been teaching full time--and going to conferences--ever since.

My first meeting was in the late 1980s in Las Vegas. That first meeting, I gave my first conference presentation. It was terrible. (My presentation, not the meeting.) I was terrified and practiced my talk over and over. Then when the time came to present my paper, I stayed seated and read my paper. By the end I was boring both myself and the audience. Many people were encouraging, supportive, patting me on the back, but, oh, it was so bad.

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April 04, 2014

The State of the Dinner

Slika 10By Teja Pristavec

Sociology Graduate Student, Rutgers University

This February, President Obama sat down for dinner with his visiting French colleague, President François Hollande. In the company of the First Lady, other government officials, and some celebrities, the men enjoyed an appetizer of Illinois caviar, Pennsylvania quail eggs, and twelve varieties of American-grown potatoes. The main dish was a Colorado beef steak with mushrooms, Vermont cheese and salad, followed by a dessert of Hawaiian chocolate cake, Florida tangerines, and Pennsylvania vanilla ice-cream. Three types of wine accompanied the meal. Not just any types of wine: they were American wines made by French-born winemakers. Nothing in this meal was left to chance. But why was the encounter so carefully planned? Would it make a difference if, to celebrate the French-American friendship, the presidents raised a glass of Italian wine instead?

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April 01, 2014

Jewish? Buddhist? Atheist? All of the Above!

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman

I was asked recently by a colleague what religion I follow, and I was not quite sure how to answer. I was raised in a secular Jewish household, and I never considered myself religious in the traditional sense of the word. Unlike my Jewish peers, my family did not belong to a temple or synagogue, I did not attend Hebrew school, and I did not have a bar mitzvah or learn to read from the Torah. Instead, I attended a small humanistic Sunday school that was run as a cooperative, I learned Yiddish and sang folk songs, and I had a modest graduation ceremony where I had to read an essay I wrote on a notable Jewish figure.  

In my late twenties, I became interested in the teachings of Buddhism. I took classes at Buddhist meditation centers, I read books and magazines about Buddhist texts and philosophies, and I started practicing meditation. Although I never took a formal Bodhisattva vow like some of my Buddhist friends, I still try to live my life around many of the central tenets of Buddhism, particularly Mahayana Buddhism.

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