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Thursday, February 4, 2021

February 4, 2021: Sports in 2021: The NCAA

[There’s a lot happening in and around the world of sports these days. So for my annual Super Bowl series, I wanted to AmericanStudy a handful of such issues. Leading up to a special weekend post on the genuinely revolutionary possibilities of sports!]

On what this year has helped reveal about college athletics, and what might still be possible.

Much of what I’d say about college sports over the last year, and specifically about what this fraught moment has revealed (or rather reinforced) about the NCAA, echoes the prior three posts in this series. Like yesterday’s subject the Olympics, the NCAA reflects a longstanding tradition that we tend to take for granted without sufficiently interrogating whether it should continue to function in these ways (or even exist at all, given that the NCAA, while not as corrupt as the IOC, certainly seems dictated far more by money than by the amateur athletes it represents). The questions I raised in Monday’s post about watching professional sports during a pandemic have only been amplified when it comes to watching college sports, given that these athletes are taking the same risks with no compensation at all. And the kinds of athletic activisms I highlighted on Tuesday have likewise been impressively undertaken by college athletes, for many years now and even more so over the last year.

In this post, I’d like to expand a bit on both the negative/limiting and positive/inspiring sides to those threads. When it comes to the negative, I want to be clear that I’m not someone who is overtly opposed in any way to college sports, or even someone who sees them as a lesser focus than academics: for one thing, the student athletes I’ve worked with at Fitchburg State have consistently been among the hardest-working and most committed students I’ve taught; and for another, broader thing, athletics has been part of higher education in America for at least a century and a half, and is quite simply a core element of these institutions and communities. Instead, what I would say has really changed over time is precisely the NCAA, and more exactly the way in which college sports have become such a money-making machine for everyone involved other than the vast majority of the athletes without whom they would not exist (of course a handful go on to professional careers, but that’s a tiny fraction) (also, the colleges themselves don’t really benefit from all that money, ironically). That’s been a hypocrisy and a serious problem for a long time, but watching college athletes compete during COVID (and watching schools pack in fans at the pandemic’s height) really drove home what the business has become, and how far it feels from what it is supposed to be about.

I’ve long been an advocate for compensating college athletes for all those reasons (and more besides), and 2020-2021 has only reinforced that perspective. It seems to me that there has never been a clearer moment to take that step than 2021, and I’ll keep making the case for it wherever I can. But to return to the most positive and inspiring college sports stories from 2020-21, I would say that we are already seeing vital illustrations of what happens if the folks who should be (and really are) at the heart of college sports are allowed to be the ones driving its actions and trends. Just as Colin Kaepernick’s individual activisms have become models for so many professional athletes over the last couple years, so too have singular stories like that of the Missouri football team become influences on a much broader and more overarching trend of college sports activisms. Those who criticized and attacked the Missouri players, like all those who argue for the “shut up and dribble” nonsense, have been rightfully drowned out by the voices and actions of the athletes themselves, reminding us that they are first and foremost humans and Americans and part of our social and political worlds, and that their athletic roles and communities offer an opportunity for (rather than an argument against) activism. I can’t wait to see where college athletes take their sports, and our society, next.  

Last SportsStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Aspects of sports in 2021 you’d emphasize?

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