Football’s Cancer

By Timothy Michael LawSeptember 11, 2015

Football’s Cancer

“MY STOMACH CURDLES every time I see a kid concussed on the field,” Faimon Roberts, writer for The New Orleans Advocate, wrote to me recently. With boys of his own, he is sickened by concussions, and I understand. My brother played wide receiver and defensive back in high school, and because he was born without the caution reflex most of us have, he played at such intensity that he suffered multiple head injuries in his career. No one playing or watching today can avoid hearing about the dangers of head trauma in football, a health risk so ubiquitously discussed as to nearly define the game entirely.

But the increasing attention paid to the game’s dangers is a deflection from perhaps more grave — if less physical — offenses that now bleed through the game from high school to the NFL. A parable in Slavoj Žižek’s Violence illuminates the problem with perceptions. A factory is concerned one of its employees is stealing, so it hires a security guard. Every day the guard watches one of the workers leave with a wheelbarrow. The guard cannot determine what he is taking. He only imagines that the worker is leaving with something in the wheelbarrow. Finally, the guard approaches the worker and says that he won’t report the stealing but he has to know what he is stealing to satisfy his curiosity. The worker surprises the guard when he admits he was stealing wheelbarrows. The guard had fixated on the problem he created, the idea there was something in the wheelbarrow.

Commentators are presently drumming up hysteria over concussions in the NFL and criticizing the sport for its overt violence, but there is a more surreptitious malady. Outbursts of violence in society, according to Žižek, sidetrack us. The violence in the background, structural and systemic, is more pernicious.

If football is ailing, it is not because it is too dangerous but because high-stakes players have figured out how to use it to create enormous wealth by exploiting a working class of athletes while minimizing their responsibilities to them. Economic exploitation is the cancer spreading throughout the body of the sport, proliferating cells as it corrodes the health of its overwhelmingly black workforce.


There be pirates

I’m Deep South born and raised. Georgia is in the land of the greatest college football conference in America, the SEC. I played high school ball in a state perennially ranked as one of the sport’s best. I grew up in a suburb of Atlanta, home to the Atlanta Falcons. Football was all around us. The family home is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the University of Georgia in Athens, one of the nation’s most gorgeous college towns, and although I’ve lived in Europe for the past decade, whenever I’m home I pile in the car at 5:00 a.m. on Saturday morning with my dad and brother and some old friends and head off to The Classic City.

On my last visit we arrived in the early morning, our biscuits devoured en route, and we set up the grill and coolers in the parking lot of Clay Harrison’s company. Around 11 a.m., Jon Monroe, my dad, and I began our walk to the stadium entrance in time for the Dawg Walk. It’s a parade, of sorts. The Georgia Bulldog players arrive by bus from their local hotel where they’ve spent the night, and they walk through two lines of screaming, high-fiving fans. And what you notice next is no different than what you see all over the nation, but in the Deep South the contrast is profound.

Most of the players are black, the fans white. For these few hours on Saturday, white college kids, alumni, and Bulldog fans who have come from near and far will act as if they have seen gods on earth. The scene is electric, and you might be easily fooled into thinking that here is proof of post-racial America. Once you’ve lived outside the South, you realize how remarkable it is that football’s popularity is greatest in Southern states that were and remain the most segregated, where antebellum hierarchies are reflected in attitudes outside of stadiums but where, during fleeting moments of athletic competition, predominately white audiences cheer madly for black athletes. Racism persists in the South in ways that some younger Americans elsewhere can no longer fathom, but black athletes and entertainers have been making white audiences (in both the North and South) laugh and cheer for centuries — so long as they are staying in character. A hip-hop artist and an athlete may sing to us, rap to us, play for us, but we still want to control the script. 

The power structures that govern the sport are no better than these parochial attitudes in small conservative towns, yet the hypocrisy is often harder to detect when it appears that these athletes are the beneficiaries of so much good will. Taylor Branch’s 2011 essay in The Atlantic, “The Shame of College Sports,” narrates the history of college football as one of increasing corruption and exploitation of the young, often under the guise of charity and benevolence. The ostensibly philanthropic award of a scholarship given to athletes, Branch writes, “echoes masters who once claimed that heavenly salvation would outweigh earthly injustice to slaves.”

The majority of college football and basketball players in the NCAA’s premier division are black, and their universities’ and corporate sponsors’ financial gains from their athletic successes dwarf the value of four years’ tuition they receive in return. That scholarship may be worth around $100,000, but each of these athletes brings in millions in revenue. According to a 1992 Congressional testimony by Charles Farrell, black athletes received only about 10 percent of all the scholarships awarded by the universities, yet they generated most of the revenue. Who gets what’s left over? Andrew Zimbalist tells us in Unpaid Professionals: “The beneficiaries of this surplus are the football and basketball coaches, the athletic directors, the conference commissioners, the ‘non-revenue sports’ […] and Divisions II and III.” In short: black athletes produce the salaries and bonuses for administrators, and the budgets — including the tuition scholarships — for cross country, swimming, volleyball, and other sports played predominantly by white athletes. Former Louisiana State University basketball coach Dale Brown said, “Look at the money we make off predominantly poor black kids. We’re the whoremasters.”

That black athletes are sending their white classmates to school and paying for their presidents’ and athletic directors’ country club memberships smacks of one thing. “Slavery analogies,” however, “should be used carefully,” Branch writes.

Yet to survey the scene — corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as ‘student-athletes’ deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution — is to catch an unmistakable whiff of the plantation.

Branch advances the plantation metaphor later in the essay, but he also admits the possibility that

a more apt metaphor is colonialism: college sports, as overseen by the NCAA, is a system imposed by well-meaning paternalists and rationalized with hoary sentiments about caring for the well-being of the colonized. But it is, nonetheless, unjust. The NCAA, in its zealous defense of bogus principles, sometimes destroys the dreams of innocent young athletes.

These dreams can be destroyed when universities strip scholarships from injured players and refuse to provide rehabilitative care, making it difficult to avoid the conclusion that these athletes are simply discarded as defective laboring bodies. The universities’ seemingly altruistic motives at the outset are proven a lie when these bodies can no longer add revenue. And they hide behind legal fictions that were concocted to protect their economic interests. In a stealthy move in the middle of the 20th century, the NCAA invented the now ubiquitous term “student-athlete” to shield itself from having to pay workers’ compensation. Branch notes that two mythic ideals propagated by the NCAA — “amateurism” and the “student-athlete” — “are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes.” The first side of the equation is not accidentally “student,” driving the myth that academic interests are foremost. (“Charity is the humanitarian mask hiding the face of economic exploitation,” Žižek wrote.)

“If they feel exploited,” a friend in Georgia wrote to me, “they shouldn’t take the scholarship. I know of no student forced to sign.” Such sentiments assume the magnanimity of the university and fail to understand the nature of exploitation, which feeds on disadvantage. In the home of a suburban white family, a young high school recruit could look at the prospect of football as one option among many. He might also choose law school or enroll in a pre-med program, or have those and more options available to him after four years throwing the ball. But to a kid in another environment, whose entire world is one lacking opportunity, visits by football recruiters can hold the promise of escape. An athlete in a disadvantaged socioeconomic environment doesn’t have to be told explicitly that going to a major school and playing on television mean two things: instant celebrity and the chance to impress NFL scouts, perhaps ultimately leading to the mirage of gross wealth, a rescue from both oblivion and poverty. Recruiting can be predatory, and the power dynamic is clear: choice is constrained as much by the opportunity gap as it is by naked coercion. “But ships are but boards, sailors but men,” we remember from The Merchant of Venice. “There be land rats and water rats, water thieves and land thieves — I mean pirates; and then there is the peril of waters, winds, and rocks.”


The Scandal of the American Mind

Predatory recruitment and educational disadvantage go hand in hand. In not a few football parties, I remember jokes and laughs when players were introduced on television and noted to be pursuing fluff majors. Just last week, the Wall Street Journal highlighted the efforts of Auburn University’s Athletic Department to keep a major (“public administration”) its athletes preferred, going so far as offering to pay professors to keep offering it. Academic advisors often herd new players into the programs that will allow them to keep their attention on their game. Iowa University players years ago famously quipped that they majored in Water Coloring. The amount of time a player puts into preparation for football practices and games disallows the same educational opportunity as a non-athlete, so the promise of the scholarship in the high school football player’s living room is a glass half-empty.

A few years ago, Adam Weinstein, a teaching instructor at Florida State University, blew the cover on FSU’s “handlers.”

Team superstars get special assistance from the Athletic Academic Advising Program, usually in the form of two clipboard-wielding dudes in garnet-and-gold warmups who pour into the classrooms during our lectures to see whether the players are present. Handlers, they’re called. “Like for animals at the zoo,” Derek [another instructor] says. “Or like the fucking sellers at the markets. Let’s call it what it is.”

The handlers’ only real job is to keep the players eligible to play, whatever it takes. That includes begging, browbeating, suborning intimidation, and, we all have suspected, writing assignments for the athletes.

More cases are coming to light. We’ve just learned of the University of North Carolina’s widespread academic fraud. For years, basketball players were exempt from the academic requirements their peers had to meet, all to keep them eligible for games. Nor is this a 21st-century phenomenon. Branch mentions a case in 1982 at the University of Georgia when university officials tampered with English instructor Jan Kemp’s grades, inflating the athletes’ scores. When Kemp filed suit, the university’s defense lawyer, condescendingly referring to the average player, said, “We may not make a university student out of him, but if we can teach him to read and write, maybe he can work at the post office rather than as a garbage man when he gets through with his athletic career.” Boasting of the university’s good will in teaching them to “read and write,” this lawyer once again conjured images of an earlier time in America’s history.

The lawyer’s patronizing talk notwithstanding, he revealed a crucial detail: most of these young adults will have no football life after college. Only about two percent of all college football players will join an NFL team, and even then are by no means guaranteed a long career and economic security in retirement (the average length of an NFL career is 3.5 years). If the odds are stacked that high against them, it is even more scandalous that these students are given a truncated version of an education they need for a long-term career. The dream sold to these 17- and 18-year-olds is like a penny stock. The chances of success are so ridiculously slim and of failure so great — a blown-out knee, a conduct violation resulting in being booted off the team, a failure to impress NFL scouts, or the arrival of another top recruit who wins the position in the next season. But predators know human psychology. Recruiters don’t mention the thousands of players in the team’s history who never made it. To sell the dream, they only have to tell of one who did.

If during an athlete’s four years in the university the athletic departments sanction or turn a blind eye to mobster tactics used to intimidate instructors and professors, tamper with grades, or conduct an extensive operation like at UNC, the typical retort that the school generously provides athletes a quality education in exchange for their athletic activities is a sham. These schemes are not used everywhere, to be sure, but the pressure placed on these young athletes cannot result in anything more than a bastardized version of a college education. One need only listen to the rhetoric during football season — in press conferences, interviews with players, and now all over social media — to question a university’s propaganda that asserts education takes priority over athletics. Championships bring massive revenue, not GPAs.

We are witnessing the destruction of the ideals of university education, but it doesn’t stop there. High school football is steadily falling prey to the same machinations, and we have to expand our understanding of exploitation because the racial dynamic is not always present. The much-discussed tax-payer-approved 60-million-dollar stadium for Allen High School in Allen, Texas, sits in a 70 percent white community whose median income is $112,000. The type of exploitation at work here is a societal lust for entertainment that would entice young students whmost of whom know they’ll never play for a nationally televised college team elwith big lights, county- or state-wide TV exposure, and a bit of local celebrity. “It’s good for the kids,” another old friend tells me. “They get to experience what they never otherwise will, and what kid doesn’t want to be famous?” I have to demur. The fundamental human right of an education is made subservient to the opportunity to play sports and to enjoy the perks of local celebrity. During these most crucial years when students have the small window of opportunity to prepare for college, we are aiding and encouraging them to become thoroughly engrossed in an extracurricular activity, the extra at the expense of the curricular.

At Etowah High School in the late ’90s, we had a middling football team with a small chance at making the playoffs each year. We were never a favorite, and although we’d have been loath to admit it then, our rivals didn’t exactly fear us. Yet even with season records of 5–5 or 6–4, our school’s vice president, who was also the athletic director, all too willingly gave us permission to skip classes to watch game film, or to spend hours of the day in the field house working out or just hanging out, while our non-football peers attended class. There were the exceptions, of course, like our valedictorian running back Ben Webb, who went on to academic glory at Georgia Tech and who simply had it in him not to be the kind of student who looked for loopholes and ducked class. The rest of us appreciated a school administration that filled our academic course schedules with PE, Driver’s Ed, and Weightlifting, all taught by football coaches who themselves also had one thing in mind: directing our attention to winning on Friday night.

I wish I had those years back. I would have played football, to be sure. I would never trade the lessons I learned playing a team sport, nor the fun I had, nor the bond I made with teammates who became like brothers, some of whom are like family today. The virtues of team sports are great. But at a time when America’s high school seniors consistently rank among the worst in the world academically, we are devoting ever more attention and money toward activities that will do nothing to help reverse the trend. What does it profit a student to gain some local celebrity and yet lose his mind?


Oceanis Capitalis

Already in the late 19th century, football had become so popular that the same protestations today are old news. In 1894 there were complaints “such as whether the game is so engrossing in its influence as to interfere with proper studies and discipline in college, and whether it promotes gambling,” D.B. St. John Roosa wrote in The Forum. In the same year another contributor to The Forum spoke of the common knowledge that “in some colleges men are allowed to enter and remain, who do no studying of any account, simply because they are good quarter or full backs.” Apparently even the professors were complicit. The editorial continued: “judging from the interest of college faculties in the game,” it seemed assured “that a very good foot-ball player must be a very bad scholar indeed, if allowed to drop out on account of his standing, so long as he is an important member of the team.”

The challenge of balancing competitive sports with education is nothing new. The difference today is that profit has moved into the center of the educational institution, and sport — particularly football and basketball — is the major vehicle increasing the yield. One important catalyst for this gradual slide toward profit obsession has been the increasingly important role television and corporate sponsorship have played.

A billion-dollar TV deal for college basketball was the impetus for Dale Brown’s admission that they were making riches off of predominantly black players. About 90 percent of the NCAA’s revenue from basketball comes from March Madness alone. A few years ago, the football-crazed Southeastern Conference became the first coalition of schools to surpass $1 billion in annual revenue, but several conferences now take in multiple billions.

College football teams rake in hundreds of millions from television and the sales of other rights and licenses, and they make up the lion’s share of a university’s sports revenue. The University of Oregon led the nation in 2014 with $196 million in total sports revenue, but $95 million of that represents an in-kind facility gift, which happens to be the football stadium almost entirely funded by Nike co-founder Phil Knight. In the SEC, the University of Alabama’s athletics made $1.2 million in rights and licensing in 2006, but by 2013-14 that number had climbed to $15.4 million out of a total revenue of $153.2 million ($95.3 million coming from football alone). And with the new college football playoff system and the renegotiation of contracts with CBS and ESPN, USA Today estimated that in 2014–’15 each school in the SEC could make as much as $34 million per year from football alone.

Nick Saban at Alabama is the highest paid coach in college football, with a handsome $7.2 million annual salary, while the average salary for a full professor at Alabama ranges from $75,000–130,000. Branch notes the research by Duke economist Charles Clotfelter, which shows that since 1984, head football coaches at public universities have enjoyed a 750 percent increase in salary but professors’ salaries have had a cumulative raise of 32 percent. One reaction is that such discrepancies reflect values — sports over education — but administrators argue that coaches like Saban bring a lot more students to the university, and thus increase overall tuition revenue, more than any single professor. Regardless of the reasons given, the end sought is the same: what will bring in the most revenue?

The dehumanization of (mostly black) laborers for the sake of preserving and expanding capital is also apparent in the NCAA’s decisions to strip players of autonomy over their own bodies not only by gradually turning them into profit-making machines with no real personal benefits or proper rehabilitative care after injuries but also now restricting them from wearing any messages on their persons. They are essentially automatons without rights. Branch’s plantation analogy is as apt here as anywhere.

The hypocrisy reeks. Branch notes that while the NCAA investigated the star Auburn player Cam Newton in 2010 for receiving improper benefits, he “compliantly wore at least 15 corporate logos — one on his jersey, four on his helmet visor, one on each wristband, one on his pants, six on his shoes, and one on the headband he wears under his helmet — as part of Auburn’s $10.6 million deal with Under Armour.” Newton eventually faced a suspension leveled by the university, but it was farcically enacted for only a couple of days, between games, lifted in time for him to play in the nationally televised SEC Championship Game and then the BCS National Championship.

At the beginning of October 2014, the top running back in the country, Georgia’s Todd Gurley, was suspended as an investigation began into whether he had received payment for autographing sports memorabilia for a collector in the Atlanta metro area. The collector himself sent his story out to several media outlets to expose the player. According to the disgruntled businessman, Gurley had done the same service for other collectors, thus devaluing what he thought was an exclusive collection of Todd Gurley–autographed items. Gurley accepted about $3,000, but the whole story made clear that everyone in Gurley’s life — from his university’s president to his coaches to a sports memorabilia collector — was allowed to profit from his talents and his successes on the field. Everyone except Todd Gurley. Even though his athleticism earned millions for the university, his acceptance of a mere $3,000 turned him into a criminal. The NCAA slapped him with a four-game suspension, required him to pay back a portion of his earnings, and assigned him community service. The latter, a sentence usually handed down by a judge for a crime, is more insulting than anything else.

During the trials of Jan Kemp at the University of Georgia in 1982, Branch writes, the instructor “was publicly vilified as a troublemaker,” ostensibly for throwing a wrench into the ambitions of Georgia’s football program. Similar incidents throughout the country abound and recall Gil Anidjar’s discussion of Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political. Anidjar narrates the rise of “the economic enemy,” a pariah that stands in the way of the expansion of capital. Citing Schmitt, who wrote that in “the domain of economics there are no enemies, only competitors, and in a thoroughly moral and ethical world perhaps only debating adversaries,” Anidjar says Schmitt was lamenting “the disappearance of the enemy but this time suggests that this may be a matter of linguistic obfuscation (‘The adversary is thus no longer called an enemy but a disturber of peace and is thereby designated to be an outlaw of humanity’).” “An imperialism based on pure economic power,” Schmitt wrote, “will naturally attempt to sustain a worldwide condition which enables it to apply and manage, unmolested, its economic means, e.g., terminating credit, embargoing raw materials, destroying the currencies of others, and so on.” And libeling scrupulous professors.

Could it be that an injection of interest in football that has often provided small-town cohesion around a local high school team, scholarships to send kids to attend university who may never have had an opportunity, and has expanded the game’s reach to a global audience — allowing me to watch in Europe, I must admit — instead prove to be a seething disease that has contaminated the game, spreading throughout all of its limbs?

We could do worse than to transform Anidjar’s “blood” to “capital”: It is “that into which all that is solid melts” — citing Marx — and “not merely an end result of the melting process but what effectuates the dissolving and the transforming.” Capital “is not only that into which everything melts, in other words. It is in fact the melting agent.”

Increased revenues are distributed throughout athletic programs, and even the universities’ educational ambitions are propelled by the money that football (and basketball) brings. Sports-led growth is happening at many institutions, but since the beneficiaries of this growth are overwhelmingly elitist and white while the laborers are overwhelmingly disadvantaged and black, the racial disparities and socioeconomic imbalances are further ossified.

From the corporatization of high school students and the skewed priorities reflected in exorbitant tax-payer-funded high school stadiums, to the pennies thrown to college athletes in exchange for the hundreds of millions they generate in revenue, capital threatens to overtake all that is in the world of football, and it is that into which everything that is solid therein melts. “For the love of money is the root of all evil,” said one famous teacher in the first century. Mammon is unremittingly starved, and it will never be surfeited even long after it has devoured all of the beauty of sports. Aristotle’s sanguinity for the physical and moral lessons to be learned from games threatens to be crushed by the brutal weapon of the profiteers. Capital exposes itself to numerous metaphors, another of which is — going back to Anidjar — found in J.K. Gibson-Graham’s The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It), when she speaks of

the seminal fluid of capitalism — finance capital (or money) — which has more traditionally been represented as the lifeblood of the economic system whose free circulation ensures health and growth of the capitalist body. As seminal fluid, however, it periodically breaks its bounds, unleashing uncontrollable gushes of capital that flow every which way, including into self-destruction.



Football is not malum in se, but it has succumbed to the same cancerous onslaught as the rest of modern Western society, injected with the disease from without. The sport retains all of its beauty, and underneath the topical canker is, as Mark Edmundson reminds us in his new book, Why Football Matters, an important vehicle for cultural and individual flourishing. The deeper systemic inequities propagated by football’s kingpins in their piracy of young adults’ dreams and predacious use of black laboring bodies is a far greater crisis than recent discussions of the game’s safety, but we’ve lived with corporate capital for so long that we hardly recognize it’s a problem.

The moral enfeeblement of the game is only a microcosmic enactment of larger, more critical philosophical crises of modern life. What keeps these ships of exploitative injustice buoyant is the interconnected body of water covering most of the planet: Oceanis Capitalis, or rather the human alliance with capital. The source that promises to give everything in the end distorts and deceives until it has taken everything. It euphemizes reality, perpetuates antebellum structures of power, and threatens the very existence of the game it aims to enhance.

We have to recover the virtues of the game, but such a recovery cannot happen if the whole of modern society is submersed in the depths of this ocean. Small steps could help. Communities should be actively engaged in reversing the statistical trend of our educational deterioration and should be voting to spend more on providing a real future for young people rather than spending more money to use them to satisfy our lust for entertainment. And in some places this is happening. A high school coach in Georgia tells me the increasing corporatization of high school sports at the expense of education is an absurdity, and he shares concerns that we are losing our moral compass with green in our eyes. Texas is an easy target for a lot of reasons, but even as Allen, Texas, voted for a 60-million-dollar stadium, two years ago another Texan town, Katy, voted against a plan for a 70-million-dollar home for high school football. Throughout the state, voters have checked off on hundreds of millions in spending to expand libraries, build science and technology centers, as well as new schools to ease the pressures of overcrowding.

And in college football, the recent decision to allow Northwestern University players to unionize is a positive development. It is difficult to imagine the trend won’t pick up speed throughout the NCAA. There have also been calls for years to pay college athletes — but whether or not this happens, universities could show a more altruistic heart by funneling some of the revenue generated by football and basketball players back to their communities, into new scholarship funds for disadvantaged youth set up by the players, or into programs that help former players transition into careers that will provide them the decency of a long, economically stable life.

Žižek cautioned that we often fail to notice systemic evils because secondary and tertiary concerns distract us. To address malignant biases and our own propensity to exploit requires the kind of uncomfortable work that keeps many fearful of seeing a therapist. The media fascination with concussions allows them to appear serious about football’s problems, but since they are part of the profiteering, exploitative machine, we should never expect to find this urgent confrontation among football’s talking heads.

In not a few ways, football’s cancer is the same cancer that has attempted to silence and demonize the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Young black men remain useful as long as they turn a profit for the managerial class and don’t shout too loudly about their labor conditions and opportunity. The impulse that drives many to consider football’s maladies of little consequence is the same impulse that drives the #AllLivesMatter response, and this impulse stems ultimately from a recalcitrant attitude that refuses to look squarely in the mirror, beyond the surface Žižek warned about.


Timothy Michael Law is founder, publisher, and Editor-in-Chief of The Marginalia Review of BooksHe is the author of When God Spoke Greek.

LARB Contributor

Timothy Michael Law is founder, publisher, and Editor-in-Chief of The Marginalia Review of Books. He is currently an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, and from January 2015 he will be Lecturer in the School of Divinity in the University of St. Andrews. He is the author of When God Spoke Greek, reviewed in LARB here, and he is currently at work on a book on King Solomon.


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