No Freshmen, No "Sneaker Money" for Coaches, No "Students-Only" Rules
Only the most dewy-eyed among us can believe that big-time college sports remain the province of amateurs. But even the most hardened critics of collegiate athletics programs will be surprised by the myths shattered by Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist in "Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big-Time College Sports."
"Big-time college sports is a unique industry," Zimbalist contends. "No other industry in the United States manages not to pay its principal producers a wage or a salary. And few industries enjoy the privilege of revenues without taxes. In fact, the NCAA operates like a cartel, not unlike OPEC, and it's not surprising that abuses abound or that Americans feel college sports are out of control."
Named by ALA Booklist as one of the top 10 sports books for 1999, "Unpaid Professionals" focuses on the basketball and football programs at the top 100 schools in NCAA's Division I. In chapters devoted to gender equity, commercialization, media hype and creative accounting, Zimbalist combines empirical research with compelling narrative to examine the current debates about integrity and incentives in college sports.
"Athletes need not to be counterposed to students," Zimbalist argues, "but the reforms that would remove the accumulated irony from 'student-athlete' can be neither piecemeal nor Polyanna-ish.
"It would be tempting to think we could begin with a clean slate, but that's unrealistic. College sports are too popular and too ingrained in our culture to re-engineer them from the ground up -- as much as we might like to."
Instead, Zimbalist advocates a 10-point program that would dismantle the underlying incentive system for winning schools and athletes and would relieve pressures on athletics programs to raise revenues.
Among the most radical of Zimbalist's reforms is the suggestion that certain college teams be allowed to include non-matriculated -- i.e., non-student -- members.
"One of the saddest charades in college sports occurs because many young athletes see college as their only route to the pros," he explains. "Kids who have no academic aspirations find themselves attending college. And colleges prostitute themselves by accepting 'special admits' and offering them phony curricula."
Zimbalist, the Robert A. Woods Professor of Economics at Smith, is the author of 12 books, including "Baseball and Billions" and (with Roger Noll) "Sports, Jobs and Taxes." He has written widely on comparative economics and consulted extensively in the sports industry. Most recently, he consulted for the National Basketball Players Association during the 1998-99 lockout. A frequent contributor to academic journals as well as to the New York Times, Washington Post, New Republic, Wall Street Journal and USA Today, he was chosen by the Village Voice as the 1998 sports journalist of the year.
Locally, Zimbalist will read from and sign his book at Beyond Words, 189 Main St., Northampton, at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 9.
August 30, 1999
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