Are College Athletes Really Indentured Servants?
At one time, the term “corporate athletics” only applied to professional sport. Today, commercialization has not only permeated the collegiate ranks but has filtered downward into youth and recreational programs as well. The concepts of commercialization and profit are not immoral; however, when sport becomes overly commercialized, non-moral values such as money, celebrity and success can influence normative decisions. Unfortunately, when these values become central to sport, the way is opened up for non-normative actions such as bending of the rules, outright cheating, and exploitation of athletes. Sport at all levels has thus become a corporate entity that transmits economic, rather than ethical, values.
When discussing sport ethics in relation to money, the focus is often on whether interscholastic and collegiate sport programs should market their products as commercial enterprises. The long-standing notion behind the purpose of intercollegiate athletics is that sport at this level helps student-athletes develop responsibility, loyalty, commitment, and teamwork. But is this true? As commercialization grows, values may be compromised since the marketing and selling of athletic programs becomes the all-encompassing purpose. It can be argued that the act of commercialization erodes moral values and corrupts the collegiate sport experience. The real ethical dilemma in the commercialization of collegiate sport is linked neither to the money nor to the promotion; but to how the process of normative decision-making is affected; particularly, when winning and expectations of winning become more important than the athletes involved.
Reluctantly, elite Division I athletic programs admit that they are commercialized businesses. Programs such as these depend upon the revenue from one or two sports to help finance other sport programs that generate no revenue. As such, expectations of success are placed on football and basketball programs, and, in particular, on coaches and athletes. Athletic directors and sport administrators can also face ethical dilemmas when setting and dealing with principles/guidelines for making decisions that affect the marketing of their programs. This becomes especially demanding in large athletic departments where coaches, athletes, and fundraisers do not necessarily follow the same set of principles and guidelines.
College administrators have known for some time that successful athletic programs not only enhance but raise the profile of their university. When a school is recognized more for its athletic success than for its educational programs, has the marketing of commercialized sport become damaging to its educational mission? In fact, one of the myths of intercollegiate athletics is that sport is part of the academic mission of colleges and universities when in reality it is commercialized entertainment. The commercialization of collegiate sport poses ethical challenges, particularly, in the areas that draw revenue: commercial sponsorships, ticket sales, individual donations, and television rights.
As money follows success, and making more money becomes the goal, the welfare of athletes is too often overlooked. When physical and psychological damage is inflicted upon players in an effort to gain a competitive advantage, normative values are set aside. Reluctance on the part of coaches to bench a key player who has sustained an on-field or on-court injury is not that uncommon, particularly when the weight of an entire university is resting on the coach’s shoulders. Although, recent research concerning concussions and jaw injuries have led to new guidelines in the manufacturing of equipment and in the treatment of athletes, even the mildest concussion can have long-term effects if an athlete returns to competition too quickly.
Exploitation takes on many forms and does a great disservice to athletes. It occurs when what is best for the athlete (academically, psychologically, and physically) becomes secondary to what is needed to win. “Educational exploitation” happens primarily at Division I schools and can be particularly damaging. For example, low admissions standards may set academically unprepared student-athletes up for failure. Time demands and other commitments expected of athletes are extensive and can make it difficult for a student-athlete to find study time . Psychologically, the pressure to win, and expectations of such, may supersede academic demands, hinder athletic performance, and impede social development.
One has to ask the question whether situational ethics is becoming the norm in collegiate athletics. Many times we hear the rationale that, “Other schools put athletics before academics and we have to do what it takes to stay competitive”. This is in reality nothing more than a comforting justification for an unethical action when faced with an ethical dilemma. If the right and wrong of one’s actions are gauged by what others do, then integrity only exists in relation to the social expectation.
Betsy R. Smith
Ms. Smith is the Associate Dean of Continuing Education at the United States Sports Academy.
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McGraw-Hill: New York, NY.
Mitten, M., Musselman, J., & Burton, B. (2009). Commercialized intercollegiate athletics: a proposal for targeted reform consistent with American cultural forces and marketplace realities. Journal of Intercollegiate Sports. 2 (2), 202-232.