_Not long ago, I was talking to a friend who had recently been to the Mid-Western United States for the first time (we live in Toronto). She had been there for a sports-related academic event and had been hearing a lot of discussion about whether university athletes should be paid or not. Many of the people she had been listening to were fervently opposed to the idea; knowing my politics, she wondered what my take would be.

The question was both entirely reasonable and completely absurd. Reasonable, because it is only natural to question one's own perspective when confronted with ubiquitous disagreement. Absurd, because of the nature of the premises upon which that disagreement was founded.

In the October issue of The Atlantic, Taylor Branch makes a case for paying college athletes. The argument is as simple as can be. Branch writes, "In 2010, despite the faltering economy, a single college athletic league, the football-crazed Southeastern Conference (SEC), became the first to crack the billion-dollar barrier in athletic receipts. The Big Ten pursued closely at $905 million."

The scholarships that athletes earn are not just compensation for the revenue that is generated by their labour. Not even close. Although this seems pretty self-evident, Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated disagrees. He writes,

...did you know that out of 332 schools currently competing in the NCAA's Division I, fewer than a dozen have athletic departments that are operating in the black? And that of the 120 programs that comprise the Football Bowl Subdivision, just 14 are profitable? That means some 88 percent of the top football programs lose money for their universities -- and that doesn't even include the reams of cash the schools are spending on the so-called nonrevenue sports... Branch derides college athletics as "Very Big Business," but the truth is, it's actually a "Very Lousy Business."

Davis may be right that college sports is "lousy business," but that doesn't mean it isn't big business as well. Regardless of how athletic department revenues are spent (whether it is on state-of-the-art facilities, marquee coaches, or expensive trips to bowl games), the point remains that revenues are enormous and they exist because of the labour of athletes.

Scholarships that cover exorbitant tuition fees are not meaningless or insignificant (although the very fact that U.S. fees are so high raises another set of questions beyond the purview of this post). However, neither is the amount of labour that goes into playing college sports. This is no part-time, extracurricular commitment. A 2008 NCAA survey found that college football players spent over forty hours per week in team-related work, be that practices, games, film study, weight training, etc. In other words, they work full time at a craft that generates universities millions of dollars.

That isn't fair. If those governing college sports think this is a bad business model, they can change the way they do business. Here's guessing that they won't. The bottom line is that as long as this system persists, athletes deserve a commensurate share of the revenue they generate.
 
 
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_Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing debuted over a decade ago, an idealized shadow of the Democratic Clinton administration. What characterizes the show, perhaps above all else (including its incessant witty walk-and-talk banter) is its steadfast conviction in the American political process. Indeed, a friend of mine recently mentioned that he couldn't watch the show precisely because of how favourably it represented U.S. politics.

The West Wing is the Clinton administration as progressives wished it had been. Where Clinton is unseemly, President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is merely unhealthy (his scandal isn't sexual, but a failure to disclose that he suffers from MS). The tension on The West Wing is never merely about re-election; rather, is is about the struggle to do good in a government structure beset by partisan politicking. 

What defines The West Wing in its early years is the fact that Bartlet's staff, the intrepid heroes of the show, never succumb to cynicism. Deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) harangues recalcitrant members of congress and then returns to his office to playfully debate his assistant Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) on American tax policy. Deputy director of communications Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) refuses to end a relationship with a sex worker despite the public relations storm that is certain to result (his motivations seem more preoccupied with an adherence to moral high ground than a real enthusiasm for the friendship, but that is another issue). Press Secretary C.J. Cregg is reduced to tears over the plight of women in the fictional country of Qumar (the portrayal of women in the show is an important subject that will be addressed in a future post). Communications director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) presents a surly and cynical demeanour that masks a deeply ethical resolve. It is he who lambastes Bartlet upon learning that he has concealed his disease from the American public. Finally, the President himself is a Nobel Prize-winning economist, difficult but also brilliant and kind. He is a man who loses sleep over the death of every American citizen (although citizenship status, it should be noted, is a prerequisite for the onset of this empathic insomnia).

Perhaps the quintessential story arc of the entire series comes in episode nineteen of the first season. The staff is depressed as they realize that they are becoming increasingly preoccupied with making the careful move rather than pursuing the principles and policies they campaigned upon. The sequence culminates with chief of staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) exhorting both the President and the rest of the staff to "let Bartlet be Bartlet." The scene is designed to restore our faith in the Bartlet administration and the American political system that the show represents. Check out the full sequence in the YouTube video below.

In the years since The West Wing premiered, much has changed. September eleventh altered the tone of political discourse and the nature of politics in the United States. This shift is reflected in the show, with the third season's debut being deferred by a week for the presentation of a didactic "play" called "Isaac and Ishmael" that instructs Americans on how they should perceive Arabs. From this moment forward, the show, like U.S. politics in general, becomes increasingly preoccupied with Middle Eastern affairs. 

Thus, while there is little question that The West Wing views the landscape of U.S. politics through rose-coloured glasses, it is nevertheless a useful barometer of the issues and concerns that mark the real life nation. It is born of a historical moment in which politicians could still be seen as heroes and increasingly begins to flounder as George W. Bush and his war on terror put the lie to this romanticized view of government and leadership.
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_If there is an heir to The West Wing as the network television scribe of American politics, it is The Good Wife. This is somewhat strange to say given that the show is really a legal drama following the career of Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), a woman forced to return to work after the disgrace and incarceration of her district attorney husband, Peter (Chris Noth). Yet, there is a certain satisfying logic to this: by foregrounding corporate law at the expense of the political process, the show more honestly indexes the driving force behind American political life.

For, the political scenes in The Good Wife have none of the idealistic charm of The West Wing. Peter Florrick's key staffer in his campaign to return to office is Eli Gold (Alan Cumming). Like Josh Lyman and Toby Ziegler, Gold is clearly identified as a Jew whose principal religion is politics. It is difficult not to see him as an allusion to his predecessors in the earlier show. This is where the similarities end, however. Gold is a calculating Machiavellian who, in the face of crisis, is quick to remind us, again and again, that, "it's not the scandal, it's the cover up" that gets candidates in the deepest trouble. As this mantra illustrates, his concerns tend to be at least two degrees removed from the substantive.

Gold is a spin doctor extraordinaire whose job is to get Florrick elected, period. In The West Wing, Lyman wonders whether he should hire Charlie Young (Dulé Hill) as an aide to the President because, although exceptionally qualified and deserving, the young man is black. Lyman worries about the representational impact of hiring a black man to wait upon a white President. What message will that send? 

Gold, too, confronts race and representation, but with none of Lyman's qualms. His job is to craftily manipulate voters and he revels in his capacity to do so. Realizing he needs to appeal to racist white Chicagoans, Gold organizes campaign ads that feature exclusively white faces and discourages Florrick's son Zach's (Graham Phillips) black girlfriend from attending political functions. Racist? Certainly, but that's exactly the point. 

What are we to make then of the pervasive cynicism that haunts The Good Wife? To some extent it is surprising given that the beginning of the show overlapped with Barack Obama's politics of hope. Indeed, it is no coincidence I think that the show is set in the President's Chicago. In fact, explicit references are made to members of the cabinet throughout the series, as if to remind us that Obama should be on our minds as we watch this world of greed and corruption.

The Good Wife is a repudiation of The West Wing and all that it tells us about politics. It is a shot across the bow at the optimism of the Bartlet and Obama regimes, and it is much needed for that. This is a show that my friend could comfortably watch, knowing that it paints an accurate picture of how difficult is is to enact change from within a political process stained by lobbying and gamesmanship.

Yet, this is not a complete endorsement of the show. The tone of The Good Wife is not always dark. Rather, if it is characterized by anything, it is a sort of mischief and fun. There is a delight in the hi jinx of Gold and the ruthlessness of Alicia's firm, Lockhart Gardner.

I think this is the true cynicism at the heart of The Good Wife. It marks a fundamental shift in the attitude of American politics. This is not merely a rejection of the optimism at the heart of the terms of Clinton, Bartlet, and especially Obama, or of the political process itself. Instead, it shifts our attention to the spectacle that politics have become; a game to be played, no different from a sporting event. The fun we have with the show is the fun we also experience watching CNN and John Stewart.

Whether intentionally or not, The Good Wife delights and then taunts by revealing how that very delight is responsible for the collapse of functional American politics. In a sense, through its irresistibly satisfying seaminess and its ability to seductively entice us to embrace a world of broken and corrupt politics, it reflects back the ways in which we have come to contribute to our own demise.

The Good Wife is, I think, the kind of show President Bartlet would never deign to watch. But, then, in the world of The Good Wife, President Bartlet could never actually exist.

It's hard not to see a great deal of similarity between this world and our own.

 
 
The other day, I had a brief exchange on twitter with Dave Zirin, who covers sports and politics for The Nation. Normally, I agree with Zirin. For instance, I nearly wrote a blog post on the subject of Tim Tebow before I realized that Zirin had for all intents and purposes said what I wanted to say.

I didn't agree this time, though. Zirin was responding to a series of tweets in which former Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington denounced the hiring of Bill O'Brien as his alma mater's new head coach. The context for this, as I'm sure practically anyone who follows the news in North America is aware, is the allegation that Jerry Sandusky, one of the team's long-time coaches, repeatedly sexually assaulted minors. Moreover,  others involved with the program, including members of the school's administration and head coach Joe Paterno, allegedly learned of at least one of these crimes and both failed to inform police and continued to allow Sandusky to be involved with the program. 

Zirin retweeted Arrington's tweets and then added, "This is real courage by @LaVarArrington. He's right. The bureaucracy at PSU needs to be cleared out, not the coaches." When I responded that I thought the coaches were also accountable, Zirin wrote: "@nkalamb @LaVarArrington But to scapegoat coaches and leave admin in place is worst of both worlds."

I must respectfully disagree. Certainly, if those in the administration at Penn State are not held respponsible for what they have permitted to take place, there will have been a serious miscarriage of justice. Yet, to place blame solely on the administration is to ignore the basic reality of US college sports: football coaches are often among the most powerful members of an American university's payroll.

It only requires a quick peek at salary information to get a handle on where priorities lie for top football universities. At a whopping thirty two of these institutions, head football coaches earn at least $2,000,000 per year (this does not include a number of top schools which have not released salary information). Of athletic directors at these schools, however, only four ("only" is, of course, a highly relative term) take home over $1,000,000. As of the year 2007-2008, just one university president earned over $1,000,000.

Needless to say, at least financially speaking, these individuals are not suffering. Still, the relative difference in pay reveals the esteem coaches enjoy and the amount of clout they wield on campuses across the United States. With this information in perspective, I find it difficult to see an attempt to hold a coach accountable as mere scapegoating.

The fact is, although Penn State is likely an exception when it comes to the particular nature of the dysfunction on campus (although it is not the only exception of this kind) it is nevertheless symptomatic of structural issues that permeate college revenue sports more generally.

This is a system that has come to revolve entirely around capital. Whether or not this makes sense as a business model is a separate question that I will touch upon in a forthcoming post. Regardless, what is clear is that in order to generate revenue, schools must win games and garner national attention. And winning games requires hiring coaches who are able to recruit talented players and utilize the most effective tactics. Coaches who are successful become invaluable to their employers, who are willing to fork over incredibly high salaries in order to ensure continued loyalty.
They are also willing to hand over near-complete autonomy.

This is the financial context for what happened at Penn State, just as it is the context for nearly every other major program around the country. There is a broader context here as well: the professional sports leagues that rely on colleges to provide occupational training. And even that is the tip of the iceberg. What professional sports really represent is the overarching context of global capitalism.

In an economic system based on the generation of wealth at all costs, anything that provides a possibility for profit (and college sports does) will be mined for all the wealth it has to offer. The ultimate solution to this problem is so fundamental and radical that it hardly bears mentioning.

The profit motive in college sport is not going to change until the profit motive is no longer treated as the principal guiding principle for human social relations.

Let's face it though, that dream is probably (definitely) not right around any forseeable corner.

This is a very long way of saying that there is more than one way to see scapegoating. Sure, we could say along with Zirin that the Penn State administration is scapegoating its coaching staff by forcing coaches to take sole responsibility for Sandusky and then claiming that the problem has been solved. We could also say, though, that Zirin's implicit assumption that firing the entire administration and coaching staff would have a similarly cathartic effect is comparably hypocritical. As long as we exclusively hold accountable individuals and their actions, while ignoring the system in which they live, we are all guilty of scapegoating.

It doesn't really make sense to get too worked up about who Penn State chooses to fire. The coaches had power and privilege and, allegedly, they failed in their moral responsibility. If what they were accused of is fact, they should be removed, and were. The same is true of the administration. If members of it are guilty of the behaviour that has been imputed to them, they should not retain their jobs.

Regardless, no matter who goes, we shouldn't be so smug as to believe that the problem is solved. As assenting subjects of an economic system that's sole end is to generate profit at the expense of the world and the people who occupy it, we are all complicit in what happened at Penn State. To claim otherwise is just another form of scapegoating.




 
 
Last week my first issue of The New Yorker came in the mail, the beginning of a subscription I had just received for my birthday in December. (I tend to love the writing in the magazine, particularly when it happens to be on sports. I would say that some of the best sports writing I have ever read has been found its pages.)

Indeed, I was pleased to find that the January 2, 2012 issue featured a  (typically) lengthy story about high school football by Ben McGrath entitled “The Jersey Game" (unfortunately, online access is subscriber only).

What I expected was a portrait of the way in which high school football has evolved into a form of spectacle in which the labour of teenagers supplies entertainment and profit to unscrupulous adults. There is evidence of that in McGrath’s piece--plenty, in fact. What the article lacks is any sort of sustained critique or judgment of the subjects it depicts. McGrath may not see that as his job, but I disagree.

In the article McGrath recounts the recent season of the Don Bosco Preparatory School football team in Ramsey, New Jersey, one of the U.S.’s dominant high school football programs over the past decade. He introduces us to many of the team’s prominent players, as well as administrators, coaches, and parents who are involved with the operation of the program. The article moves between contextualization and history and a narrative of the 2011 season, including fraught exhibition games organized against some of the nation’s strongest teams

This is a story of a team of boys who are coached as if they are men, and who achieve the commensurate results. Don Bosco is so dominant in its games that opponents aspire merely to defer the implementation of the mercy rule. Emblematic of the Don Bosco approach to training is “the hill.” McGrath writes:

The field on the top of the hill is still ringed by trees, and its seclusion ranks surprisingly high among the factors commonly cited to explain the Ironmen’s uncommon success. The coaches say things like “They don’t have the hill,” as a rallying cry. What they mean is that the Ironmen’s rivals don’t have a place where you can yell with impunity, and where no one looks askance when linemen begin to bleed from the bridges of their noses. The code of football operates with monopoly protection up there. As [head coach] Greg Toal once put it to me, “We’re away from civilization, the way I like it.

Although McGrath hints at some reservations he may have with this prematurely adult world, his piece ultimately reads as a celebration of what Coach Toal--described as “‘very nice’” by one of the players’ mothers (despite the verbal punishment he customarily doles out to his charges--has accomplished: a return to an era where “something like eighty per cent of school principals [are] former football coaches.” In other words, a society in which football sets the moral tone.

What McGrath leaves out of this narrative is the cost of the culture that Toal and the administrators at Don Bosco have created. His piece can be read as a case study into the way that the norms of college athletics have come to permeate high schools. In fact, given the current structure of college sport, it is really a portrait of how high school, like college sports, have been professionalized.

McGrath characterizes these developments in largely favourable terms. Don Bosco provides opportunities for inner city kids, who can at the very least hope to “‘meet a kid at Don Bosco that becomes a lawyer or something, and become his longtime friend in life,” and, ideally, leverage their athletic abilities into an education and a professional career.

Yet, things are not so simple. McGrath gestures to this, writing of the team’s star player, a sophomore named Jabrill Peppers, “Without thinking it through, perhaps, he had taken in recent weeks to embracing the nickname Boobie, as in Boobie Miles, the charismatic black running back who is nonetheless the tragic figure of ‘Friday Night Lights’: an All-American taken from a broken family who injures his knee and loses his future.” Indeed, this is an opportunity, for Peppers as for Miles, fraught with risk. Worse, it is opportunity predicated on violence to the other and to the self. 

Former New York Giant’s quarterback Phil Simms, whose son played for the team, says of Don Bosco practices “‘They work harder than the pros. That’s not even in question.’” McGrath admits of the practices that they “seemed to [him] like a recipe for concussions.” And concussions, even of the "minor" variety, according to research published in Sports Illustrated, are nearly certain to have devastating effects.

What is perhaps most disturbing about this violence is that it is now being promoted by individuals such as Ken Halloy, president of Halloy Boy Sports Marketing and “a longtime college-football enthusiast and fan-magazine publisher,” as a form of spectacle broadcast on networks such as ESPN.

McGrath outlines how Halloy is “monetizing” (McGrath’s own euphemism) high school football by putting together marquee match-ups of highly ranked teams from different states. In effect, Halloy and the coaches he works with ensure that the teenagers under their supervision will punish each other’s bodies, not simply in a desperate search for opportunity, but for the entertainment of adults.

It is difficult to see where fun fits in this equation. But then, this is training for real life. And, fun is not something kids from blue collar and inner city New Jersey should grow up to expect much of.

As a final note, I want to reference the most pervasive mainstream sports story of the fast few months: the Penn State sexual abuse scandal. It is difficult to see what happened at Penn State as anything other than the product of a college athletic system that privileges winning, and the bottom line winning bolsters, above all else. Coaches and administrators in Happy Valley seemingly failed to intervene because they were loathe to disrupt a successful formula, no matter the cost. This is the culture that has filtered down to high school programs such as Don Bosco and so it is hardly a surprise that Coach Toal is considered to be a candidate for the Fordham University job; it will require little adjustment for him to move from one level to the other.

There is little doubt that the broader context for this discussion is a social structure that cannot simply be transformed by the actions of high school administrators and teacher--it cuts to the very core of neoliberal capitalism in America. Yet, those figures who have devoted their lives to nurturing the young should still ask themselves the question that McGrath seems unwilling to pose: is the only kind of abuse worth getting worked up about sexual?
 
 
Blame Twitter.

I was a luddite. No Facebook. No Blackberry. No iPhone. No cell phone. Certainly, no blog.

However, I have a partner who is a bit of an online maven. She does it all and she does it well. So well that I started to pay attention to what I was missing. In fact, I became so compulsively addicted to her tweets that when she was forced to make her profile private (due to a strange and sudden influx of what she calls "trolls") I had to get myself on Twitter just to see what she was saying.

And apparently, it's all something of a slippery slope. I realized I had things to say to the world beyond the academy and beyond the classroom, my typical domain. My days are filled with reading, writing and teaching, but only a relatively small community shares in that conversation. Suddenly, I wanted to speak more broadly about the issues that concern me. And Twitter only allows you 140 characters to make your point ... so here I am.

I hope you'll check back in once in a while to see what I have to say. It might be worth it.