On the Real: Virtual Exploitation and College Sports Games

Video games have been part of my research for many years; they have been part of my life for much longer.  Yet, the games that I always find hard to purchase or even play are those involving collegiate sports.  The games themselves are the product and perpetuation of the exploitation of student-athletes.  They are not unique in this regard but they symbolize so much that is wrong with college athletics.

The popularity of sports video games rests with the replication of “the real.”  Since those OG (Original Games) like Intellivision or Tecmo Bowl, the sports video game industry has been a race toward creating a virtual reality indistinguishable from the real reality.  This has proven to be an issue or a source of tension for N.C.A.A.  sports games, as it has justified its lack of compensation to current and former student-athletes by claiming the unrealistic nature of the games themselves.  According to Steve Eder and Greg Bishoff,

The issue of how close the games could mirror real life continued, as it became easier for game players to download rosters from the Internet that included the actual names of players. The N.C.A.A. did not sanction those rosters, and neither did E.A. But in April 2005, Myles Brand, then the president of the N.C.A.A., wrote to one of his executives that the organization should persuade university officials to “provide names and likenesses” for games, which would lead to a higher rights fee.

Not everyone within N.C.A.A. leadership appears to share these prevailing opinions.  This, also from The New York Times, makes that clear”

This whole area of name and likeness and the N.C.A.A. is a disaster leading to a catastrophe as far as I can tell,” the Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman, who served on the N.C.A.A.’s board of directors, wrote soon after the O’Bannon lawsuit was filed. “I’m still trying to figure out by what authority the N.C.A.A. licenses these rights to the game makers and others.

The decision from EA and the N.C.A.A. to sell realism while denying rightful compensation is just more hypocrisy; the N.C.A.A. should probably renamed N.H.A.A: the National Hypocritical Athletic Association.  In the context of immense profits for schools and poverty experienced by student-athletes, it is hard to even think about buying such a game.  In fact, the glorification of college athletics, and the erasure of the pain, the injuries, the hours of practice and class time, the financial difficulties, and of REALITY in fact contribute to an environment of exploitation.

Every time, I see a commercial for N.C.A.A. Football 14, or see its cover in the store, I find myself thinking about in  “The Price of Poverty in Big Time College Sport,” Ramogi Huma and Ellen J. Staurowsky:

  1. College athletes on full scholarship do not receive a “free ride”. For the 2009-2010 academic year, the average annual scholarship shortfall (out of pocket expenses) for Football Bowl Series (FBS) “full” scholarship athletes was $3,222.
  2. The compensation FBS athletes who are on “full scholarship” receive for living expenses (room and board, other expenses) situates the vast majority at or below the poverty level.
  3. The percentage of FBS schools whose “full” athletic scholarships leave their players in poverty is 85% for those athletes who live on campus; 86% for athletes who live off campus.
  4. The average FBS “full” scholarship athlete earns less than the federal poverty line by $1874 on campus and $1794 off campus.
  5. If allowed access to the fair market like the pros, the average FBS football and basketball player would be worth approximately $121,048 and $265,027 respectively (not counting individual commercial endorsement deals).
  6. Football players with the top 10 highest estimated fair market values are worth between $345k-$514k on 2009-10. The top spot was held by University of Texas football players. While 100% of these players received scholarships that left them living below the federal poverty line and with an average scholarship shortfall of $2841 in 2010-11, their coaches were paid an average of over $3.5 million each in 2010 excluding bonuses.
  7. Basketball players with the top 10 highest estimated fair market values are worth between $620k-$1 million in 2009-10. The top spot was held by Duke basketball players. While 80% of these players received scholarships that left them living below the federal poverty and with an average scholarship shortfall of $3098 in 2010-11, their coaches were paid an average of over $2.5 million in 2010 excluding bonuses.
  8. The poorest football and basketball players (generated combined FB and BB revenues of $30 million or more in 2009-10, yet live in the poorest bottom 1/3 of all of the players in the study live between $3,000-$5,000 below the poverty line in the report for further details.

The financial predicament facing student-athletes (and those who have left school, graduated or used their eligibility) stands in stark contrast to the gold-lined pockets of college coaches, the platinum realities of colleges and universities, or their diamond studded realities of the sports media.  The millions and billions that fall into their hands, while student-athletes struggle to make ends meet, in part through the profits and allure of video games, is sustained through myth of amateurism.  ‘

This fuels the exploitative relationship and the lack of compensation.  Student athletes are required to spend their wages at the “company store.” Akin to sharecroppers who not only worked the land for virtually no compensation, but what little compensation received had to be spent at the company store (usually owned by the land owner).  From food to tools, sharecroppers were forced to use their wages at these stores, often leading to debt and additional subservience.  Collegiate athletics is similar in that student-athletes MUST use their wage to pay for tuition, books, and room and board within the campus community.  According to McCormick and McCormick, “By this last arrangement, then, these athletes, unlike any other working people, are not free to spend their limited wages where they choose, but must spend them on college tuition, books, and other institutionally related expenses, regardless of their real needs or those of their families.”  Much of their wages cannot even be used to buy these video games. Hypocrisy

The N.C.A.A.’s decision to part ways with E.A. has little to do with the well-being of student-athletes; it is about protecting itself from lawsuits and insulating itself from demands for just compensation.  At a moral and educational level, nothing has changed. This decision, which is in line with past reforms, hasn’t transformed my thoughts about either the N.C.A.A. or the virtual fantasies known as sports video games.

Rather than fork over 50 dollars for a game, can you imagine if people started supporting student-athletes or an organization like the National College Players Association.  Now, that is a reality I can get with.

New Media Literacy and Sporting Cultures

Call for Papers

New Media Literacy and Sporting Cultures

Special Issue of Journal of Sport and Social Issues

David J. Leonard and CL Cole

Challenging those who blamed Twitter for the recent controversy surrounding Rashard Mendenhall, LZ Granderson celebrated the possibilities of new media technologies within American sports culture: “Twitter empowers them to show they are more than just the sport they play, to show they have a sense of humor, are aware of the world around them and are not afraid to try new things, like ballet classes. In other words, they are real people — not product-pushing puppets or faces of the franchise, walking around without thoughts or souls.”

Despite the humanizing possibilities, new media technology, evident in the power of sports video games, fantasy sports, and the often-hateful online discussions, simultaneously dehumanizes today’s athletes.  Reimagined as an object of play, consumption, ownership, and derision, the shifting technological tools exposes and disempowers today’s athletes all while enhancing agency and control. Breaking down boundaries, changing the relationship between athletes-fans-the media, and otherwise reconstituting the ways the sports operates; these technological-cultural-social shifts are changing the nature of sports itself.  We seek to reflect on the ways in which new sports media technologies simultaneously humanize and dehumanize across time and space.

This special issue works to highlight the dynamic nature of sporting cultures and the transformative possibilities resulting from new media technologies.  It attempts to build upon the existing literature all while engaging ongoing debates and discussions.  It seeks to foster critical new media literacy in a sporting context, all while elucidating the social, cultural and political significance resulting from the changing sports landscape.

In an effort to expand the conversation and engage the issues of new media and sports through alternative formats, we seek to publish editorial-styled essays.  We look for pieces that are theoretically rich, those focused on asking questions and expanding the discussion, and those dedicated to critical analysis.  We seek pieces that offer commentary and those committed to advancing and promoting new media literacy within a sporting context.

Authors should follow the ‘Manuscript Submission’ found at the JSSI website. Essays should be roughly 4,000-5,000 words, excluding endnotes and reference list. Questions should be sent to CL Cole – clcole@illinois.edu – or David J. Leonard, – djl@wsu.edu. All submissions are due by February 1, 2012 and should be submitted in electronic format to http://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/jssi