How Low Can You Go?

Offensive subject matter is in the eye of the beholder. The mores and social norms an individual subscribes dictate what makes them feel hurt, angry or upset. There’s something self-righteous and indignant about being offended; it implies that someone’s viewpoint or message is so wholly invalid that the legitimacy of your own core values are assailed simply by the existence of that divergent expression.

For most of my formative years and adult life, I’ve aligned myself with the concept so poignantly drilled home in the “Cartoon Wars” episode of South Park that either everything is okay to write (or say, convey and express) or nothing is. In truth, that’s an overly-simplistic approach with an answer far too definitive to speak to all situations in which one could be offended.

What truly makes me feel hurt, angry and/or upset is when I am told a lie so blatant and bold-faced it presupposes my intellect and ability to discern reality from fantasy is so minimal that no true effort is required to pull the wool over my eyes. I am even more offended when this sort of coercive fib is scaled across a larger population; that is to say I will be offended if you urinate on my leg on a sunny day and blame it on the rain, but I will be far more aggrieved if you dump a bucket full of piss onto a room full of people indoors and claim there’s a leak in the roof.

Last week, I saw the most offensive piece of television programming I have ever been witness to in 29 years meandering this mixed up planet. It was this commercial:

You may need you to re-watch that clip before you progress any further in this article. It is so brief and to the point that it is nearly indigestible upon a single viewing.

This is the kind of shameless propaganda that would make Leni Riefenstahl blush.

There is so much deceit crammed into these 31 seconds; so much indifference to not only the plight of millions of American families, but even the simple notion of fairness in economics; so much disdain for the general public and their collective lack of intelligence, that one must unpack the content piece-by-piece to truly appreciate how offensive this commercial is (and let’s start there – by labeling this a “public service announcement,” the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is implying they are providing a SERVICE to the PUBLIC by promulgating this disgusting narrative. Jesus, I’m having heart palpitations and we haven’t even broken down the first sentence of the clip).

Allow me to boil down this issue into a tidy summary for the uninitiated, which will be examined through the lens of the NCAA’s primary cash cows – football and men’s basketball: the NCAA, legally considered a nonprofit organization, does not pay its “student-athletes” (officially hyphenated in all NCAA mediums to imply some sort of intrinsic link between the two nouns) for their performance on the field, despite the fact that the cabal generated nearly $1 billion in revenue in 2014. They do not bestow royalties upon athletes whose name, face or likeness is used to generate said revenue through merchandise like jerseys or video games. In order to receive the honor of representing the NCAA in their sport of choice, “student-athletes” are prohibited from using their own name, face or likeness from generating revenue of their own through efforts like autograph signings or endorsement deals.

This arrangement has come under scrutiny in recent years. It seems as if we, as a society, certainly aided by more intense and pervasive media analysis borne of the internet age, have begun to catch the fumes of the steaming mountain of bullshit we’ve lived with under our noses for the last 100+ years. This puts the NCAA in the unenviable position of having to paint this form of indentured servitude as a gallant crusade to defend the altruism of amateur athletics, rather than acknowledging that they are running a ponzi scheme so thinly veiled that even the Mets’ owners wouldn’t fall for it.

The video opens with choppy scenes of an intentionally-nondescript Anytown, USA as our yet-to-be-named narrator informs us: “This is why we love sports. It’s in the way they play, free from all the pressures and the money talk.”

Ahhh yes, the old “Mo Money, Mo Problems” trope. This introduction is founded on the premise that all people love sports for the same reason, which is, of course, laughable. My dad loves golf because it is a war of Man vs. Self in which the task of placing a 1.68 inch ball into a 4.25 inch hole is a challenge eclipsed only by the need to vacate one’s own head while swinging. I love professional football because it is America’s second language which allows me to connect with complete strangers of wildly conflicting backgrounds as if we were longtime companions. Love is personal and to base one’s message on the concept that there is a universally-motivating factor that induces it founds your premise on a fallacy.

The visual moves on to show a golfer and a football team conducting practice; a setting in which they are truly free from the pressures of the 105,000 person audience that attends an average Louisiana State University football game. Yes, here at practice they are free from the rigors of their academic coursework which they are required to maintain in order to preserve their scholarships – some merely partial payments of tuition, but all their primary recompense – all while spending over 40 hours per week honing their craft in some instances despite the NCAA’s purported 20 hour practice cap during the school year. Lucky for these suckers, errr…”student-athletes,” they needn’t be bothered with such frivolities as “money talk;” many programs prohibit outside jobs as a condition of being on a team. Forget making $20 writing your name on a piece of paper and selling it on eBay. You aren’t allowed to hump a grill at Outback Steakhouse for minimum wage if you want the privilege of sacrificing your time and energy for the NCAA’s coffers (Outback pays schools that send football teams to their annual bowl game over $3 million per year, by the way. I’m no accountant, but I’m fairly certain the zero percent of that money the actual players receive doesn’t cover the cost of many bloomin’ onions).

As the commercial progresses, we are treated to more shots of college students practicing away from the bright lights of sanctioned competition, as our still-unidentified narrator prattles along: “….playing for simply the love of the game, where everyone has a shot at THEIR definition of success; on AND off the field.”

Wooooo boy. NOW we’re cookin’ with gasoline, friends. You know, I love playing basketball. When I play on an unkempt concrete court two, maybe three times per year if I’m lucky, that is an example of someone playing “simply for the love of the game.” When a young adult forgoes every joy of a typical, stress-free childhood to achieve excellence in a sport that, one day, could net them an income to finance a better life for the two generations of their family immediately preceding AND following them? Then you get Cardale Jones’ timeless tweet proclaiming that he and his teammates “aint come (to Ohio State) to play SCHOOL.”

That tweet has been the subject of both mockery and scorn; some of which is warranted, primarily due to the less-than-Shakespearean phrasing used to make the point. To me, though, that tweet was the opening salvo to the modern “student-athlete’s” Declaration of Independence. It is plainspoken in a way that should illuminate how ridiculous it is that the legitimacy of the NCAA’s amateurism model is even considered a matter of opinion rather than a flagrant violation of federal antitrust laws. I didn’t go to school for journalism because I loved writing; I went to increase my earning power doing what I love (which, for the record, did not work). My collegiate pursuit was academic. Mr. Jones’ foray was athletic in nature. Here’s the key difference – there is no national media syndicate that requires a journalist to spend a certain amount of time in college. The NFL, NBA and other professional sports organizations have restrictions in place for how long an athlete must be removed from high school to become eligible for employment. While high school seniors have begun experimenting with the joys of uprooting their lives overseas to earn money during what would otherwise be their freshman year of college, damaging their draft stock and therefore earning potential in the process, there is no feasible alternative to college for football players. Saying Cardale Jones played quarterback for Ohio State “simply for love of the game” implies he ever had another option.

This brings us to the notion that, in college athletics, “everyone has a chance at THEIR definition of success; on AND off the field.” While I appreciate the narrator finally acknowledging there is no one universal truth that guides every human being’s set of beliefs and values, I feel as though this were an inappropriate place to start empowering individualism. Call me materialistic, corporate-minded, mercenary or anything in between, but I believe one plausible definition of “success” is “being able to afford a premium entree at Applebees.” Unfortunately for your favorite college sports hero, a study has found that 86 percent of collegiate athletes live below the poverty line. This is to say nothing of the financial straits of the families they come from, which, in an effort to avoid anecdotal attribution, we can approximate through studies like this one that show the overwhelming majority of NBA players, funneled into the league by the NCAA thanks to eligibility requirements, hail predominantly from metropolitan areas featuring comparatively-high poverty rates. If the NCAA isn’t defining off-the-field success for their athletes, they are at best capping the eligible submissions.

It is at this point in the commercial that our narrator’s identity is revealed, and somehow, the NCAA manages to take the most innocuous line of the script and turn it into the most offensive portion of the clip: “This is what we love about sports and we can STILL love about college sports,” Billie Jean King preaches as her name and title scroll across the screen.

Our introduction to Billie Jean King is not her name followed by “39 Time Grand Slam Winner.” We are not greeted by Billie Jean King, “Women’s Tennis Association Founder” or “Former World No. 1 Ranked Tennis Player.” No, THIS  Billie Jean King goes by a different title: “Equal Rights Champion.”

This is the point of the commercial where I blacked out.

Billie Jean King’s impact on society ranges far past the courts of grand slam competitions. You cannot pass a park and see a girl with a racket in hand without tipping your cap to Ms. King. Furthermore, she was publicly shamed for having an abortion at a time when our society was not prepared to confront such an issue with anything other than scorn or avoidance. Her sexual orientation as a lesbian was made public against her will as well, another admission American culture was entirely unprepared for when the news broke. All she did was handle every twist and turn with such defiant grace that she was named one of Time Magazine’s Persons of the Year in 1975. During the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, President Obama tapped her to represent the United States at the opening ceremonies in an act of defiance against Russia’s oppression and a persecution of the LGBT community. One would be hard pressed to argue against her claim to the title “Equal Rights Hero.”

And yet, to flaunt that moniker in the context of this commercial shows just how far away we are from coming to the common sense resolution in the battle between the NCAA and college athletes. Living in the bubble of thoughtful online journalism, surrounding oneself with like-minded thinkers and authors, one can be lulled into a sense of false progression. When I see the NCAA mentioned in the media, it’s because the federal courts have found them guilty of violating antitrust laws.  It’s because a football team reached the literal doorstep of gaining the ability to unionize. It’s because one of the most well-respected college basketball analysts in the country dedicates the majority of his Twitter feed to calling them on their hypocrisy. When this is your exposure to an issue, a watershed moment that breaks down the entire corrupt system seems almost like an inevitably.

As soon as you step out of your echo chamber, though, reality hits you in the face like the business end of a Billie Jean King volley. For the NCAA to so brazenly bastardize the legacy of a titan of social progress shows just how unafraid they are of the mounting public awareness of their greed and malfeasance. You know what I never heard after Ed O’Bannon’s antitrust lawsuit? That ESPN’s foremost college football analyst publicly blasted him as the Grinch that Stole Christmas because the groundbreaking court ruling led to the halt of a video game series. I have little doubt that message echoed louder through the general public’s ears than did the minutiae of U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken’s 99 page ruling against the NCAA.

This of course begs the question; why would someone like King sign her name to such blasphemy? I won’t speculate or drag her hard-earned, sterling resume of positive contributions to society through the mud. I will say, in 1999, she joined the board of Phillip Morris, so even a champion of ACTUAL equality makes a poor call from time to time. In truth, I can only surmise that it is further evidence of my assertion that, somehow, some way, this country is yet to understand or perhaps care that millions of American teenagers are being financially exploited to line the pockets of a select few.

Our 31 seconds of brainwashing conclude with the NCAA’s final middle finger to their audience: a caption that reads “Prioritizing academics, well-being and fairness.”

An organization that pays no mind to its practice time cap prioritizes academics. An institution that doesn’t pay its employees who live below the poverty line prioritizes well-being. A corporation that hauls in $1 billion year, yet still has the gall to file for non-profit status, prioritizes fairness.

We have a long way to go.