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Bobo’s Reactionary Mind

[ 116 ] September 28, 2011 |

Yesterday LGM’s palatial capital region offices received their copy of Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind.   If I understand correctly, one of the book’s main arguments is that attempts to distinguish between a good, reasonable Burkean conservatism and a nasty Randite/Calhounite/Reaganite variety don’t really fly.

I thought of this when I read this emission from moderate, reasonable, thinking man’s conservative David Brooks, which I think might actually be worse than his m,r, t-m c colleague’s embarrassing death penalty argument.   First of all, it gives me the chance to give another plug to Taylor Branch’s must-read article about the NCAA cartel, about which I’ll have more.    Brooks doesn’t dispute any of Branch’s claims, and doesn’t make anything that could properly be called an argument, but does engage in some feeble handwaving in favor of the transparently indefensible status quo:

The other is moral and cultural. A competitive society requires a set of social institutions that restrain naked self-interest and shortsighted greed. The amateur ideal, though faded and worn, still imposes some restraints. It forces athletes, seduced by Michael Jordan fantasies, to at least think of themselves partially as students. It forces coaches, an obsessively competitive group, to pay homage to academic pursuits. College basketball is more thrilling than pro basketball because the game is still animated by amateur passions, not coldly calculating professional interests.

The commercial spirit is strong these days. But people seem to do best when they have to wrestle between commercial interests and value systems that counteract them. The lingering vestiges of the amateur ideal are worth preserving.

What disappears entirely here is that Brooks is defending a system of rank exploitation and illegitimate privilege. Leaving aside the fact that Brook’s judgements about the superiority of college sports as spectator sports are highly contestable, the idea that athletes largely from poor backgrounds shouldn’t be compensated to enhance a very wealthy white guy’s trivial aesthetic pleasures is appalling. And let’s leave aside the question of salaries and the potential practical problems. What we should focus on initially is that college athletes are subject to uniquely harsh and restrictive burdens that prevents them from sharing in the great wealth they create. I have yet to hear a remotely decent defense for the proposition that athletes shouldn’t be allowed to profit from, say, apparel companies that sell jerseys with their numbers. We don’t stop music students from taking paid gigs or journalism students from selling articles. At any rate, big time college sports are already saturated by “self-interest and shortsighted greed”; the only question is who benefits. There’s just no rational defense for a system in which coaches of no particular distinction are grossly overpaid in an uncompetitive market, while players are denied even ancillary benefits from the money they generate.

And what’s particularly striking about this argument is that while reactionaries typically defend illegitimate privilege by invoking “virtue” or  something else that sounds kind of worth preserving, it’s not even clear what inherent value “amateurism” is supposed to have. God knows Brooks doesn’t write or speak for free, so I have no idea what it means to associate amateurism with “morality.”  “Amateurism” is virtually nothing but a flimsy cover for hypocrisy and corruption. When I think amateurism, I don’t of anything noble. I think of, say, “amateur” Olympic hockey tournaments featuring players from the Soviet bloc who were paid full-time to play hockey.  And to the extent that there are things of actual value at stake here, “amateurism” is beside the point. Nobody’s saying that you can’t require NCAA players to meet admissions standards or maintain academic standing; preventing them from hiring agents or getting properly paid for goods sold with their images has nothing to do with this whatsoever. (If the idea is that if players get any kind of compensation the rules will be unenforceable, as Branch’s article makes clear that ship sailed a long time ago.) Invoking “amateurism” is just avoiding an argument, defending a system of rank systematic exploitation that has no rational defense. And, most importantly, invoking this non-principle has no chance of harming the interests of David Brooks, just people of far less wealth and privilege.  What’s not to like?   That’s the reactionary mind in a nutshell: moral restraints are for other people, and they’ll take the naked self-interest and shortsighted greed, thank you very much.

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Comments (116)

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  1. R. Porrofatto says:

    Excellent post. When it come to Brooks, I think we just assume by now that “Defender of Systems of Rank Exploitation And Illegitimate Privilege” is on his business card.

  2. c u n d gulag says:

    Yeah, because the first person I want to hear from about Baseball is George Will.

    And on amateur sports, from the insipid “Our Mr. Brooks.”

    Lord save us from Conservatives talking about sports.

    I want my sports from crazed Liberals like the late great Hunter S. Thompson, and the alive and great Charles Pierce.

  3. norbizness says:

    “And why aren’t there more scholarships for contract bridge players?”

  4. Spokane Moderate says:

    The commercial spirit is strong these days. But people seem to do best when they have to wrestle between commercial interests and value systems that counteract them.

    And that’s why we should fight any small change in the marginal tax rates for the wealthy…

    Wait. What?

    • Kurzleg says:

      My reaction exactly. This applies right up until the point that it doesn’t, and Mr. Brooks will be right there to split that hair.

  5. Corey Robin says:

    I agree with everything you say here, Scott, of course. I’d just add one point, perhaps a slight emendation. Brooks’s argument is also consistent with the reactionary tradition, otherwise known as conservatism, that I discuss in my book in this respect: there’s long been a vein on the right that values morals and principles not for their own sake but for the function they serve. To wit, they create a tension, or conflict, in the individual between her desires and her duties. This is a very different argument from the proverbial reason v. passion, or duty v. self-interest, conflicts that you learn in Ethics 101. It’s an argument that really prizes the agonizing conflict that’s created in the self, forcing it to toggle back and forth between the easy way and the hard way. I found a very similar argument, actually, in Douthat’s views on sex, which I discuss here. (http://coreyrobin.com/2011/09/13/the-mile-high-club-what-the-right-really-thinks-about-sex/)

    Anyway, the point is that in addition to serving as a justification for rank exploitation, which it undoubtedly does, the argument speaks to this crazy romantic streak in conservatism that prizes a divided self, torn between is and ought. One of the reasons the conservative doesn’t want to end that conflict — in this instance by just playing college players — is that it would eliminate the agony and the ecstasy (as they understand it) of modern life.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      Very interesting points, Corey! But is this exclusively true of modern conservatism? Doesn’t Cicero, e.g., suggest that virtuous behavior involves choosing the harder path?

      I look forward to reading you book, btw.

      • Corey Robin says:

        There’s definitely a precedent in Cicero and others (though I’d say that “modern conservatism” is redundant; my argument is that all conservatism is modern. But that’s a whole different kettle of fish). The difference is that they were writing within the framework of virtue ethics (and other modes of ethics). Brooks and the romantics are not: they’re writing within the framework of a concern about the self, not its virtue or flourishing or anything like that, but its very survival as a self. If you want to see where I develop this more, check out chapter 3, 5, and 11 in my book.

    • Tyro says:

      What’s worth pointing out here is that this sort of “agony” is very easy for the modern conservative– he’s struggling between his desire for virtue and his materialism and sexual adventures. The “struggle” ends up with rewards on both ends– his tribute to virtue is just a vague feeling of guilt, while his rewards of vice are his wealth and exalted social position. That’s much different than the kind of moral struggle of the exploited or those wrecked by attempts to pretend to be straight when they’re actually gay.

      It’s easy, for example, to extol the virtues of hard work and long hours and personal sacrifice for your job when there huge economic rewards for it. But conservatives with wax poetic about the virtues of long hours for those in low paid jobs, where the formula is very different.

      They haven’t *really* found themselves pinned between “is” and “ought,” and insofar as they have, it’s analogous to a grad student telling us how his experiences on a stipend give him experience with what poverty is like.

  6. Scott de B. says:

    The problem is that you won’t really be enriching players, you’ll simply be creating a different class of haves and further marginalizing the have-nots. If Andrew Luck is worth, say $1 million per year on the open market, that salary will be paid by eliminating 20 baseball and track and field scholarships. Is it really worth denying students the chance to go to college to enrich the relatively few who have NFL-class talent, and who will be able to profit from that talent down the road in any case?

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Let’s leave the question of salaries aside for a second. Why shouldn’t Andrew Luck benefit from all good made with his image and sold at a profit? It’s not like other students are getting that money.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        Totally agree.

        I don’t get the argument that football players will benefit more than, e.g., wrestlers or gymnasts. Football players generate vastly more revenue than wrestlers or gymnasts. Why shouldn’t they receive more financial benefit. It’s not as if the socialized poverty of the status quo provides benefits that wrestlers and gymnasts will be denied in the future if Andrew Luck can make money off of jersey sales.

        I do, however, think that even the Taylor Branch piece–which is absolutely excellent and everyone should read–doesn’t really consider what a world of post-amateur athletics does to athletic department–and even general university–budgets. The possible negative side effects of creating a system which is fair to college athletes aren’t arguments against creating such a system. But they need to be considered when the practical details of such a system are being established.

        • catclub says:

          I think it is getting us to realize that bigtime college athletics, which are almost uniquely a US institution, are crazy.
          No other nation bothers with that. There are not college sponsored rock bands ( AFAIK), why _should_ there be college sponsored professional athletic teams?

          • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

            Tho’ there are, in fact, college-sponsored theatrical troupes, orchestras, singing groups…some of them are quite prestigious in fact. Colleges and universities also sponsor newspapers, tv channels, and radio stations.

            So it’s not the case that athletics are unique in this regard (though I agree that bigtime college athletics are almost uniquely American…rowing at Oxford and Cambridge is a rare overseas example).

            • SeanH says:

              I’d like to correct a (possibly) common misconception about the United Kingdom: outside a small number of people at those institutions and the sort of onanistic alumni who wear tie pins, nobody cares about rowing at Oxford and Cambridge. If anybody tried to bring it up in conversation as anything other than a joke about the bizarre diversions of the upper classes, I would assume that they were either insane or a complete wanker. It’s like, I don’t know, caring about student newspapers at Harvard and Yale making fun of each other.

              It’s not on television, I’ve never seen it reported in the news, nobody talks about it. It’s not remotely comparable to American college sports.

      • BradP says:

        That isn’t a fair request, because the difficulty of matching compensation to value amongst 120 teams consisting of 85 18-22 year-olds is the principle reason Luck doesn’t deserve a million dollar contract.

        • wsn says:

          Right. It has nothing to do with the fact that the ones making the money lucked into a situation where they don’t have to share and want to keep it that way.

        • djw says:

          This is bizarre. To state the obvious, it exists at the professional level as well. But I can’t imagine anyone saying “The difficulty amongst 30 teams consisting of 25 18-42 year olds” as an argument against baseball players making a lot of money, even if owners somehow can’t quite figure out that giving Barry Zito a $100 million+ contract isn’t wise.

          Salaries will be negotiated by flawed humans with flawed information about uncertain future performance. Some players will be overpaid and some underpaid relative to their performance, just like in professional sports and plenty of other industries. I can’t believe I’m explaining this to a libertarian.

          • BradP says:

            Have you ever wondered why there are only 30 or so professional teams in the popular leagues with large doses of revenue sharing? Have you ever wondered why athletic programs tend to group into conferences?

            There are 346 NCAA Division I football programs ranging from Delaware St. to the University of Texas – Austin. There is no comparison between the two.

        • Malaclypse says:

          That isn’t a fair request, because the difficulty of matching compensation to value amongst 120 teams consisting of 85 18-22 year-olds is the principle reason Luck doesn’t deserve a million dollar contract.

          If only there existed some sort of “market” where “labor” could be bought or sold. It is indeed a shame that we must rely upon central planners to assign value to players. Truly, this is a problem without the possibility of solution.

          • BradP says:

            If only there existed some sort of “market” where “labor” could be bought or sold. It is indeed a shame that we must rely upon central planners to assign value to players. Truly, this is a problem without the possibility of solution.

            Such a market would likely force a great deal of academic programs out of business for inability to compete.

            If your goal is 30-40 semi-pro football teams and an association of teams very much like what you have now minus the big guys, then by all means, have a free market for 18-22 yo football players.

            • Malaclypse says:

              Such a market would likely force a great deal of academic programs out of business for inability to compete.

              Tragic. We definitely need to shield academic sports programs from the market. Expecting hospitals to compete is one thing, but humanity requires sports programs be protected!

              • mark f says:

                What would the Universities of Eastern and Central Michigan do without the opportunity to get clobbered by Michigan and Michigan State every year?

                • Malaclypse says:

                  You know, I have absolutely no idea if you made all that up or not, which is precisely why this is vitally important.

              • BradP says:

                Tragic. We definitely need to shield academic sports programs from the market.

                Associations setting rules concerning financials and contracts among its members is a market function. Nothing about that shields college football from the market.

                Private institutions constantly create rules about which actors can receive what cash flows.

                • Malaclypse says:

                  So collusion among large actors to form a wage cartel is okay? I just want to be sure, so that I can understand why workers forming a union to raise wages is bad, while employers forming a cartel to prevent wages is good.

                • BradP says:

                  I am perfectly fine with eliminating the anti-trust exemptions and unfair labor laws that prevent athletes from entering into semi-pro or developmental leagues where they will be compensated far less than they are now.

                  Minor league baseball players mostly make five digits and gain substantially less financially than their college attending peers.

            • Malaclypse says:

              And actually, I’m curious: why does a libertarian think that athletics needs protection? If the number of teams shrink, then that must be what the market can really bear, isn’t it?

              When GM was in trouble, you were all for letting the market shut them down. Athletics is where you draw the line? That is the social good that must be protected? Not a major industry, not provision of medical services, but college athletics?

              • mark f says:

                Not a major industry, not provision of medical services, but college athletics?

                The ACA puts us on a slippery slope to unwanted abortions. When has a college athlete ever caused an unwanted abortion?

                • Malaclypse says:

                  When has a college athlete ever caused an unwanted abortion?

                  I am reminded of the NCAA slogan, “Every abortion a wanted abortion.” Also, “Safe, Legal, Mandatory.”

                • Erik Loomis says:

                  Actually, part of the current charges against Miami football is that the booster was paying for at least one abortion by a woman a player got pregnant at one of the booster’s “parties.”

              • BradP says:

                And actually, I’m curious: why does a libertarian think that athletics needs protection? If the number of teams shrink, then that must be what the market can really bear, isn’t it?

                As far as I can tell, the NCAA is not an association devoted to maximizing the revenue of the best football programs.

                THE NCAA’s CORE PURPOSE IS TO govern competition in a fair, safe, equitable and sportsmanlike manner, and to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount.

                I like college athletics. I can watch a college football game between two teams full of players who wouldn’t be paid a dime if players were allowed to be paid and love it. I have already made it clear that I admire and root for the players who play hard for the “love of the game” so to speak. I’ve screamed myself hoarse in the student section at Southern Illinois University basketball games for kids that never received Big 10 offers.

                It is hardly libertarianism that causes me to want to see the NCAA (a somewhat free, somewhat private association) doing a better job at their stated goal.

            • djw says:

              Is this concern really only about a fear that college athletics will change in a way that will make it less enjoyable for you to consume? I assumed there must have been a high-minded justification to go along with that, but if there is you’re apparently keeping it to yourself.

              • BradP says:

                Is this concern really only about a fear that college athletics will change in a way that will make it less enjoyable for you to consume? I assumed there must have been a high-minded justification to go along with that, but if there is you’re apparently keeping it to yourself.

                I just don’t think the NCAA would function. Andrew Luck shouldn’t be allowed a uniquely rich contract like that because it would escalate some of the problems in the NCAA.

                I am also perfectly fine with these athletes being students first. I think it makes for a better college experience, and I think it makes for a better sports experience.

                Now getting rid of the BCS system is another story, and the players unions of the respective sports should fight the age limits in pro leagues.

                • I am also perfectly fine with these athletes being students first.

                  What the hell does this have to do with actually existing big time college sports?

                  You seem to be defending a system that exists only in dimly remembered Rick Reilly columns or something.

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              So we’d have 40 or so rich and competitive teams and then everyone else, with very little competitive balance. So it would be just like it is now, then.

              • BradP says:

                Now is bad.

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  Right, because nobody actually gives a shit about “amatuerism.” The only people who aren’t permitted to make shitloads of money off college athletics if they can are players.

                • BradP says:

                  No, its bad right now because the BCS is a complete sham that screws over both players and student bodies and fans in order to secure a shit-ton of money for the bureaucrats responsible for the bowls, conferences, and a couple dozen money making teams.

                  The BCS should be undone and turned into a tournament, and the cashflow from the two major tournaments should be used for revenue sharing amongst NCAA athletic programs. All players should receive a modest living stipend.

                  Conferences and universities can sort out television contracts for the regular season.

      • catclub says:

        IN theory the student body does benefit from income generated by athletics.

        But I just remembered that as a graduate student, I got to help pay for the new turf at Husky stadium from the student Union budget. I doubt they would have let me walk on it.

      • DrDick says:

        As a University of Oklahoma alum (from the Switzer years), I have been saying this for more than 20 years. Only a small fraction of the athletes he brought in ever graduated and there was a major scandal (after I graduated) over the fact that a number of them, who did, were functionally illiterate. The coaching staff and University made a ton of money off these players and gave very little back.

      • Michael Drew says:

        Let’s leave the question of salaries aside for a second.

        You can’t leave the question of what you think is a minimum or sufficient level and form(s) of redress to address this problem that is sufficient to justify your righteousness when writing about it for all that long and expect to be taken as something other than someone who is interested primarily in moral grandstanding for its own sake. So sure, the endorsement restriction is convenient for you to focus on while you shuck and jive trying to come up with a viable overall solution, but unless you are considering having that turn out to be your minimum necessary redress, you’re going to have to say what reforms you think actually are minimally necessary for you to come down off your high horse vis-a-vis the immediate, pressing, moral outrage of this situation. It wouldn’t be a bad idea if you also simply said what you think should happen in an ideal world. But given that this is not an ideal world, you should also be willing to say what, at a minimum, needs to be changed for the situation to be a barely morally acceptable intermediate-term modus operandi. Otherwise, at some point, we’ll be left to conclude that you think that lifting the endorsement restriction is a sufficient step to make the arrangement acceptable on the whole.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          Here’s what should happen. At an absolute minimum, all restrictions on third-party income should be removed. In an ideal world, the NCAA should also permit universities to compensate athletes in whatever way they consider appropriate and consistent with legal requirements.

          • mpowell says:

            I would like to add: the elimination of the NCAA. That organization is so thoroughly corrupt I’ll bet you could hit them with RICO charges if you really wanted to. Some form of collegiate athletic standards organizing is probably healthy, but it needs a fresh start.

          • Michael Drew says:

            Right, so there is some work to be done on reaching a consensus among reformers. But I certainly support both of the reforms Scott proposes.

    • Mikey says:

      This question seems to assume that colleges would pay the players. Who said that?
      I’ve always assumed the money would come back to the player as a portion of the off-campus commerce he or she is already driving.

    • mpowell says:

      Yes, instead let’s keep denying them due process rights and allowing blatantly illegal activity from the NCAA. That’s a great solution.

  7. TT says:

    Nobody hates the idea of amateurism more than the NCAA. The only thing it cares about is control. Recall when Greg Anthony started his own apparel business while at UNLV, made boatloads of money off of it, and gave up his scholarship so as not to run afoul of any NCAA “laws”–and the useless SOBs still came down on him like a ton of bricks.

    http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/1991-03-28/news/9101150885_1_ncaa-violation-athlete-anthony-s

  8. BradP says:

    When I think amateurism, I don’t of anything noble.

    I’m not going to read the Brooks article and I am working my way through the NCAA shame article, but I can tell you right now that you are full of shit or really, really unusual.

    Ask Campos (assuming he really does keep track of Michigan football) if he admires the way in which Jordon Kovacs became a star of the defense despite coming to the team as a walk-on. I’m sure there are some Wisky fans here too. Ask them about James Watts.

    That statement seems almost a complete reversal of roles between you and Brooks.

    • whetstone says:

      Ask Campos (assuming he really does keep track of Michigan football) if he admires the way in which Jordon Kovacs became a star of the defense despite coming to the team as a walk-on.

      I’m not sure how Kovacs is different from, say, Kurt Warner or any other non-professional who, by dint of persistence or talent, becomes a star outside the usual channels. Kovacs is noble in the sense that he so believed in his talent that he was willing to risk not taking a scholarship in order to play D-1 ball, but I’m not sure that his amateur nature is more than tangential.

    • Anonymous says:

      You’re tying a desire to root for the underdog with amateurism. It’s neat and fun to root for when people dramatically exceed expectations. That can be a walk-on football player or a non-prospect career minor/independent league pitcher or whatever. I can see how they might be conflated, but they’re different in pretty important ways. The appeal of the underdog works in professional sports, too. It doesn’t need the ideology of amateurism (and the exploitation it justifies) to work.

    • Rob says:

      Low level baseball players become stars all the time. Say one Albert Pujols for example. So I guess the noble part is the University of Michigan stealing his labor?

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      You seriously think that people would stop caring about college sports if the players profited from, say, the sale of jerseys with their names on them? Christ.

      And many people get very excited by, say, the World Cup or Olympic hockey even though the players are professional. “Amateurism” is never the relevant factor.

      • BradP says:

        You see, when I say that amatuerism adds value to college athletics, that does not imply that college athletics has no value without amateurism.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          And this (trivial) amount of added value justifies a system of grotesque exploitation. So you and Bobo agree, then!

        • Rob says:

          Again you can’t even say what value it holds except in some Horatio Alger fantasy. The scholarship is peanuts. The education for big time Div 1 athletes is laughable in many schools. Athletics is their job. They attend practice, workouts, film sessions, mandated study sessions, have their classes picked for them.

  9. ‘If I understand correctly, one of the book’s main arguments is that attempts to distinguish between a good, reasonable Burkean conservatism and a nasty Randite/Calhounite/Reaganite variety don’t really fly.’

    That strikes me as a rather indefensible thesis. What does Mr Robin have to say to folks like John Quincy Adams, or Robert Putnam, or the New Urbanists, or Frank Tannenbaum and his Philosophy of Labour? These are people who employ some legitimately conservative ideas (from Burke, etc.), not to defend indefensible privileges or to keep other people down, but to raise the standard of living for everyone – by counteracting suburban sprawl, by building social capital and by fighting laissez-faire by appealing to the comparatively older ideal of the living wage.

    Also, it should be noted that Rand / Palin / the Tea Party are much more in line with radical classical-liberalism and the Jacksonian concept of the ‘supremacy of the people’s will’ (particularly against marginalised groups), so attempts to conflate their thought with that of the people mentioned above seems not only to be a doomed effort, but also to be a particularly nasty attempt to poison the well against the people who actually want to conserve things (social networks, voluntary associations, traditional urban forms, the last vestiges of the dignity of the working class etc.) of real worth.

    As for Brooks, though… yeah, I don’t find much of his writing very interesting or even intellectually honest at all. He pays lip service to Putnam and the communitarians, but at the end of the day his loyalty is to the GOP and to his own pocket.

    • Corey Robin says:

      Ayn Rand believes in “the supremacy of the people’s will”? And wants to “conserve things”? You’ll have to try again.

      • Mr Robin,

        I believe you completely misread my argument.

        My point was that Ayn Rand does not want to conserve things of actual value. She had utter contempt for environmental and labour rights movements, not to mention any attempt on the part of American Indian tribes to preserve their own cultures. She was a radical individualist in the same vein as Thomas Paine and Andrew Jackson; she attempted to ‘popularise’ the Nietzschean overman by turning him into an ideal everyman.

        My question to you is, how exactly is she in any way comparable to Burke or his more intellectually honest progeny, in your estimation?

        -Matt

        • Corey Robin says:

          Ah, I gotcha. Sorry for the misunderstanding. Well, I hate to play this card, but…you’ll have to read my book.

          • Corey Robin says:

            Again, my bad, but you did actually say that Rand was in line with the Jacksonian concept of the supremacy of the people’s will. Hence my misunderstanding. But on re-reading your note, I now see what you were really trying to say.

            • Mr Robin,

              No problem; I figured that’s what happened. I did read the free sample of your book on Amazon.com; much of it I agreed with, actually (particularly as regards Calhoun, the libertarians and all too many of the new variants of conservatism) but I got the impression that you were painting with rather too broad a brush. There were aspects of the French Revolution which even many contemporary radicals rather shuddered at, and attempted to address – or ‘react to’ – in their later work.

              But, when I have some semblance of time again, I look forward to reading your book.

              Best,
              Matt

  10. Waingro says:

    College basketball is more thrilling than pro basketball because the game is still animated by amateur passions, not coldly calculating professional interests.”

    Bobo routinely says a lot of stupid shit about politics and culture, so it’s encouraging to realize that he’s a dumbass about sports as well.

    I’m not sure why Brooks things college basketball is more thrilling than the pros. Is it because both teams will likely feature guards that can’t dribble with their off hand or make open jumpers? It’s just transparently stupid – the convergence of skill at the elite pro levels usually makes games tighter. Maybe he just gets an erection from watching the elitists from Duke thrash the proletariats of UNC-Wilmington.

    • Rob says:

      Or he reads too much John Feinstein. Which is pretty much any Feinstein.

    • It’s the white people, stupid!

    • BradP says:

      Why, IMO, college basketball and football are better than the pro versions: Variety.

      • Mike says:

        For college football, I’ll buy that argument. The fact that there’s space in CFB for Saban’s Belichick-ish pro-offense, Chip Kelly’s spread-n-shred, and Paul Johnson’s flexbone is to me one of the best things about the sport. But CBB doesn’t have anything like that. The offenses you learn in high school ball are the same that you watch the pros run.

        • BradP says:

          That is pretty much true, although college basketball programs do vary a lot more in regional characteristics and talent levels.

          But ultimately, the BCS is the elephant in the room, and college basketball isn’t quite the problem college football is.

  11. whetstone says:

    Another thing that irritated me about Brooks’s piece, besides the above: his claim that the early 20th century was a golden age of amateurism, which was spoiled when the “left” embraced the “corporate domination of sport.”

    The day Brooks’s piece came out, I was researching the early history of the Bears-Packers rivalry, and started reading about the heated controversy over amateur athletics from about 1895-1930. Col. McCormick’s Trib was, to put it briefly, of the position that amateur athletics was a bunch of bullcrap (in no small part because the future Big 10 schools were a beehive of corruption in the paying-players sense). One editorial actually made basically the same case that Branch does about amateurism as a shady workers’-comp workaround in the guise of moral philosophy; others embraced the argument that amateur athletics is protectionist elitism (at risk of self-promotion, some notes here).

    Perhaps at this point the Colonel and his paper are indeed “left-wing,” but Brooks’s weird ideological argument still seems beyond forced.

  12. redrb64 says:

    When I think amateurism, I don’t of anything noble. I think of, say, “amateur” Olympic hockey tournaments featuring players from the Soviet bloc who were paid full-time to play hockey.

    Come on, those Soviet hockey players were paid as officers in the Red Army, whose duty assignment just happened to be with the Red Army team. Thinking about it, I may have just solved the Army’s mission problem mentioned by Farley in his post: 500,000 sinecures for amateur athletes to delight David Brooks.

  13. Richard Hershberger says:

    I think I can explain, though not defend, Brooks’ ideal of amateurism.

    The ideal goes back to Victorian England, where it was entirely about social class. Usually the whole point was to restrict competition to gentlemen. Gentlemen by definition did not work for a living (in theory, though not necessarily in practice) so being paid to play would imply that they were not gentlemen. The working classes, in the meantime, lacked the means to volunteer themselves as unpaid labor. So a prohibition on professionalism was a way to de facto restrict competition to the right sort of people.

    Cricket developed earlier, as is shown by its peculiar social organization. Professional crickets played alongside amateurs since the 18th century. This was not out of a spirit of egalitarianism, but because organized cricket arose as a medium for high stakes gambling. This has a wonderful effect on clarifying priorities. Upper and working class men played together, but the social divide was still strictly observed through mechanisms such as separate dressing room for “gentlemen” and “players.”

    It was also wonderfully hypocritical. W.G. Grace, the greatest cricket player of the 19th century, was a “gentleman” but various subterfuges were employed and he earned far more from cricket than did any “player” of the day.

    How does this Victorian amateur ideal translate to modern America? Suppose you and some of your co-workers join a company softball league. You are kind of into it, but you don’t obsess. But one of the other teams lacks this restraint, and will do whatever it takes to win. This includes hiring a ringer. Or perhaps two or three. This throws everything out of whack. You wanted to get some air, perhaps a bit of exercise, perhaps some beer, while having fun playing a ballgame. Suddenly you find yourself being pounded by players out of your league. Where’s the fun in that?

    The problem is that this is a terrible description of the situation with big time college football or basketball. And it always has been. “Students” of questionable status go back at least to the 1880s. The competition adjusted, and no one expects a big time college team to consist of serious students who work a bit of extracurricular athletics into their spare time away from their books. Brooks is arguing in defense of a mythical pre-lapsarian condition.

  14. jake the snake says:

    Avoiding any argument about “amateurism”, the mechanism of paying players concerns me. To me
    the biggest problem with college athletics, is the way that it reflects to wealth disparites in this country. Unless the NCAA took on the responsibility of paying the players out of their
    income from the individual schools, it would create an even greater discrepancy.
    My other personal issue is my loathing of professional sports. I detest the agents, owners and players in that order. Plus there is the question of the value of education that the players are supposedly receiving. I realize that is an old argument that you are rejecting.
    I suppose I could turn to high school sport, but I do not find that very appealing, since hight school athletics have the same corruption issues that college athletics do.

    • “I detest the agents, owners and players in that order.”

      Well I detest people who express that sentiment, so I suppose we’re even. And I mean that with all sincerity, because anyone who pulls the “I hate agents” card is being a pretentious asshole.

  15. Ralph Hitchens says:

    I’ve got to wonder if Brooks really watches much college football. The reason I watch it, & prefer it to the NFL, is that it’s often a more wide-open game. Run-oriented option offenses, crazy, high-risk plays, that sort of thing. But everything else you said about college football is undeniable.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Right. It’s reasonable to say that you prefer the strategic variety of college athletics to the greater skill of the pros, but compensating players has nothing to do with anything.

  16. mark f says:

    God knows Brooks doesn’t write or speak for free

    What, like in his mother’s basement like some unhinged blogger? Be reasonable!

  17. GeoX says:

    Look, can someone address this point, because I never see it addressed in these arguments about paying college players.

    Granted, the NCAA is exploitive scum, and it’s bullshit that they should be profiting on the unpaid labor of student athletes.

    But here’s this: these here student athletes are still college students, or so the theory goes. They’re still allegedly there to get qualified to do something other than play pro sports, because, after all, most of them won’t be.

    In spite of this, however, it’s probably fairly safe to say that if you’re a star football player with NFL dreams, academics are not exactly foremost in your mind. If they’re being paid to play sports, they’re going to seem even LESS important, both because, hey, you’re getting paid, and because, given that you’re being paid, there’s going to be even more pressure on you to perform. Seems to me that it’s farcical under those circumstances to describe the players as “students.” So all these kids, most of whom WON’T end up as professional athletes, are going to end up getting a WORSE education to prepare them to do anything else.

    This is NOT meant to be an argument that the status quo is a good thing; that rich fucks should get richer off the backs of exploited (well, MORE exploited) labor. If anything, it looks more like an argument to abolish college sports altogether. Let the NFL and NBA run their own damn farm teams. But then, in turn, the problem with THAT is of course that thousands of kids from straitened circumstances would lose the opportunity for a college education. This wouldn’t be an issue if we lived in a just society, of course, but…

    Also–and I suppose this is more of an emotional point–the idea that athletics should not be available to college students just seems kinda bad. And if they are, I don’t know how you avoid a situation like we have now.

    So I guess I’m saying I don’t think there’s any ideal, or even good, solution.

    Why can’t the world be perfect?

    • TheStone says:

      That about sums it up. I think we can close the thread there.

    • mark f says:

      Actually, they receive in-kind compensation in the form of scholarships. But the scholarship is only good for one year, and can be revoked by the school for on-field performance. So even the third-string QB at UMass is under pressure to perform. God help him if just before his senior year his school hires a new coach with an 18-year-old son-of-a-buddy who played a little in high school.

      • mark f says:

        A sentence beginning with “But” followed by one beginning with “So” . . . if you thought “Talk Like a Pirate Day” was fun wait til “Write Like Jonah Goldberg Day”!

    • Uncle Kvetch says:

      Let the NFL and NBA run their own damn farm teams.

      Works for me.

      Also–and I suppose this is more of an emotional point–the idea that athletics should not be available to college students just seems kinda bad.

      Sure there could still be “athletics” — the existence of a farm team system in baseball doesn’t preclude college baseball, does it?

      • GeoX says:

        That’s true; it just seems as though the mere presence of football and basketball at universities is sort of inevitably going to attract the kind of malignant culture we have now.

        Low-level baseball, of course, is much less college-centric in general. Actually, that brings up an interesting question: if triple-A baseball is more or less equivalent, skill-wise, to high-powered college football and basketball, how come, unlike those other two, it gets almost no non-local attention?

        • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

          [I]f triple-A baseball is more or less equivalent, skill-wise, to high-powered college football and basketball, how come, unlike those other two, it gets almost no non-local attention?

          A few guesses:

          1) Colleges produce their own, ready-made fan base for their teams (indeed, colleges market themselves through their sports teams). Triple-A baseball teams have no similar natural fan bases.

          2) One of the oddities of farm teams is that if a player gets very, very good, he’s likely to be called up to the major league team. While both triple-A and college basketball and football rosters are unstable, the instability of triple-A rosters is a lot more chaotic, making triple-A teams harder to follow.

          3) Closely related to #2: triple-A teams exist entirely as spare-parts / training grounds for major league teams. Though there is a triple-A World Series, the goal of the team is to nuture individual talents, not win triple-A World Series. This, again, makes triple-A teams less enjoyable to follow.

          4) For better or for worse, baseball is currently much less popular than basketball or football. Very few people follow college baseball, either.

          5) While college football and basketball feature a wider variety of styles of play than their pro equivalents (thus creating a potential node of fan interest that compensates for the lower quality of play), minor league (or college) baseball is really just baseball played less well. You see all kinds of interesting stuff in college football and basketball games that you never see in the NFL or NBA. The same is simply not true of triple-A baseball games.

          • GeoX says:

            All true. It’s also probably relevant that there are WAY more MLB games to watch–no need to supplement them with anything else.

          • or better or for worse, baseball is currently much less popular than basketball or football.

            This is not true with respect to the former. MLB is substantially more popular than the NBA (although not, of course, the NFL.)

      • More basically, the lack of professionalized, profit seeking football and basketball teams doesn’t preclude making intramural or club level athletics available to students.

  18. ckc (not kc) says:

    There’s just no rational defense for a system in which coaches managers of no particular distinction are grossly overpaid in an uncompetitive market, while players workers are denied even ancillary benefits from the money they generate.

    ..good luck with that

  19. BW says:

    Not quite true that we don’t stop music students from taking gigs, although obviously the amount of institutionalized power brought to bear against them is/was much lower for a variety of reasons. The story that I understand it is that for many years in NYC (a place both saturated with musicians and where the Musicians’ Union was unusually strong) it was hard to get a gig as a student because the union did everything it could to make it hard for people to book non-union gigs. Not sure how true this is these days, and not the same as college football in that the bulk of the pressure was coming from hurting labor interests that didn’t want to see their wages further eroded, but there you have it.

    And lest this be construed as some sort of anti-union attack: I was actually in an analogous position to NCAA players as a music student at my performing arts high school, where an asshole band director whored us out as much as possible in the name of “gaining valuable experience” to anyone willing to pay, with the threat of academic repercussions if we didn’t do it. I remember one memorable gig where we had to drive 90 minutes to the next county to play hokey-ass (and not challenging or artistically interesting) 1930s arrangements for some guidance counselor’s church function. Needless to say, we never saw a dime and most of the revenue from these things went straight into the school’s general fund (if not into the band director’s pocket – I wonder if he was paid overtime by the school for the gigs he showed up to “supervise”).

    I realize this probably comes off as rather a First World Problem, but the frequent evening and weekend gigs were a serious burden to students who had class from 7:30-4 every weekday with mandatory rehearsals till 6 most days and further practicing expected after you went home – to say nothing of regular homework). I was not a pleasant person to be around that year. So even where there’s not much money in it like in major college athletics, you’ll still see exploitation in fields where the incentives favor it.

    • Anonymous says:

      I was a music student in the NYC area and the union never prevented me from working. Certain gigs in NY are union only, but college students who are qualified for those gigs can join the union. The dues are a bargain if you can actually get union type gigs (broadway, etc.) I h ave never heard of the union getting involved with a $50 resturaunt gig, which is the kind of gig you get in college, if you are lucky.

      • BW says:

        Didn’t mean to suggest that college students couldn’t join the union. I admit that what I heard was thirdhand, so while I think things were probably stricter 40-50 years ago I’ll defer to your actual experience here.

  20. mattH says:

    I heard an argument by Seth Davis on my local NPR affiliate that the students are essentially getting valuable learning experience from the coaches and television exposure, and the only thing I could think of is that these athletes are essentially on a reality show; College Students as Snooki.

  21. [...] at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, Scott Lemieux used The Reactionary Mind to launch a lengthy discussion of David Brooks and college [...]

  22. [...] Corey Robin argues that conservatism is a modern movement. In the comments section of a blog post (Bobo’s Reactionary Mind by Scott Lemieux), there was an interaction that touches upon this issue and the distinction made by [...]

  23. [...] Taylor Branch article is, of course, outstanding. The first key point is that amateurism is an empty fraud, a transparent mask for exploitation and class privilege, that I’ll take seriously as soon as [...]

  24. [...] and that’s not going to change. I don’t think “amateurism” per se has much value, but even if you do that ship long ago left port, been struck with several missiles, and sunk to [...]

  25. [...] more evidence that the NCAA’s “amateur ideal” is 1)a feeble pretext for exploitation and class privilege and 2)there is no #2. Allow me to [...]

  26. [...] Saban’s players received a free pair of shoes or an extra Big Mac on a recruiting visit, the Noble Ideals of Amateurism would be destroyed [...]

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