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Anyone Who Can Trade their Autograph for a Tattoo Should (and Should be Allowed To)

December 23, 2010

I am not an Ohio State fan.  I renounced the team of my birth when I attended the Final Four in Atlanta in 2007, when Georgetown lost to Ohio State and we were harassed, the entire game, by four obnoxious OSU fans who had bought tickets in our section for the express purpose of being obnoxious.  On the way out, we were swarmed by more, many more, obnoxious OSU fans, and I thought to myself, I will never root for anything you people want ever again.  Although some of them may be perfectly fine human beings (many of them are my friends and family), as a collective entity OSU fans have an image problem, and in my experience it is well deserved.

I say that by way of preface to this: the pillorying of Terrelle Pryor and the other OSU football players which began today and will likely dominate the news cycle right up to and through their bowl game makes me deeply uncomfortable.  I’m generally supportive of anything that goes against OSU sports, but it’s hard to feel good about something which shines such a stark light on the unfairness of college sports.  The story, as reported, is that they 1) sold [their own] championship rings and other honors and 2) traded autographs for tattoos (Pryor, for his part, tweeted that he paid for his tats, thank you very much).

The fact that both of these things are severely punishable offenses (each player is getting a five-game suspension) highlights the fact that, as collegiate athletes, these young men are barred from making any money whatsoever with their skills.  The thing is, lots and lots of other people do make a lot of money from their skills.  Their coach made something like three and half million dollars this year.  If they perform well in a given year, he makes more money, their conference makes more money, and licensers like Nike make more money.  While NCAA rules forbid the selling of team jerseys with current players’ names on them, a #2 jersey fetches $149.95, clearly quite a bit more than it would if Pryor wore some other number.  EA Sports has stretched the delusion that there could be a popular game without popular players so far that some players have taken them to court.

I’d not often lose a lot of sleep over something like this happening to big-time college athletes, because usually the stories go the other way – entitled players receiving perks from boosters, walking roughshod over student conduct codes.  As faculty-to-be, I can be bitter about the pressure applied to professors on some campuses to make sure athletes stay academically eligible.  And, anyway, there are rules in place which these kids broke.  But, still – shouldn’t we be just the tiniest bit uncomfortable with the knowledge that as a college athlete, on whose success millions of dollars are won and lost each year, you don’t even own the trophies you’ve earned, inasmuch as you cannot sell them?  The story is that the players sold such things to help their families in tough economic times, but I’m not sure I care – selling a Big Ten ring to support your secret heroin habit would be sad, but still, it seems to me, within your rights as the owner of the ring.  Worse still the autographs-for-tattoos – what other sort of person doesn’t even own their own name?  [That question is rhetorical, but also has a resonant answer.]

We think of these kids as millionaires-in-waiting, which makes it hard to be too worried for them, and yet that just proves the point that they already inhabit some other category than “amateur,” the status that the NCAA claims so zealously to defend.  Olympic fencers who work at Home Depot are amateurs; Ohio State’s starting quarterback is something else.  What is it, and is there a better way to determine what he’s due and when?

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