As it does every year, January brings with it the usual seven-minute C1 conversations: discussions about experiences while studying abroad, arguments over every part of the rush process, surface-level complaints about Duke’s destructive academic culture. And finally, exasperated sighs of how awful it is to sleep in an unheated tent for six weeks in anticipation of one basketball game inside Cameron in late February. These topics help to make easy small talk with acquaintances that for a short time we can consider friendly, but scratching at the surface of these experiences avoids a deeper analysis of these events. Amidst all this small-talk of potentially winning a sixth national title, campus seems to have glossed over problems that plague our basketball program and athletics as a whole.
There are numerous issues related to the existence of sports on college campuses. These include the advantages student-athletes for sports played by wealthier people receive in the admissions process, the negative health consequences that plague players of contact sports like football and the way that the NCAA protects athletes who are perpetrators of sexual assault. However, the most pertinent issues surrounding our obsession with sports and athletes involve how athletics at Duke and schools like it use the free labor of revenue-generating student athletes, particularly those of color, for the one-sided benefit of the University.
In 2017 alone, Duke men's basketball recorded revenues of $34,398,285, up 10 percent from the year before. By comparison, the program’s expenses were only $3,142,715. Duke Basketball made over $31 million dollars in profit in 2017, and yet NCAA rules make it impossible for student athletes to profit at all from their own accomplishments and image, cheating them of compensation many see them entitled to while the schools themselves rake in huge profits. However, the effects of the profit motivations of sports for schools do not stop at money itself. When students are brought to a school like Duke for the purpose of the University’s financial gain, they cease to exist as students and individuals and instead become commodities. The injury of a basketball player raises concern, not out of the pain that the player is in or how that injury impacts the rest of their daily life, but of how that player’s injury affects Duke’s chances of winning a game. Our campus values its student-athletes, particularly those of color and those in revenue-generating sports, not as people but mainly for the entertainment that they bring.
The effect of this commodification of our students is also the perpetuation of stereotypes that follow athletes, both revenue and non-revenue generating. Why is it that supposedly easy courses have labels like “Rocks for Jocks” or that student athletes are told by advisors to opt for classes and majors that may be less “time-consuming”? By defining student athletes solely by their athletic merit, Duke is complicit in patterns that lead to athletes, especially black athletes, being disgustingly characterized as “physically gifted and intellectually stunted” or that lead to fans vilifying and jeering at athletes for not living up to expectations.
However, these problems by no means start and end with college athletics. Because sports like basketball require a year in college before becoming professional, athletes for those sports are treated differently by the university. There are larger systems in place that allow for the exploitation of these students. All of this is also not to say that being an athlete and performing at a collegiate level does not have its benefits. Access to athletic scholarships provides a means for students to be able afford an otherwise extremely costly education. The provided community of teammates and pure passion for the sport itself are obvious reasons for one to pursue athletics at school, but this does not mean that universities are absolved of treating those students as students first.
For those shivering in their tents in K-Ville, it is not wrong to love sports and to tent and to want to watch Duke’s basketball team obliterate UNC next month. What is wrong is to participate in events that are supposed to bring Duke students together without critically analyzing how our individual actions and those of the University deflate the value of certain students. Despite how much profit the University gains from the labor and entertainment value of its student-athletes, they are still students at this University.
This was written by The Chronicle's Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff.
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