Today we have a guest post from our friend Mike! Mike is an avid sports fan who probably knows more about the Yankees than you do. He adopted a three-legged pit before Parks & Recreation made it cool, and is an expert at Martini Time. Follow him on Twitter @M_Garcia36.
I am a sports junkie. There really isn’t any genteel way to say it. If it involves a ball, helmet, net, or special footwear – I’ll follow it, obsess over it, and live and die with every play. Armed with this information, one would think that I’d be fully engaged in the NCAA “Madness” right now, ready to provide obscure information about each team and player. Perhaps I’d know the name of Brittney Griner’s favorite dining hall at Baylor or why Anthony Davis of Kentucky gets four haircuts a week to “look fresh” but chooses to maintain a uni-brow. But I don’t, because I can’t bring myself to imbibe college sports to this degree. In fact, I have a HUGE problem with college sports. Increasingly, the student-athletes are over-exposed, exploited, and pushed out of school and into the pros long before they are set to earn a diploma. At least, that’s what I thought. Now I dislike it for a much more complicated reason.
I would often make such generalizations about NCAA athletes – that is, until I started to take a closer look at the rosters of some of the consistently competitive men’s and women’s basketball squads. It *seemed* to me as though the women’s squads contained more players in their senior year than the men’s squads, so I decided to do what any self-respecting sports nerd would do – MAKE TABLES! The first table represents the women’s teams that made it to the Elite 8 in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, and the number of seniors on the roster. “Redshirt Juniors” are players who sat out one season of athletic eligibility for strategic reasons, but are currently in their fourth year of academic studies. I’ve included them as well, since theoretically they should have nearly enough credits to graduate.
So my gut feeling was incorrect. This should not come as a shock, as my gut also led me to fill out a men’s tournament bracket where currently only one of my Final Four teams survives (still going strong in the Bloomer Girls women’s bracket though – Go Fighting Irish!). The men’s and women’s Elite 8 rosters actually have exactly the same total number of fourth year players – 26. As we all remember from our wild college days, however, simply making it to your fourth year does not guarantee a stroll to the tune of Pomp and Circumstance. So let’s look at two more tables, this time with the right column representing the basketball program’s “Graduation Success Rate,” a statistic used by the NCAA that represents graduation rates for student-athletes but also accounts for situations where players transfer for athletic reasons and eventually graduate from a different institution. For example, a GSR of 100% would mean that every student athlete who passed through the basketball program for that school earned a degree – from any institution – within 6 years of beginning an academic program. Women’s Elite 8 teams first:
And the men’s teams:
Sweet Pat Summit’s blazer those men’s numbers are ugly, especially compared to those nice round ones for the women. And look at Florida! Tsk, tsk, Tim Tebow! I was able to compile these statistics with the generous assistance of The University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, yet their studies do not extrapolate as to why there is such a disparity, so I got to thinking. Initially, I felt that this was an extremely positive sign for the women student-athletes – they were taking advantage of the opportunity to obtain a (sometimes fully) subsidized education and providing themselves with a great deal of security should a career in sports not work out. “One-and-dones” always make me angry since they are squandering a free education, so I applauded these women for prioritizing their degrees. That was, of course, assuming that they had a choice in the matter. It turns out that they don’t have a choice if they want to play professional basketball in the US. While male athletes may declare for the NBA draft after completing one year of athletic eligibility at a 4-year institution, the WNBA requires all athletes to exhaust their athletic eligibility or be 22 years old and earn a degree before declaring for the draft. This is extremely problematic since the WNBA is owned and operated by the NBA and there isn’t even the illusion of reconciling the men’s and women’s educational policies. I’m going to pretend I didn’t go to law school for a minute and ignore the fact that this makes the (W)NBA an illegal monopoly (in addition to sexist), but there’s still a ton here to bark at.
After completing 1 year of college, potentially at the age of 18 or 19, a male first year player in the NBA earned a minimum of $473,604 for the 2010-2011 full season, according to InsideHoops.com. Conversely, after completing 4 years of college, at the minimum age of 22, a female first year player in the WNBA earned a minimum of $36,570 for the 2011 full season, according to Yahoo Sports. Since there are only 34 games in a WNBA season as opposed to 82 in a NBA season, let’s use $/game instead: that’s $5,776/game for men and $1,076/game for women. In the words of the immortal Brandon Boyd, “pardon me while I burst, intooooooo flames.” This leaves us with first year male players making five times the amount that first year female players make, and at a much younger age. By the time a male player who went pro at age 18 is in his age-22 season (the first year women are eligible to go pro) he will make a minimum of $915,852 per season, or $11,169/game, according to InsideHoops.com. That figure is about four times (4!) larger than THE MAXIMUM salary that a WNBA player can EVER earn per game (WNBA’s maximum season salary is $101,000, or $2,970/game, according to Yahoo Sports). (W)NBA to female basketball players: “Yeah, you, um, had better get that degree because, well…there really isn’t any money in this.”
Such a policy does not only discriminate against the individual female athletes, but it breeds social harms as well. By upholding this restriction, the (W)NBA is preventing adult women from making decisions that have a direct impact on both their educational and professional futures. It would be another thing entirely if male players were held to the same standard, but to place such a burden on female players only is inexcusably paternalistic. While I may not agree with male players who make the choice to leave college after one year, the NBA has decided to give them the freedom to do so. For now, I’ll simply say that arguing against the NBA’s educational policy for male athletes is beyond the scope of this post, as athletes’ reasons for leaving college prior to graduation are often quite complicated. I do, however, take issue with the policy for males because its inconsistency with the policy for females is illogical. If an 18 year old male can make the choice to leave college and understand both the benefits and consequences, who is the (W)NBA to say that an 18 year old female should be denied that same opportunity? If the (W)NBA is trying to foster maturity and well-roundedness among female athletes (as they say, especially former WNBA President Val Ackerman), then why not have the same policy for males? The (W)NBA either feels that female athletes need more experience than males before turning pro or it feels that female athletes need more career flexibility because they earn smaller paychecks. Whichever it may be, the policy is sexist and its results are questionable if the ultimate goal is to empower women. A salary of $36,570 is hardly enough for a person to live on in any metropolitan area (where most WNBA teams are located). Empowerment? Doesn’t sound like it to me.
Finally, as I said earlier, one of my main gripes with the NCAA system is that the association profits by exploiting the athletic prowess of the student-athletes. The amount of money earned by the NCAA (and member schools) annually greatly exceeds the amount of money given out in scholarships. For a male athlete who can earn a large payday after merely one year of generating revenue for the NCAA and his school, this may seem like a fair trade – 1 year of service to the NCAA in exchange for 1 year of free classes and a lifetime of financial comfort. For a female athlete who must spend 4 years generating revenue for the NCAA before receiving a much smaller payday in the WNBA, however, this can be genuinely exploitative. Not only will she earn less money over the course of her professional career than her male counterpart, but the female basketball player also has three fewer years of earning potential. While the NCAA claims it does not exploit student-athletes, it is plain that in many cases the association is benefitting from the players’ talents more than the players themselves. All student-athletes make sacrifices on the road to turning pro, but those sacrifices come with fewer benefits down the line for female athletes, specifically basketball players.
The common argument put forth by apologists of this system basically states that the WNBA does not generate as much revenue as the NBA and the marketability of the players dictates the earning potential; therefore the players are paid what they are worth to the sport on the whole. WNBA players are not as marketable; therefore they earn less money per game. Well, why is that exactly? When was the last time you saw an advertisement for a WNBA game? Here’s a fun game: name one player on the WNBA team closest to your geographic location. Want to learn a little more about WNBA players? Head over to ESPN.com and check out the WNBA page…oh…wait ::7 minutes elapse:: there it is! Now let’s look at some player biographies. I’m clicking on the player’s name, but nothing is happening. Oh, that’s right. There are no player bios for the WNBA athletes. Silly me. So is it really any wonder why the WNBA does not generate as much revenue as the NBA? When it comes to sports’ popularity, access and success will always go hand in hand, so the NBA’s neglect of the WNBA along with major news outlets’ reluctance to cover it make lack of interest an inevitability. As Sara pointed out in Tuesday’s post: THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO WANT TO FOLLOW WOMEN’S BASKETBALL. The problem is that it isn’t always very easy to follow, and we don’t like to work very hard for our sports.
The “Don Imus” Problem
It would be difficult for me to write a post about women’s basketball without mentioning that lovely fellow Don Imus. Actually rather than being lovely, he is quite repugnant, but I digress. On April 4, 2007 while moderating a discussion about the upcoming NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship game between Rutgers and Tennessee, Imus referred to the primarily African-American roster of Rutgers as “nappy headed hos” because they were muscular and had tattoos. This was in comparison to the women who played for the Tennessee squad, who, according to Imus, “all looked cute.” Imus was rightfully fired by CBS after making these comments. Imus is a racist – people have known this for years – but he is clearly also a sexist. The Tennessee squad that he referred to as “cute” was also primarily comprised of African-American women (including Candace Parker – remember that name) but the women on the Lady Volunteers, at least according to Imus, conformed to societal standards of female beauty. Namely, they were not muscular, didn’t have tattoos, and he found them attractive. You know, everything we all look for in on-court performance ::rolls eyes so hard that surgery is required::
So how many obstacles must a female college basketball player traverse before achieving the goal of playing the game for a living? For starters, she must possess superb talent. According to the NCAA, only 342 females in Division I basketball (the most competitive and the only division that feeds the WNBA) receive athletic scholarships nationwide, so roster spots are not easy to come by. Then, she must spend at least four years at the institution, while her male counterparts may leave after one. If she is fortunate enough to be selected in the WNBA draft, she will make significantly less than her male counterparts playing at the same level, and her ceiling isn’t even glass – it’s practically granite. Oh, and her only chance of gaining any semblance of mainstream popularity relative to other professional athletes is if she also looks “cute.” Perhaps at 6’8” 210lbs. with a few tattoos and a punching incident to her credit, Brittney Griner is not considered as “beautiful” and “wholesome” as Candace Parker, but damn she can ball. To me, that’s all that counts. My hope is that sooner, rather than later, that’s all that counts to anyone else as well.