Review of Sport and the Neoliberal University

King-White, Ryan, ed. Sport and the Neoliberal University: Profit, Politics, and Pedagogy. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2018. Pp. 242. Notes, index, and 3 figures. $37.95 paperback, EPUB, and PDF. $34.95 Kindle.

Reviewed by Jorge Iber

Given California Governor Gavin Newsom recently signing the Fair Pay to Play Act into law, a review of Ryan King-White’s anthology, Sport and the Neoliberal University is indeed timely. The question of whether collegiate athletes should be allowed to make money for the use of their names and pictures, and the NCAA’s reaction to this legislation, is certainly a hot-button issue that will have ramifications throughout the nation. If some company wants to pay to use the likeness of a USC quarterback or receiver in a television commercial or video game, should that player not be entitled to whatever compensation both parties agree is fair? California (starting in 2023) says yes, and the folks in the Pac12, SEC, Big XII, ACC, and Big Ten (and perhaps even some of the non-power five conferences; think about Ja Morant from Murray State, for example) are going to have to confront the issue sooner rather than later. If Chris Beard (head basketball coach at Texas Tech University) and Nick Saban can make millions off their coaching, commercials, and likeness, why should Jarrett Culver and Tua Tagovailoa not be able to profit at least from the utilization of their images? This is not the same thing as athletes being paid to play directly by the various schools, rather it is an opportunity for such individuals to earn money if corporations are willing to pay them to use their likeness, even while they are in college. 

Rutgers University Press, 2018.

Anyone familiar with the study of sport at an academic or even a popular perspective has, no doubt, confronted literature that deals with many of the topics covered in this work. The manuscript is divided into two broad sections, one covering “ongoing” problems; government funding of schools (focusing on the University of Wisconsin), rape culture (the Jameis Winston incident at Florida State University), lack of institutional control over powerful coaches (exemplified by the horrid situation at Penn State with Jerry Sandusky), the impact of shifting conferences (the University of Maryland’s move out of the ACC into the Big Ten), and why athletes should be paid to play (not just as in the Fair Pay to Play Act noted above). The second section deals with what King-White describes as “emerging concerns.” Among the issues covered here are the NCAA’s manipulation of statistics concerning graduation rates, the total elimination of competitive team sports at smaller institutions (with Spellman College as the test case presented in the article), the recruitment of international athletes, private recruitment efforts, and the utilization of consulting firms to eliminate certain programs (with the “promise” that the monies used to fund those programs will go back to the university’s academic mission). The theme that holds these various articles together is that all these trends are influenced by “neoliberalism,” as this economic system has created the scenario in which collegiate athletics is a contested terrain between “public and private interests.” 

This reviewer tends to agree, on-the-whole, with King-White’s and his colleagues’ assessments on both counts; though there are questions left unanswered. While it is not possible to engage directly with every single article in this collection in a short review, it is fair to state that all the articles contained in the anthology are well researched, written, and supported. In order to provide readers with an overview of the total work, the following discussion engages with the most successful essays in the book’s two broad sections. In the “ongoing problems” portion, the essay by Hawzen, Anderson, and Newman on rape culture at FSU is highly effective.  In the “emerging concerns” portion, the Southall and Southall piece on “academic success” works well.

As a native of the state of Florida, and a long-distance fan of the Seminoles for most of my youth, the essay on Jameis Winston was quite disturbing, as well as highly effective in supporting the anthology’s themes. As Bobby Bowden built the Seminoles into a major power starting in the 1970s, FSU has always had its share of “issues,” with athletes not “follow[ing] rules” and creating “issues” for the institution. The Jimbo Fisher era was no different, though the Winston case took things to a more disturbing level. As Hawzen et.al. note, this was a situation that involved both the university and local authorities. It certainly appeared that many important questions were overlooked, if not completely swept under the rug, in order to make it possible for Winston to continue quarterbacking the Seminoles toward a national title. While the university certainly felt pressured to make it possible for the football team to continue to play at a high level (in other words, make is possible for the stadium to continue to fill up each Saturday), did administrators (and Leon County authorities) not have a similar responsibility toward its general (in this case, toward its female) student population? Certainly not a comforting feeling for parents to hear platitudes about “female empowerment” from administrators at FSU when blatant abuse of women was (seemingly) allowed to go unpunished.  This was not the only incident involving Winston during his time in Tallahassee. How much money does FSU make from all the students who are attending to get an education versus how much income is generated by the athletic department? While certainly both are important, it is not appropriate for the former to overwhelm the latter. This may sound quite naïve, but it is an issue that should be confronted. Yes, there are alumni who contribute to the university exclusively based on athletic success, but there are also many who donate to the true “mission” of the school – the dissemination of knowledge. Certainly, a better balance needs to be struck.             

In the “emerging concerns” portion of the text, the research by Southall and Southall provides a biting critique of the NCAA’s manipulations of “academic success.” How many athletes attend schools to get a degree, while how many sign up merely as a mechanism to “try out” for the pros? Frankly, and this is not meant as any disparagement, did Zion Williamson choose to attend Duke due to its excellent academic reputation, or merely because it is a basketball powerhouse where he could showcase his talents before the broadest audiences both in person and on television? While Williamson is certainly an athletic anomaly and is now going on to earn millions in the NBA and through endorsement deals, what about athletes who attend college with great dreams of “going pro,” and then do not make it in the NBA or even in overseas’ leagues? What is the NCAA’s responsibility to truthfully advertise the value of attending college as a student-athlete? Might it not be wise to stop the charades and develop minor leagues in football and basketball, where athletes who are only interested in pursuing this career path can develop their skills for pay? While athletes in “non-revenue” sports do tend to go to college for both the competition and the academics, would it not be wise to offer those who may not wish to pursue this avenue a choice? Would that not be the “neoliberal/capitalistic” thing to do?

In summary, this anthology raises important questions that university administrators, both inside and outside of athletic departments, need to address. What is the role of sport in the modern university? While some of King-White’s essayists go a bit too overboard in critiquing the interaction between money and sports at the college level (if the business that a contributor runs is legal, should the university not accept the donor’s money?), the rot in many aspects of collegiate sport does need to be addressed. Will universities get rid of varsity competition soon?  Likely not (it is certainly a lot easier to do this at the level of a Spellman College, as noted in one of the essays). But can sports be done “the right way,” with concern for the academic mission, the general student body, the alumni, and student athletes? Yes, it can. How to balance winning in all these areas is the trick. It will require the threading of a needle, no doubt, but it is an effort worth undertaking. Works such as King-White’s anthology certainly present good questions, if not necessarily all (or even realistic) answers. 

Jorge Iber is a Professor of History and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. His area of specialization is the study of Latino/a participation in the history of American sports. He is the author/co-author/editor of nine books. His most recent work, Mike Torrez: A Baseball Biography, is a biography of former Major Leaguer Mike Torrez (he of the pitch to Bucky “Bleeping” Dent in the 1978 playoff game between the Red Sox and Yankees) published by McFarland.

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