Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Nannification of America and How It Relates To College Football

We've become a nanny state, but not because of our government.

Ever notice how everyone around college athletics calls college players "kids?" The Oklahoma State coach's rant from a couple weeks ago is the best case in point:

He uses the words "kid" and "child" repeatedly to describe the player on his team in the newspaper article. Calling them "kids" is partly because of the aforementioned nannification, the other part is more insidious and I'll get to that last, as that is the main point of the post.

Let's start with the obvious fact that not all college football players are 18 years old. Chris Weinke was 27 when Florida State won their last national title. He had skipped college and tried to play baseball, that went nowhere so he went back and played college ball. Yet if you google for "Chris Weinke kid", you'll get about 4,000 hits.

Even if they're 18, what's up with this "kid" label? 18 year olds can go to war. They can vote. They are tried as adults in court and have passed the age of consent for sex.

I assert that a large part of this is nannification. Our society's parents have started coddling their children until they are long past the age where they should be considered adults. We let them live at home until 30. We buy them houses while they're in college, or after that. Or, in the case of this player at Oklahoma State, his mother was hand-feeding him chicken (which is what the newspaper article mentioned as the incident that made other players think that guy was a bit childish).

What drives the nannification? Is it because college has become the new high school? Almost everyone goes to college, and now that everyone goes to college, less leave there with real job skills or higher education than previously. That might be part of it.

What really pushes the nannification of America, I suspect, is commercialism. Advertisers push the idea that adults are supposed to live carefree like they're 8 year olds. Watch any commercial, ever, and this is almost always the angle that makes the product appealing to adults. Eventually this is in the public consciousness and parents begin believing their adult children should live this way.

Marketers are doing this because their objective is to allow adults to have expendable income for as long as possible. They have now created a generation gap of expendable income that wasn't there when people used to go off and have children at 18 or 20 years old. Makes sense, after all, what's sexier economically: a 25 year old that rents a shoebox apartment and spends all his cash on Xbox, football and beer and accrues lots of debt, or a sober 25 year old that is paying a low rate mortgage in the suburbs and raising a family with little debt? I don't blame marketers for targeting the former, now it's up to the public to not fall into that trap.

Which brings to the insidious part of college sports pundits always using the word "kid" to describe a college player. This is again a marketing ploy. The reason they do this is they want to drive home the concept that collegiate athletics are amateur sports. They don't want you to think of college sports as a professional endeavor when in fact, the two are almost indistinguishable. College sports are no different than the pros in all respects except one... guess which one:

  • Team owners get paid millions from TV rights and merchandising

  • Coaches get paid millions

  • Fans spend millions on tickets and merchandise

  • Millions gets spent on the stadium, parking, etc.
  • Players get paid a salary.

If you guessed #5 is the difference, you're technically correct. Players don't get paid in college sports. We all know that boosters take care of these guys while they're in college. And even without those extra ... ahem ... perks, they get free room and board, a free education, and get to be BMOC.

But they don't get paid competitive salaries, they don't get to be free agents or negotiate their pay with their bosses. If a college player plays for the best team, he gets no better treatment than the worst team except for the promise of a pro career later. That is the smokescreen subversively driven home by the term "kids". The perception you're supposed to get is exactly that: they're just kids, going to school for an education, playing for the love of the game.

In truth, the entire pipeline of college football players is artificially created. The pro football league has banned college players until they are 21. So they have no choice but to be part of this charade. This did not used to be the case with pro basketball, but the NBA has now instituted a rule that players have to be a year out of high school before joining the pros. Baseball and hockey are the only true market-based major sports, where players can join when they're 18.

And while college players begrudgingly have to be part of this, the guys in the front office are making insane money. Charlie Weiss, coach of Notre Dame, makes between $3m-$4m a year. You know how much Notre Dame's TV contract is with NBC to air 6 ND home games? At least $9m a year. And that's one team! There are 118 other teams in Division I-A football, and most of the TV money is shared on the conference level. Then there are bowl games. The Rose Bowl pays about $15m to the winning school.

One player tried to buck the trend and was quickly shut down: Maurice Clarett. He tried to go pro after just one year in college and spent another year unsuccessfully challenging the NFL in court. Now he's in jail. I'm not saying he's a good guy, but his story will deter many generations to come from challenging the NFL's rule, thus keeping the "kids" in the midst of the scam of unpaid college athletics. Don't forget, it's all really about the academics.

Anyway, just a few thoughts for you the next time you hear someone call college players "kids." Years of listening to it has made it so ingrained in my brain that I find myself slip sometimes.... hopefully the annoyance about it I've felt while writing this will right me.

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