by Andrew Malan Milward, author of Jayhawker; On History, Home, and Basketball
In 2016 I was hired as an English professor at Auburn University. After the fall semester, I called an old writing buddy of mine to catch up. I liked the town and university very much, but I also tried to tell my friend how crazy the football fandom was in Auburn. He listened to me talk about the flotillas of RVs that started arriving to tailgate on Wednesdays before home football Saturdays and how the town’s population doubled on gameday because so many people came in from out of town for the game. He listened to me talk about the millions of dollars that were just spent to give Jordan-Hare Stadium the largest Jumbotron in the country and how head coach Gus Malzahn seemed to get a lucrative contract extension after every win and then would suddenly be on the hot seat after every loss. My friend listened to this and much more and when I was finished, his response was: “So, basically, you work at a shell company for a professional football team.” I laughed because it was a funny joke, but it was the kind of laugh that caught in my throat because I knew there was some serious truth in what he had said.
I know something about sports fandom. I was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and I was raised in Lawrence, Kansas, so I was geographically predisposed to be obsessed by basketball. UK and KU are the two winningest college basketball teams in the history of the sport, which means I come from places where lunatic fandom for the men’s basketball team is the norm. And, indeed, I am a fan, a real sports junky whose spirits and moods have a direct correlation to the rise and fall of the winning percentage of teams I adore, and there’s no team I adore more than the University of Kansas men’s basketball team. Given the amount of time I devote to watching, thinking, and writing about sports, I could easily add Fan to my business card next to Writer and Professor.
At present, like many KU fans, I’m both excited for the start of the new season but also anxious about the future. The ongoing and unfolding scandal surrounding the University of Kansas men’s basketball team and its relationship with Adidas is real, and while we wait to learn the full fallout from the NCAA’s recent Notice of Allegations it seems likely that there will be serious repercussions. Scandals of this sort, of course, are nothing new, and none but the most naïve onlookers wearing rose-colored specs should be surprised that they have happened and will continue to happen because players have been receiving so-called improper benefits forever. Wilt Chamberlain, the greatest player ever to don the crimson and blue, talked openly in his autobiography about how KU boosters paid him to come to Lawrence. He was, and is, not alone, and neither is KU. It’s not a question of whether it’s happening; it’s a question of how it happens, who gets caught, and how badly they will be punished.
Perhaps that sounds cynical, but I think it’s just the logical and predictable outcome of a situation in which, to borrow my friend’s pithy turn of phrase, we’ve let universities turn into shell companies for professional sports teams. There’s simply too much money involved for this game to be uncorrupted and ‘pure,’ the way some fans want to believe it is, and the way the NCAA certainly wants us to continue thinking it is. The role of money and worry over its potential to corrupt the game is nothing new, I should say. It goes back nearly to the beginning of the sport. In 1911, James Naismith, the inventor of the game and KU’s first coach, gave a speech that was transcribed and published as an article titled “Commercialism in Sports” for the Graduate Magazine of the University of Kansas. It is a well-written and carefully argued polemic about the “insidious growth of commercialism” and its ability to “destroy one of the greatest forces of education.” Naismith believed, correctly I think, that commercialism leads to over-training and the breaking down of athletes’ bodies, it makes work of sport and turns it into a spectacle instead of recreation, it puts the emphasis on winning instead of enjoyment and personal development and thus encourages breaking the rules and stimulates betting. He also thought it leads to “worship of the dollar” and “class distinction, for when a man is paid for his services in athletics he is on a different level from the man who buys him.”
Over one hundred years after Naismith gave this Cassandra-like warning about commercialism, I imagine him going absolutely centrifugal in his grave right now, given the current landscape of sports, particularly basketball and football, in universities. As William J. Baker writes in his introduction to Naismith’s book, Basketball: Its Origin and Development, “Whatever its later commercial developments, basketball was made for principled play, not for profit…. Naismith designed his new game for athletes to enjoy, not for coaches, television networks, or corporate sponsors to control.”
Naismith’s star pupil and successor as KU’s coach, Phog Allen, however, was quick to realize the monetizing potential of the game. One of the issues he and Naismith clashed over was whether tickets should be sold for KU games, which had quickly become quite popular in the years after Naismith brought the sport with him to Kansas from Massachusetts. Rob Rains writes in his biography of Naismith, James Naismith: The Man Who Invented Basketball, that “Allen wanted to use the strong interest in basketball that was developing on campus to generate as many sold tickets as possible, while Naismith considered selling tickets an exploitation of the student athletes. Allen argued that bringing money into the university through the sale of basketball tickets would benefit the other university sports as well.” Of course, ultimately, Phog’s opinion won out. Money has a way of making that happen.
I think they were both right, at least in theory. And yet, selling 10-cent tickets for admission to a game isn’t exactly on the same scale as earning hundreds of millions of dollars in sponsorship deals and television contacts. How we got from there to here is a longer, much more complicated story than I’m capable of telling here, but in short it has a lot to do with the growth of American business after World War II and the commodification of so many aspects of our lives theretofore unknown. However, it also has to do with the growth and popularity of the game. That is to say, it has a lot to do with us and our intense fandom that demands winning and thus incentivizes massaging, bending, and sometimes breaking the rules. (Whether we think those rules are sensible or foolish is another matter altogether). We should remember this when the penalties come down on our beloved Jayhawks and we’re sad and angry and eager to cast blame. Here are my own thoughts on that matter: the players certainly aren’t to blame, even the ones who knowingly accepted money. The coaches and shoe companies, sure. The agents and the NCAA, you bet. But so am I and people like me, the fans who love the game all out of proportion. We are all complicit in this scandal and we should be part of finding a solution.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but our love and demand for the game has created a mighty big and lucrative pie, so it seems sensible to let players have some of it, not just coaches, universities, and the NCAA. We should allow players to profit on their name, image, and likeness, allow them to have a job or profit on their abilities the same way every other college student can, and we can provide all players, from stars to the last person on the bench, with a modest monthly living stipend and lifetime academic scholarships.
Thankfully we are finally starting to see movement on some of these issues. If nothing else good comes from the scandal, perhaps it will have at least pushed the conversation forward and helped usher in necessary changes. I think that’s something all of us fans should cheer for.
Andrew Malan Milward was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and raised in Lawrence, Kansas. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is the author of two short story collections, The Agriculture Hall of Fame and I Was a Revolutionary. His fiction has appeared in many venues, including Zoetrope, American Short Fiction, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Southern Review, Guernica, and Best New American Voices and has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award. He is an assistant professor of English at the University of Kentucky.