One of my earliest memories is of a burned-down Wendy's. My dad was a regional manager and had to take me because, through some confluence of parental circumstances, he ended up a.) alone with me without my mom around, and b.) because a restaurant burned down at four in the morning, and he had to go look at it. Why he had to go look at it, I don't know. He didn't need to double-check it. It was very, very burnt down, just like the fire department said it was.
This is my roundabout way of saying that my dad worked at Wendy's. He worked there when I was born, and when I was small enough to be photographed wearing a Wendy's hat and sleeping in his lap, and for a few years after that, too. He's asleep in most of those photos. I don't remember what he made or what we drove or how much the rent was, because kids don't remember those things, and that's probably a good thing. My mom would tell me about weeks when she had 15 bucks for groceries and had to make it work.
I was conceived through the pill and thrown into the lap of an 18-year-old and 19-year-old. There was no backup, no help on the way, and nothing on the horizon but time and bills. We were broke.
Hi, this is college football, America's second most popular sport and the only league that does not pay its players a living wage. Instead, the players are given credits at an institution of learning and some cash for expenses along the way. Once they sign with these institutions, leaving them to play elsewhere is difficult — this, despite other attendees of those institutions having free reign to transfer between schools as they like. The agreement can be year-to-year, or it can run for a term of four years, but this depends primarily on attending classes and getting along with your coach.
At the end of that term, that player might have helped make the university a lot of money. The University of Texas athletic department, the nation's most profitable program in 2014, earned $74 million in profit. The profits came from television money (the team has its own cable network, which constantly features players), memorabilia and jerseys and other branded merchandise (which the players do not see a dollar from), and the sale of tickets to games. The main driver behind all of this is, for the most part, football.
For their efforts, players have few guarantees. They can be placed on a medical scholarship or outright cut for lack of performance, depending on the school. They can be told that they will be a quarterback, only to show up at camp and be given a defensive playbook and a safety's gear. The practice schedule for football often restricts what classes they may take, thus limiting their majors (if they're interested in getting a degree, that is). Players there strictly for football gravitate towards easier majors sometimes openly designated as academic holding pens for football cattle in between drives to the practice field and back.
There may be some benefits to the job not mentioned in the brochure, sure. Cash has a way of finding pockets, either via the golden handshake from a booster's middleman or an easy side job or two. It is never as much as people think, and usually doled out sparingly, but it's there. Players may get drink specials at bars others don't get, or find themselves privy to a whole host of hookups no one else has. In some places, they may have a special status with local law enforcement. Failing that, they may even get specialized legal counsel when trouble with the law rears its head.
Don't judge any of this. I really don't want you to, because this is an anatomy, and anatomies don't have morality. They just work in a certain way. The part I want you to know about this particular anatomy is what it runs on, and what feeds its muscles and bones and the very mitochondria in its cells: football players, an unending cycle of fresh, healthy, and undestroyed bodies through the system. Those bodies are converted in one form or another into money.
My family didn't stay broke. It turns out very few people can work for sustained periods in the fast food business without suffering some kind of grand mal seizure or Deep Fryer Madness. Employees disappear. Trucks don't show up. Things catch on fire all the time: the deep fryers, the grills, customers, employees, the ductwork, whole restaurants. The hours are miserable, the pay sucks, and the travel between stores for managers was heinous. There are robberies, the stupidest kind in the world, when someone decides to shoot a night manager over 50 bucks and orphan a couple of kids in the process. (The thought of my dad dying in an alternate timeline robbery terrified me for much of my childhood, even after he got out of the kind of jobs where he would be there, late at night with cash in his hand nearly alone in a well-lit aquarium somewhere in the exurban South.)
My father was one of those rare mutants who could withstand prolonged exposures to the fast-food industry. I suspect it was his ADD or the blind panic of having children to feed, but it worked for him. He got into management. He grabbed some kind of heating rod over a grill that was approximately 8,000 degrees or so and got a weird scar on his hand. He got an office and had a bookshelf with Og Mandino books and a Leroy Neiman print of Jack Nicklaus on the wall.
I imagine he had to sell people on a system. That system was that you worked and followed the grill protocols and the company manual and you did that for next to nothing, wage-wise, in hope that you would one day be the person selling others on this. Then you would be gone from Monday to Friday every week, driving from Nashville to Atlanta or from Atlanta to Nashville. He couldn't really turn that off when he got home, either, switching straight from yelling at people to get kitchens to pass health inspection to yelling at us to clean our kitchen, move, get out of the house, to go look at cars we couldn't afford or could barely afford. He came off the road but never really took his foot off the pedal. Sometimes he'd watch a golf tournament and fall asleep on the couch. Otherwise, he was in motion.
I want to say that I don't remember the strained moments, but I do. I remember the look on my mom's face when my sister, at the age of three, decided to help out and fill up the car at the gas station. The gas station was at our house, the gas pump was the water hose, and the car was a battered, used Audi with a gas tank filled with water. I remember asking for things and that flash coming over the faces of my parents, a kind of shift behind the eyes and slackening of the face I confused for anger at my greedy, elementary school-aged self.
It wasn't that. It was the look of someone being asked for things that they couldn't immediately provide. I remember moving into a house in Georgia and noticing we, for some reason, had adopted a suddenly minimalist approach to interior decorating. Years later, my mom would explain the concept of being "house-poor," i.e. where you couldn't afford the furniture to fill up the house you bought, and had to cut other things in your life just to make your mortgage. That house was the case study.
We didn't stay broke, but we didn't stay in money for long. After a few years and another kid and a transfer, my dad lost his job. There's a box of stuff he got from it that scuttled around our various houses for a decade or two. There were some operating manuals in three-ring binders, the Leroy Neiman print propped on its side in it, and some chunk of glass carved into a triangular award. The past is full of inscrutable and abandoned corporate awards shed like scales into the cardboard boxes of the laid-off.
We had money, and lost it. We were broke again.
The people who play college football come from all over the country, but a huge chunk of them come from poverty. This sentence might be redundant: I could have just said they come from America, where taking a random slice of the populace ensures getting a hearty slice of baseline, struggle-level poverty in your sample size. But it bears repeating here for a lot of reasons, the first and foremost being the motivation to play football in the first place for the poorest people in society: the financial salvation of playing in the NFL.
That number is bigger than any rational observer might guess. Fifty-two percent of all incoming freshmen in football believe it is likely that they will make it to the NFL. To be fair, half of all incoming male freshmen probably believe they could put in six months in the weight room, do some light sprint work, and make it into the NFL, or at least hang onto a spot on on the practice squad. Athletes don't have a monopoly on charming naïveté. Football players are far from the most blindly optimistic — 75% of all incoming college basketball players believe it is likely they will play in the NBA.
The actual number to make it to the NFL is something like 2%. The remaining 98% exist in a system of rules designed to prevent them from making money for anyone but the university. Their own likenesses and rights to sell them transfer to the university on signature of their scholarship agreement. There are limitations on the kinds of jobs they can get, the hours they can work, and the kinds of businesses they can start while under the terms of their scholarship agreements.
Discounting the rest of the student body and just focusing on athletes, a full 85% of players on campus live below the federal poverty line. Per the United States Census, the average number of off-campus college students living under the federal poverty line was 51%. College students aren't generally in a wealth-building stage of life, sure, but there's more than a little evidence that student-athletes are made significantly poorer during the experience of participating in amateur athletics.
When and if they do receive their degree, it might mean even less in terms of real future dollars than those received by their peers. The networking they might have done with others on campus is restricted by their class schedules and practice; the networking with wealthy alumni that might benefit them in business is explicitly forbidden in many instances, something Princeton's own Michael Lewis points out in The Blind Side. The athlete receives no dividend or funds kept in trust for their well-above-average financial contributions to the university on graduation.
By rule they are separated from the income they make, and by system they are separated from the university education they were promised. They are neither amateurs nor professionals, effectively moved as undeclared contraband through the United States tax system.
My parents ran a photo shop for a while. Like most small businesses, we made little to no money. My mom's battered Toyota station wagon refused to die. I suspect debt floated a lot of what we were doing. I remember one day going into my parents' bathroom and seeing a note tacked to the mirror listing financial goals for the next year. One stood out in all caps: PAY OFF DEBT. It was one of those little things you're not supposed to see as a kid, one of the tethers to the balloon that your parents are fighting like hell to keep lashed to the ground.
And even as a kid, you know you're not supposed to see the tax return on the table that listed the income you could look up at the library the next day. The library said that income was definitely not in the top 50th percentile or anywhere close to it. The library kind of wondered how you didn't notice that you were broke, especially when living in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States. The library also wondered why you were checking out Sophie's Choice repeatedly if not for the graphic sex scenes, but sure, it also wondered how you, being an incredibly self-conscious teenager with antenna constantly raised for the faintest slight, weren't aware that you were broke.
As an adult it's terrifyingly easy to retroactively create that feeling. It's the one you live in as a parent, where you wonder how the hell you will feed these people for the next decade and a half and afford the things they need. It's the part of you that knows you will have to explain to them that no, they can't have something, and the reason they can't is your inability to give it to them, rationale and economics be damned. It's the part that realizes that your parents were making it up, too, driven by fear, insomnia, and the brute ugliness of economic survival. They had to take you along for all of it because they had no choice.
When they had the choice, they had to sell the photo shop and pile you into a purple Lincoln Town Car and drive down to Florida when Dad got a new job. They had to buy a house cheap off a divorcing couple. It had stains on the carpet from where neglected dogs had shat and chewed holes in it, a pool, and a shade of yellow everyone else in the neighborhood detested. We bought it cheap because its previous occupants had to do things because they were broke.
For a long while — like, about 10 years — it worked. I left for college. My family moved back to Tennessee and bought things and houses and cars like people who had money. Honestly, that's when they seemed strangest to me, and not just because I'd left home. They had money, the kind of money that left a BMW in the driveway and that paid college tuition for my brother and maybe seemed like something solid enough to think about an absurd, imaginary word: security.
I would visit for holidays and not really know what to do with my hands besides drink the expensive liquor I couldn't afford and sit in the leather chair — Leather! Not naugahyde, but leather, made from luxuriously slaughtered cattle! — and then go back to my studio apartment in Atlanta with the styrofoam we'd taped to the windows as makeshift insulation in the winter.
Note: I can't explain what it is, but something in you, once you're convinced of your own brokeness, believes in nothing but that. I didn't have a fraction of what real, survival-level, street poverty inflicted on people — the real physical danger, the effects on health and cognitive development, the lifelong scars — but I did and always will have the sense of being completely alien from the concept of security, of stability, of deserving anything.
Even a touch of it is toxic. I still don't swipe an ATM card without being relieved when it goes through. I didn't buy a decent piece of furniture until this year, and I turn 40 next year. I still panic every time the gas gauge tells me I'm low on gas, because a part of me still wonders whether I have enough money in the bank to fill up my tank. I probably do now — probably — but the instinct is still there. It's a fire in your brain that never really goes out, but just has varying, constant degrees of smolder. It's the bell that never stops going off. For most of my adult life, I've been convinced I'll be working at a Wendy's next week.
For a second, it felt like my parents might have escaped that, at least for a moment. They had stock portfolios and cash reserves and a house with extra bedrooms and cars. My dad bought a boat. I should have known at the time that was a bad sign, because buying a boat is never a good idea and is an indicator that something has gone wrong in your life, but still: they were boat-buying people, and not the this-boat-was-originally-your-college-fund kind of boat-buying people.
Then their marriage imploded, the recession hit, and the money evaporated in a flash. We had money, and then we were broke again. We never really had it anyway, because that's how this works for almost everyone in the world save a sainted few, and because getting just one inch forward in a shitstorm of continual idiotic human circumstance is nearly impossible.
But in summary: we were, for the moment, after all that, all back to where we started. Broke.
After a weekend of college football spread out over no fewer than four major cable networks, consider the economics of what you just watched. The Power 5 conferences average a total of $1.1 billion in revenue annually, earned because live sports is literally the only thing people have cable television for any more. That total of $1.1 billion equals what is, by huge national measures, a relatively small industry, but it's still $1.1 billion. Take in the refusal to pay actual market value for players, and that small industry has the unique privilege of raking in gigantic marginal profits in some places.
Dismiss every single lie about amateurism. If they come cloaked in this kind of horseshit, throw them into orbit and hope they die the painful, bloodboiling death they deserve. You are under no duty to respect an argument because it comes in with the faux-innocent naivete of those who have the luxury of arguing from the repose of Platonic principle. Oh, but what if we removed the money from amateur athletics? Close a brothel. Just try it, and see how far that gets you. If someone would like to start a policy argument about a contraband economy with the words, "If we just did what we were supposed to," toss them in the nearest well and seal it. They understand nothing about humanity and will get someone killed sooner rather than later.
The materialist argument here is to point to the giant pile of money on one side, and to the people who earn it on the other. There is no surrender via disengagement, since you quitting the sport as a fan, alum, or even as a booster or donor won't do anything but prolong the artificially extended lifespan of amateurism. There isn't a retreat to a past that never existed, or to an incremental series of slightly less miserable payouts in the form of "cost of attendance" raises.
There is money someone earned over here, visibly earned through labor and special talent. There are people over here who have it. Something stands between them.
To extend that point to its logical conclusion: either what is going on is a vast confusion of what constitutes capital or it is theft from every single football player that plays this stupid game to enrich a coach, athletic director, and the university. This is a system that willfully commits one of the greatest insults possible: making someone poorer, then claiming that poverty as a necessary, virtuous, and good thing.
That's a lie, and anyone who's even been broke for a short time knows it. Pay them. Pay them what you owe them. Pay them because the worst American tradition is taking things that aren't yours and calling it destiny or virtue or principle. Pay them because there is no nobility in keeping someone a dollar poorer than they have to be in exchange for honest work. Pay them because any system that deliberately makes people poorer is one of designed cruelty, even at this relatively small scale. Pay them their goddamn money.