When Canelli posted about this yesterday, I wasn’t surprised that this sort of thing now exists here in the States. And I wasn’t really surprised by Canelli’s reaction nor the tone of the article. I did find this a little over the top, though:
Everyone participating in this niche system, which is really a pretty unsettling microcosm of American industry/culture, is too busy swimming in its waters to question their source of life.
I don’t want to get at the water business. Instead, I want to tackle the use of the terms “niche system,” “unsettling microcosm,” and “American industry/culture.” These are wholly unwarranted terms that reveal Canelli’s incredibly narrow Philly-sports-centric “world view.”
No, no, I’m kidding. This isn’t about Canelli. For-reals talk: Canelli’s reaction is exactly what I would expect from every American sports writer and TV personality. No, this is about American exceptionalism and anti-socialism.
First, those three terms that pretty much any American would use to describe this most obvious polluting and corrupting of our most virginal sports youth are utter bullshit. Europe and Brazil have been doing this very same thing with soccer for, fuck, who knows how long. Amanda and I saw this firsthand when we were in London back in the spring: West Ham United is famous for having one of the best “football academies” in the UK. (And that’s only one link for West Ham. Just google “West Ham Football Academy” and you’ll see their network is quite extensive.) There’s a whole set of global labor rules, instituted by FIFA, that rules how contracts for players aged 16-18 work (scroll through, you’ll find them). The rest of the world has been doing this for decades. So this is neither niche, a microcosm of anything, nor anything specific to “American” industry/culture.
No, what’s happening here is that the US is finally figuring out how to get into the game (albeit via a different sport). Christ, that is the most American thing: innovations anywhere else in the world don’t count until they spring up on our own soil. Our boy Otto Lilienthal knows what I’m talking about here.
“Okay, that covers American exceptionalism, but what about anti-socialism?”
Alright, so just because the US is finally getting on board with the idea of sports academies doesn’t mean things are going to be all that different (from an economic point of view). See, it’s all about what is and isn’t a vocation. Pretty much everywhere else in the world, playing a sport is seen to be as much a vocation as practicing carpentry or being an electrician. Here in the US, playing a sport is seen more as “a bunch of grown men playing a kids’ game for a living.” So why should we legitimize athletes as tradesmen who go around the country practicing their vocation? Like the rest of the world.
Oh, that’s right: because wherever you have a bunch of trades people in one place, they’re always going to band together and form a union. Early 20th Century American history is basically the bloody story of labor’s struggle to unionize against capital. And while it looks like labor won out in the middle of the century, that’s certainly not the case today. Labor unions have lost a lot of ground and are under active attack today: public servant unions in Wisconsin, the teachers union in Seattle, right-to-work laws in half the states, stagnant minimum wages, etc.
Professional sports in the US have unionized. Professional athletes in the big five (football, baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey) enjoy collective bargaining. But that’s where the similarities to the rest of the world end. Here in the US, you have to make it all the way to the top before you can join the union. It’s the reward for a life spent perfecting one’s skill at playing a kids’ game, right? But what about people trying to get there? They can’t unionize. There isn’t a college football union. There’s nothing in place to protect college (and high school) players from exploitation, shady managers, no protection in case they suffer long-term injury. Players are subject to a collegiate system that works to keep them impoverished so that the players continue to provide “free” labor for our sports entertainment. The collegiate system does this by classifying the athletes as “students” and not “trades people.” Because if they’re not viewed as trades people, they can’t organize to protect their own interests.
“Alright then, bring this back to IMG.”
Right. Americans are slowly dawning on the possibility of making even more money off the backs of young athletes by adopting the idea (from other countries) of sports academies. The difference here, however, is that we’re still not considering these athletes as trades people who have inherent rights to organize and collectively bargain for their own interests. And without the vocational classification, there are no regulations determining what these American sports academies can and cannot do. There are no professional protections, no governmental licensing, nothing. The only thing they’re really beholden to are the states’ educational accreditation rules. And it is in their best interest to perpetuate the myth of the “student-athlete” so that those are the only rules they must comply with.
So, in summary, Americans need to realize that the idea or existence of a high school sports academy is:
- not anything close to an “innovation”;
- not a deeper reflection of anything “specifically American”;
- not an affront to everything “pure” about their sports entertainment.