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Protests, profits, and health problems: When sports and society collide

Lindsey Scullen
Michigan Radio

Monday night’s Issues & Ale event dove into the complicated world of sports – where players kneel during the national anthem, college students get payoffs, and misinformation swells around concussions and other injuries.

Doug Tribou, Michigan Radio’s Morning Edition host, played captain for the night and hosted the event at Zingerman's Greyline in Ann Arbor. Panelists included:

  • Jimmy King, a member of the University of Michigan’s legendary Fab Five team, a former NBA player, and vice president of TruChampions, a group that helps students transition academically from high school to college with tutoring and coaching
  • Joanne C. Gerstner, an author and sports journalist in residence at Michigan State University
  • John U. Bacon, an author and sports commentator for Michigan Radio

Listen to the full panel conversation above, or read highlights below.

On NFL players who kneel during the national anthem

JOHN U. BACON: I’ve got mixed feelings about the whole thing. My dad’s a patriot, served in the army, my grandfather in the Navy in WWII. When I was coaching the Ann Arbor Huron High School hockey team, we took it very seriously, the anthem.

However, what I find utterly aggravating is when people will criticize these guys and ask, "Well what are you avoiding the anthem for?" They’ve made it very clear what they’re avoiding the anthem for and it’s police brutality against innocent individuals.

And what I admire about this is that ... they’ve got a lot to lose and nothing to gain that I can see, personally, for doing so. So using their platform, which is a rare chance, to speak up for those who cannot do so.

I think the one criticism I can say is … a lack of an end game. What are you shooting for? When does the revolution end, if you will? And obviously, you’re not going to end police brutality overnight. That’s not going to happen. But if they had a spokesman in charge, money to be raised, clinics, courses – whatever – awareness, meetings with law enforcement – 95% of whom, if not much more, understand exactly what they’re talking about and are on their side, I think. If they had that set up, it probably would have ended sooner with more tangible results and I think that’s what’s missing here are tangible results.

JOANNE C. GERSTNER: My dad’s a Vietnam vet. And we just had this conversation two weeks ago that he went to a Veteran’s Day breakfast, was very proud to be with other veterans. And the message they had was: "Protest. Do not go to a Lions game. Do not watch an NFL game. Make them pay."

And I asked him, I said, “But Dad, you fought in our military for the First Amendment.” I mean the thing that I do for a living as a journalist is the First Amendment. And the Supreme Court has already held that burning the American flag, from the 1960s, from Vietnam, is protected speech. I think burning a flag is much more of a violent thing than, you know, standing, sitting, kneeling – whatever permutation – for the anthem.

On protests in sports through history

GERSTNER: One of my joys, being a professor at Michigan State, is talking with my students about the history of sports … and I was saying, you know, we had protests in the Mexico City Olympics – John Carlos and Tommie Smith. Billie Jean King took a stand for what she believed in. You move a little farther, WNBA – they wore hoodies before the men did for Trayvon Martin.... Megan Rapinoe from the U.S. Women’s Olympic soccer team took a knee in all the run-up for the Olympics.

So this is not happening in a vacuum. This is just interestingly ... pointed out at the NFL. And that’s probably more of a sociological thing we can examine rather than an overall sports treatise.

On NCAA athletes’ lack of pay and the Adidas scandal

JIMMY KING: Obviously, the players need some assistance. We all know that. Everybody comes from different economic backgrounds.

Credit Lindsey Scullen / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The night's panel.

The problem has always been that you have a system where you have a multi-billion dollar company that runs and funds leagues. Therefore, how is it not going to cross over to the talent? The leagues don’t transpire, the coaches don’t happen without the players.

The players aren’t stupid. The families aren’t stupid. They’re looking to cash in… 

So, until we just … open up and really discuss the true issues – that who cares about winning a basketball game when I could go home and I can’t eat. So if I can take ten grand from the Adidas guy, I’m going to take the ten grand. So now my family can at least eat for a couple of months. So those are life choices. This is not about integrity, as much as we’d like to make it. But every single one of us in here, if you haven’t been hungry – you’d rather go outside and freeze to death than starve to death, I promise you that.

… And the players get so much more amenities than we did. It’s getting better every year.

…I think as long as we keep the lines of discussion open, which we were kind of shot down for when we first stepped on the scene 25 years ago.

People were like, “Just be happy you’re getting a free ride to college. Shut up and go to school.” But really, again, it’s a slap in the face. It’s like – it’s not a free education. We worked for this. We’re working. I’m in the gym eight hours a day. That’s work. So when I come home, I have to study and do my homework still, and then hopefully have a social life. So while my other counterparts can go to work and have other things that they can supplement for school, I can’t do that.

However, when I step out on that court, the TV is paying you $2 million, but I can’t get a cut of that. And that’s just for today though – for today’s show. So we play two, three times a week.

That was then. I don’t know what the numbers are. But it’s amazing to me that an entity that’s a nonprofit makes billions of dollars, don’t open up their books, and don’t want to pay their employees. Cause basically that’s what they are.

DOUG TRIBOU: And for a little perspective, when Jimmy was playing before the Fab Five took the court, I think the numbers for Michigan merchandising was in the neighborhood of like about $2 million.

When the Fab Five hit the court and started getting national attention, it jumped to $10 million. That’s in like two or three years. And that number continued to skyrocket. In today’s dollars, that would be  [big] money.

KING: I don’t know what that magic number is. I just know that if the players, the students… when you walk into a facility… that’s just built, and you’re walking back and forth to school and you don’t have a car. You barely got a coat, got holes in your shoes, but you’re help building up this facility, you can’t help but feel, not entitled, but feel like you earned something.

So it’s only fair that when you go from the study table to your sport, to practice, that you’re fed well, that you’re at least warm, that you have, you know, a standard of living, because really – and if we really want to be honest about this – what that’s teaching you is that when you become a CEO that you can treat your employees like shit.

GERSTNER: I also want to bring in, you know, there is the misconception that anyone that plays collegiate athletics is there on a full ride. There's a lot of people that are competing on half rides, quarter rides, whatever, so they’re going through everything that you went through, but they don’t even have the benefit of their education being fully paid for.

Credit Lindsey Scullen / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Audience members asked questions of the panel during the second half of the event.

And I teach athletes all the time that are in other … you know, as we politely put it, the Olympic sports, so the soccers, the cross countrys, the rowings – you know, things that you cannot necessarily go professional in.

They’re wrecked. I mean, they’re exhausted, they’re practicing, they’re going to school. They can’t go get another job waitressing or Ubering, or delivering for Insomnia Cookies or whatever...

So the situation [Jimmy] had, as crappy as it was, was the best you could get. There were people that had much lower deals. And especially when you get into women’s athletics – oh, well the women don’t make any money. So be happy that you’re here.

So it’s a much more complicated mess … you know, there’s a lot of people suffering out there and I worry about the athletes when I see that they’re bruised and battered and exhausted, and then, God forbid, they get a season-ending injury and they can’t come back, bu-bye. Your healthcare is gone. I mean, you’re almost like excommunicated from the family. And I don’t want to be dramatic about it, but either you’re in or you’re out. And, so there’s a lot more nuance to this situation…”

On concussion treatment in sports

GERSTNER: It’s the brain – the most complex part of your body… we’re four human beings, the same organic chemistry, but our brains are very different in how we respond. And did someone have ADHD? Did someone have depression? Did someone have existing issues?

…This is not a yes or no, red light, green light; your arm is broken, your arm is not broken. It’s very individualized. Every concussion is unique. The joke is if you’ve seen one concussion, you’ve seen one concussion. So every single one needs to be treated seriously.

…We need to take this incredibly seriously, but not so far over the edge that we declare every person that has a concussion to be somewhat of a scarlet red letter, because every person that has a concussion – it lasts for seven to ten days, and then they heal.

What happens afterwards is a totally different clinical condition called “post-concussive syndrome,” and some people have it, some people don’t. But guess what? It’s medically treatable. It’s medically treatable.

So having an infrastructure where there are athletic trainers who are certified, where there are sports neurologists, where athletes feel empowered to admit that they’re hurt and not lose their scholarship or their spot – those are all in play. So, we’re getting better, but we have a long way to go.

On what coaches should say to students and their families about potential risks versus advantages of playing sports

Michelle, an audience member, introduced this topic during the Q&A section of the night.

BACON: The sports are … much, much safer now than they were even ten years ago. It’s not even close … so that’s one thing right there. Let’s get that out there.

Second of all, Title IX is the Educational Amendments Act … it’s a paragraph long. Not anywhere in there is there the word “athletics” anywhere in that paragraph. And yet, we’ve applied it to athletics, as well as other things, because of a simple belief that goes back a hundred years and Fielding Yost espoused this, and I believe this: Sports can teach you things, properly coached, the classroom never will.

And in the classroom, by the way, it’s every man or woman for themselves. You decide … how hard you want to work, and so on. On a team you don’t have that option. And I believe the real world far more closely resembles a team environment than it does the classroom.

For information on other Issues & Ale events, click here.