Will Unions Save College ‘Student Athletes’ from Poverty?
The 2014 NCAA men’s basketball tournament came to its frantic conclusion on Monday night, with hundreds of millions of dollars in bets, ticket sales, and ad revenue changing hands across the country as young men hurled themselves at each other in desperation on national television. In the end, UConn point guard Shabaaz Napier was basking in the glow of victory, smiling for the cameras with his teammates, which made it easy to forget that he recently expounded on the seedy underbelly of college sports in America.
"I don’t feel student-athletes should get hundreds of thousands of dollars, but like I said, there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I’m starving," he told reporters in late March when asked about the Northwestern University football team’s ongoing effort to unionize.
In case you haven’t noticed, big-time college athletics is a pretty sordid business that rests on the exploitation of the labor of young men and women, many of them from poor backgrounds, under the auspices of the dubious “student-athlete” construct. Supposedly these kids are on campus to learn first and play second, ridiculous one-paragraph essays notwithstanding. But as has been repeatedly pointed out, the universities, coaches, and NCAA brass rake in huge profits each year—college sports is now a multibillion-dollar industry—while the kids who don’t make the pros (or suffer heinous injuries before they have the opportunity) are largely left high and dry.
Fed up with the status quo, the Northwestern Wildcats—a mediocre but widely identifiable Division I football program—filed with the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to form a union and earn legal recognition as employees earlier this year, and, in what is being hailed as a potentially landmark ruling, they won. Now the students are set to vote on April 25 on unionization, and there is at least some chance they will embrace the opportunity, assuming the university overlords don’t scare them away from the idea. With employee status and union bargaining power could come protection for those with athletic scholarships from suddenly being cut off from receiving an education if they became injured or didn’t perform as expected—and maybe, further down the line, they could receive a real share of the cash generated by the massive advertising revenue their athletic endeavors make possible.
JR Smith and America’s Out of Control Love Affair with Drug Testing
JR Smith isn’t like you or me, because he’s very good at basketball—so good, in fact, that he gets a lot of money to play the game for the New York Knicks. Last season he won the sixth man of the year award while burnishing his reputation for being TMZ fodder whenever he stepped off the court. In January, he crudely propositioned a high school student via Twitter with the line, “You trying to get the pipe?“; during the playoffs no less a personage than Rihanna said he partied too much. Previously, he tweeted a photo of “the girl with the biggest ass ever“ lying in his hotel bed (she turned out to be the on-again off-again girlfriend of rapper Joe Budden), and more seriously, back in 2009 he killed his friend in a car accident and spent 30 days in jail for reckless driving.
In a turn of events that came as a surprise to absolutely no one, Smith recently got suspended for five games for failing a drug test (the fourth such test he’s flunked) and violating the NBA’s substance abuse policy. Though what exactly he tested positive for hasn’t been publicly confirmed, the scuttlebutt is that they detected marijuana in his system.
It’s understandable that the league would want to keep its players away from performance enhancing drugs, but why shouldn’t Smith be allowed to smoke weed? He’s not in charge of the nation’s nukes; he just shoots a basketball in front of tens of thousands of people about 80 times a year. But many, many people have to deal with the same kind of intrusive testing he does. Actually, the fact that Smith has to worry about fucking up a drug test is one of the only things he has in common with the majority of non-NBA Americans.
Watch the North Korea Episode of VICE on HBO Right Now, for Free
Chances are, the first time you heard of our HBO show was when news outlets around the world reported that we took Bad-as-I-Wanna-Be NBA Hall-of-Famer Dennis Rodman to North Korea, along with members of the legendary Harlem Globetrotters, to take on the Hermit Kingdom’s national team in a friendly, if entirely absurd, experiment in basketball diplomacy. As you probably know, the enigmatic young ruler of the country, Kim Jong Un, showed up to the game, making us the first American news organization to meet him. It was pretty much the most thrilling thing that could have happened, and when pictures were beamed back to Brooklyn that day, the poured-concrete floors of our offices rippled in cracks and dents as our jaws collectively hit the floor.
Our trip to DPRK is the glorious capstone of the first season of VICE. Here it is, in all its absurd glory.
North Korea Has a Friend in Dennis Rodman and VICE
Earlier today former Chicago Bulls superstar Dennis Rodman presided over a mixed-match basketball game in Pyongyang alongside Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. The teams consisted of VICE correspondent Ryan Duffy; Moose Weekes, Buckets Blakes, and Bull Bullard of the Harlem Globetrotters; and North Korea’s “Dream Team,” all of whom played their hearts out in what we have termed a “basketball diplomacy” mission. Following the game, Rodman gave a stirring speech after the game that extended an olive branch to the Hermit Kingdom. The VICE crew is currently having a reception at the Supreme Leader’s house, and Duffy has invited Kim Jung-un to America and to tour the VICE offices. There isn’t much more to say than that because our jaws are still on the floor. So while we pick them up and get more info from our team, enjoy these photos of the game. You can watch the highlights on VICE, our new HBO series that premieres April 5th.
Photos by Jason Mojica
That’s So Jordan
Normally, there’d be something odd about all of basketball spending NBA All-Star weekend getting all misty, awed, wistful, and click-bait-slideshow-y about the 50th birthday of the man who owns the league’s worst franchise, and who is known as one of the most capricious and nastiest narcissists in sports history. This was not quite one of those Dictator Birthday Spectaculars—150,000 terrified civilians performing choreographed praise semaphore in some totalitarian urinal of a soccer stadium while brainwashed children sing odes to a blank-faced hemorrhoidal birthday-tyrant and the military marches its missiles around for seven hours—but also not totally not that kind of thing. That the 50-year-old in question is Michael Jordan explains a good part of it, naturally: He is the greatest basketball player ever, and that being more or less beyond dispute does not make it something basketball fans are less excited to talk about. But in the decade since Jordan’s last NBA game, talking about His Airness has become a different and stranger thing than it was.
It’s not that Jordan lacked complexity back when he was great and vicious and dazzling as a player. Jordan was known both as an impossible-to-solve athlete who dominated the NBA and a businessman who first crafted and then actually personally became a vanquishment-oriented global luxury brand. He berated and belittled teammates, he gambled and philandered extravagantly and did all the other things that professional athletes do, he coupled his unreal physical grace with heavy anger and gnashing narcissism. Whatever illusions once existed about Michael Jordan not being a warped, rageful asshole—the Ayn Rand ideal of a prime mover come to implausibly elegant and predictably brutal life—were clearly illusions even at the height of his beauty.
This week, David J Roth compares the Lakers to LA, fights on Bravo reality shows, the US Senate, Ocean’s 11 crossed with a Lars von Trier film, and the way we live now. He also points out that Kobe possesses the eyes of a psychotic teddy bear and Steve Nash would rather be listening to Wolf Parade. All that, plus jokes about Cialis packs and Anthony Keidis wearing a dumb hat!
Coaching a youth sports team is a tough task as it is, but it gets much, much harder when the families of the players are dying in a civil war. Tane Spasev, coordinator of the Syrian Basketball Federation’s Youth Basketball Program, learned as much last year. The Macedonian came to Syria just as the protests erupted in March 2011. Tane carried on coaching through the fighting and brought a team of teenage boys to a tournament in Amman, Jordan, in September. I contacted him (he’s back in Macedonia) to ask about what his guys went through.
VICE: Did you worry about the political situation before violence spread throughout the country?
Tane Spasev: When I arrived in June of 2011, the situation in Damascus was no less safe and normal than any other big city in the world. The restaurants were full, shops were working, people were enjoying their everyday lives. The “situation” in Homs, Hama, Daraa, and places like that was distant from us and only on TV. All that changed in December and January when two suicide bombs went off in Damascus. Things were never the same after that.