Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Exploitation in College Sports?

In my introductory ethics course today we had a debate related to whether or not college athletes are being exploited. To frame the issue, consider the following definitions of exploitation:

“[T]o exploit a person involves the harmful, merely instrumental utilization of him or his capacities, for one's own advantage or for the sake of one's own ends.” (Buchanan 1985, 87).

“Common to all exploitation of one person (B) by another (A)…is that A makes a profit or gain by turning some characteristic of B to his own advantage…exploitation … can occur in morally unsavory forms without harming the exploitee's interests and … despite the exploitee's fully voluntary consent to the exploitative behavior…” (Feinberg 1988, 176-79).

“Exploitation [in exchange] demands…that there is no reasonably eligible alternative [for the exploitee] and that the consideration or advantage received is incommensurate with the price paid. One is not exploited if one is offered what one desperately needs at a fair and reasonable price.” (Benn 1988, 138).

“[A] group is exploited if it has some conditionally feasible alternative under which its members would be better off.” (Roemer 1986, 136).

Given these different takes on what exploitation is, can a case be made that college athletes, at least big time college athletes, are being exploited in one or more of the above senses? As one president of Stanford University put it, big time college athletics "reeks of exploitation" because of the revenue generated for the university from the services of the athletes while many of the athletes gain little from their own college experiences.


Griff said...

I am, of course, reminded here of Kant's famous Formula of Humanity. Roughly put, it says never to use people merely as a means but also at the same time always as ends-in-themselves. Another way of putting it is that we need to go beyond using people as instruments and respect their autonomy or capacity for free, rational choice. (This seems to be consistent with at least a few of the definitions of 'exploitation' Mike listed, though few of them list the positive aspect of the FOH and stick merely with the negative part.)

If one adheres to such a view, one might be inclined to say that college athletes (and perhaps professional athletes as well) are often exploited, insofar as they are treated merely as a means to some end (e.g., making money).

Now, in "Between Consenting Adults," Onora O'Neill argues that neither actual nor hypothetical consent on the part of the agent is enough to ensure that someone is not being treated as a mere means. Rather, what is necessary is the possibility of actually consenting to or dissenting from the fundamental aspects of the proposal (where the agent in question presumably knows and understands these fundamental aspects). Furthermore, to go beyond treating people as mere means is also to respect them as ends-in-themselves. This, for O'Neill, involves displaying a genuine respect for the agent's capacity for rational choice. In some contexts, this involves sharing or helping to promote an agent's ends without thereby taking them over.

It would seem that in the case of many college athletes, both parts of the FOH are being violated. It is unlikely that many athletes have the genuine possibility of consenting to what they are signing up for, insofar as the fundamental aspects of what they're consenting to are not made clear.

On the other hand, it is the case that we use people as a means all the time. And sometimes (e.g., when buying a bottle of wine at the store) respecting the other's autonomy might mean nothing more than treating them with a "proper" amount of respect. (In the case of buying wine, the idea is to treat the cashier politely and with a personal touch.) It might also be the case that in using athletes in the way we do, we are actually promoting their ends and respecting their autonomy, in the sense that a college education may open up opportunities for increased autonomy and the ability to freely pursue their ends.

However, in the end I am doubtful that the argument sketched above is enough to save collegiate organizations from the the charge that they exploit their athletes. Comments?

Jack said...

Mike, From a personal perspective, I have been trying to come to terms with that question, for the last 25 years. I was given a tiny stipend to come to Tennessee - Martin, and ride bulls for its nationaly known rodeo team.

Now bull riding is really a modern gladiater contest. We assume the crowds want to see a thrilling and sucessful ride, but deep down, there is a primitive blood lust to see the bull throw, and stomp the rider.

( Proof of this can be made by observing a prison rodeo. The inmates having no pretensions of civilaty, often chant, Kill Him! Stomp HIM!)

I was injured on several occasions, and though given first aid by college trainers, my parent's insurance had to suffice for serious injuries. The college wanted my services, but offered, or bore no responsablity for my ultimite fate.

Now in my late 40's, I can barely walk or do a full days work. The college still sends only solicatations for an alumni donation.

The only reason I cannot settle the question of my personal exploitation, is my freewill, and agency at the time.

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