The news that a Heisman trophy winner, Johnny Manziel, will be suspended for one half of one game because he sold his autograph has revived an old debate: should college athletes in marquee sports be paid? Does it make any sense to think of them as “amateurs”? I must, alas, leave the technical discussion to better-informed interlocutors. All I have to offer is an anecdote. Maybe it will help people think some things through.
Our story begins in 1992, when your humble correspondent matriculated as an exceptionally neurotic graduate student at the football and, um, American Studies powerhouse the University of Michigan. Entirely unqualified and unprepared to teach, I was nonetheless thrown to the wolves as a freshman composition instructor. On the first day of class, I had gotten through the introductions, passed out the syllabus, and launched into explaining the course, when a strapping, tall, god-like young man walked into the room—very late. All other activity stopped. I couldn’t teach any more for the murmuring. A star of the University Michigan football team would be practicing the farce of pretending he was a college student in my very own classroom. It turned out to be quite the education for me.
Because most of us first-year graduate students had no idea what we were doing in the classroom, we taught freshman composition using a pedagogy-less “workshop” method (and that’s a subject worth writing about another time). A designated student would bring in a draft of the paper to hand out to the class. The students would read it as homework, and the next class session would be taken up by their discussion of how it could be made better.
Early class sessions, however, were largely taken up by the kids being broken up into small groups and doing writing exercises out in the hall. But I had to stop doing that. All my students would end up doing once outside of my gaze was crowd around the Football Star and harass him for what Johnny Manziel was accused of selling: autographs.
Anyway, one fine fall day, it was Football Star’s turn to show up with his draft of an essay.
But he did not show up that day at all. (He only showed up about half the time, anyway.)
I obviously had to fail Football Star for that section of the class. If I could have done worse than fail him, I would have done that as well. Because since I had no material to “teach,” the next class session had to be cancelled entirely.