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Is The NCAA Exploiting Student-Athletes?

On March 27th the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern University football players can unionize and negotiate for better working conditions. This is only the latest development in a long legal battle that hinges on one question: is the NCAA exploiting student-athletes? In this post, Nathan Palmer offers us a sociological angle on the exploitation question.

Student Athlete

“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,” said Shabazz Napier. Napier said this moments after winning the Men’s Basketball National Championship when a reporter asked for his opinion on the recent federal ruling that the Northwestern Men’s football team can unionize to negotiate for better working conditions. Right now college athletes, coaches, administrators, and the NCAA are scrambling to figure out what will happen if student-athletes become university employees and unionize. As the debate over student-athlete unionization rages onward, this gives us an opportunity to examine what it means to exploit workers

Who is Benefitting From This?

One of the most powerful questions we can ask as a sociologist is, “who is benefitting from this?” This is the question a conflict theorist always asks. Conflict theory argues that the world is in constant competition to secure scarce resources. With this in mind, let us take a look who’s benefitting from the current NCAA arrangement.

Let’s be clear about one thing from the jump, a lot of people are making a lot of money off of college athletics. Last year the NCAA reported net assets of $627 million dollars (with a $61 million surplus). The athletic programs at 5 schools (Alabama, Texas, Ohio State, Florida, and Tennessee) raked in over $100,000,000 in total revenue. If you think about all of the ticket sales, branded clothing, TV broadcasting rights, advertising partnerships, corporate sponsorships, etc. there is a lot of money being made and none of it goes to the college athletes as direct monetary compensation.

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You Get What You Deserve & Deserve What You Get

A mere 85 people control as much wealth as the poorest 3 billion people in the worlds population. That sobering fact makes it clear that the world in an unequal place, but is this economic inequality unfair? That all depends on what you believe. In this piece Nathan Palmer will explore the depths of economic inequality and discuss how the sociological concept of a justifying rationale can make you think it’s fair.

Do you want play monopoly with me?

Let’s say you and I just played a game of monopoly and I won. Would you want to play again with me, but this time I start with all of my winnings from last time? No? Why not? It’s unfair? Says who? If this is unfair then why do we the exact same thing in the real world. Each of us is born into an ongoing game of monopoly. Some of us are born to the winning families and some to the families that are losing.

My point here is that we know things are unequal, but for some reason we don’t think it’s unfair. Let’s start by looking at how unequal things are and then let’s dig into why we don’t think it’s terribly unfair.

If we put every single thing that could be owned in the country (i.e. the land, businesses, stocks, investments, etc) into one big pot, then the richest 20% of the country would own 88.9% of it all. That means that the other 80% of the country (which almost certainly includes you) is fighting over the remaining 11% of existing wealth[1]. If we put all of the earned income into the same pot, we’d see that the top 20% earns 59.1% of that too. At the same time, poverty in the United States is higher than it’s ever been since 1928. In 2009 1 in four children under the age of six were impoverished. If we look at the global level, we find that the top 85 richest people have as much wealth as the bottom 3 billion people on earth… Let the soak in for a moment.

While I could blather on, I’d rather show you what this looks like using a video. But before I show it to you, I should tell you that the video is not without it’s flaws (read more about them here). However, the general gist (i.e. things are more unequal than we think they are) is still valid. So with that, here you go:

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Why I’m Okay with Being Eaten by a Bear

Ever read a news story about a killer bear or a “man eating” shark? They almost always end with an announcement that the bear/shark was found and killed by authorities. In this post Nathan Palmer says that if he’s eaten by a bear he’d like you to let it live and then he uses the theory of the treadmill of production to illustrate how all of us are in a constant flow with nature.

If a bear is eating me, please don’t kill it. I mean if it’s got my hand in its mouth, shoot that sucker dead, but if it’s eating my throat or brains, just let it finish. While this might sound bizarre/horrific to you, it only seems fair to me. In my years as a meat eater I’ve left a trail of dead animals so massive it would have astounded my ancestors. So with that in mind, turn about seems like fair play. Also, the idea of turning into bear poop sounds awesome to me. So… are you confused, grossed out, or disturbed yet? Give me a second to tell you about the environmental sociology theory called the Treadmill of Production and I think it will all make sense.

Withdrawals, Additions, and Humans

The Treadmill of Production theory was coined by Allan Schnaiberg in the book The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity. The idea at the base of the theory is humans are dependent upon a constant flow of energy from nature and that each of us is in a constant state of interaction with the world around us. We are constantly taking in the natural world through food, water, air, etc. and likewise constantly releasing it back into the ecosystem (e.g. via feces, urine, exhaled breath, etc.). In this process humans create withdrawals, which are the extractions of raw materials from nature, and similarly create additions, which are the waste and by products created through the production of human consumed goods. Many additions like nuclear waste, toxic chemicals, and greenhouse gasses create profound ecological disruptions.

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Moochers, Government Handouts, & You

Welfare (i.e. government monies going to the poor) can really make people mad. Critics of welfare say that the poor are dangerous free loaders who are very different from those who do not receive welfare. They’d have us believe that poor folks are parasites that will suck the life out of our society if we let them. In this post Nathan Palmer explains why this criticism is overblown and most likely hypocritical.

Hey, before we start I want to ask you a question. Do you receive any financial aid from the government? Alright, got the answer? Let’s go.

Moochers, free loaders, drains on the system, good for nothings. We have many harsh names for people who receive aid from the government (i.e. welfare). For whatever reason, in the U.S. we shame and stigmatize people who are dependent upon government aid. Today I want to show you who relies on government social programs and ask you to think about why many of us are so critical of welfare recipients.

The Aid Recipients are Parasites Argument

Most of the arguments against welfare suggest that welfare recipients are people of low character, who abuse social systems. In other words, they are people who will suck resources out of the rest of society like a parasite because they don’t know any better or they are lazy or they are otherwise rotten people. For instance, in 2010 Lt. Governor of South Carolina Andre Bauer said,

  • “My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”

If you can believe it, Bauer said this as an argument against giving free and reduced meals to school children. His logic is clear, poor people are intellectually inferior to the people who can afford to pay for their children’s lunches. Poor people are also ravenous consumers of resources who will “breed” and eat through the resources of a community if they aren’t stopped.[1]

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Due to the Lapse in Gov. Funding, This Post Can Not be Written

Last week the federal government failed to fund itself due to a dispute over funding the Affordable Healthcare Act. Federally funded agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the Center for Disease Control were shut down (with a essential services remaining operational). In additional national parks, monuments, museums, etc. were all shuttered. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains some of the ways the federal government shutdown impacts professional sociologists.

There are many careers sociologists hold once they earn their degrees. I hold a tenured teaching position at a community college where I get to teach sociology among other duties. Many sociologists do not teach or work in higher education at all. Many sociologists work for the federal government.

Sociologists work for the Center for Disease Control, National Institute of Health, the U.S. Census, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, among other federally funded government agencies.

Whether we work for one of these organizations or not, many of us rely on the data produced by these organizations on a regular basis. One of the posts I was preparing for Sociology in Focus relied on U.S. Census data. I went to their website and saw this:…

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Breaking Bad: Reclaiming Masculinity in a Perilous Political Economy

AMC recently aired its final episode of Breaking Bad. With the series now completed, one might wonder how so many viewers could maintain loyalty to protagonist, “Water White,” the dorky low-level crystal methamphetamine producer, turned vicious kingpin, who over five seasons inflicted unbridled violence on a slew of characters. Even Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan expressed a sociologically-driven curiosity with Walt’s ability to emit public sympathy: “I have kind of lost sympathy for Walt along the way…I find it interesting, this sociological phenomenon, that people still root for Walt. Perhaps it says something about the nature of fiction, that viewers have to identify on some level with the protagonist of the show, or maybe he’s just interesting because he is good at what he does.” In this post, David Mayeda breaks down Breaking Bad’s success, accounting for reclaimed masculinity in a failed political economy.

For the few of you out there unfamiliar with AMC’s fictional drama, Breaking Bad tells the story of fumbling high school chemistry teacher with a PhD – Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) – who “breaks bad” by ditching his conventional teaching gig to produce and eventually traffic crystal methamphetamine across New Mexico and the greater American Southwest. Key in the series’ storyline is that Walt is a conventional family man, deeply in love with his pregnant wife, Skyler, and teenage son, Walt Jr., who suffers from cerebral palsy. That’s a lot of financial responsibility for any high school teacher. To make matters seemingly impossible, Walt is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Hence Walt works in tandem with former pupil, Jesse Pinkman, to start cooking meth in hopes of making enough money for his family’s long-term future.

Over the course of five seasons, Walter White transforms from a dorky, emasculated high school chemistry teacher who cannot provide for his family, to badass drug kingpin, steeped in money and power. With nothing to lose, Walt’s ascent stems from an incessantly growing cunningness, elite intellectual acumen, and at times, departure from his once conventional moral compass. Viewers have watched Walt kill rival drug dealers, associates and kingpins, stand idly by while Jesse’s love interest dies; we even know Walt poisoned a young child. Despite these departures from conventional morality, a substantial portion of Breaking Bads viewers still sympathize with, even cheer for Walt. How can this be?

Sociologically speaking, the answer lies in Walt’s ability to establish a kind of hegemonic masculinity under dreadful circumstances that on a different level, also impacted so many Breaking Bad fans….

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Rugby’s Magnificent (or Manipulative) Marketing

Hey American tough guys, ever consider playing football without pads? And no, not out on the field with your boys for fun (sorry for the gendered language). I mean an actual game, full on, full speed, full contact, full collision. The fact is, you can’t. If official football games were played without pads, athletes would get horrifically injured, even die on a regular basis. Heck, football is dangerous enough with pads and helmets. But down here in the Southern Hemisphere, we have a very speedy collision sport with no pads called rugby. I’m still getting my head around the different sporting forms of rugby that exist. A few things are for certain though – it is big, big business and can be very dangerous, the latter of which you might never know by watching the mainstream media.

Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) is akin to the United States’ National Football League (NFL). Both organizations represent the pinnacle of male sporting success in their respective parts of the world. Rugby League allows for rather unrestricted tackling between players. Hence the collisions in Rugby League are often times very similar to those we Americans see in the NFL, minus the helmets and pads. Many people in New Zealand – where I now reside – tell me Rugby League is about as violent as a sport can get….

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Putting the McDonald’s Back into McDonaldization

McDonald’s restaurant once served as a model of rationality; customers would come in and be feed ina smooth, precise, and efficient standardized process. Today, its bloated menu (with oodles of choices and combinations) threatens its reputation as the standard for rationality. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how McDonald’s is putting the McDonald’s back into McDonaldization.

McDonald's Happy Meal Box

George Ritzer coined the term McDonaldization to describe how McDonald’s restaurant provided an archetype of rationality, which served as a model for other bureaucracies. Rationality refers to how bureaucracies come to operate under formal rules and procedures. A bureaucracy is characterized by a hierarchy of authority, a division of labor, reliance on written rules, and impersonality of positions. For example, your college is an example of a bureaucracy. Let’s get back to McDonald’s.

Ritzer chose McDonald’s because of its pervasiveness throughout not only the United States (where you are never more than 107 miles from one in the lower 48), but throughout the world (they serve 1% of the world every day). McDonald’s is seen as a powerful business success and a symbol of America.

Principles of McDonalidzation include:

  • Efficiency
  • Predictability
  • Calculability
  • Control

How do these principles exist within McDonald’s?

Efficiency refers to “the optimum method for getting from one point to another” (Ritzer 2006:15). Think about the assembly line method of food production in a McDonald’s restaurant. Instead of one person making your complete meal, the task is split up into its basic components along a hamburger assembly line. This means your meal gets to you more quickly….

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Advertisers Needed A Hero “So God Made a Farmer”

In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains a few of the ways in which the American farmer is socially constructed using the recent Dodge Ram commercial that ran during the Super Bowl. She explores the ways in which the commercial lives up to the realities of farming. 

Dodge Ram paid tribute to the American farmer in their ad that played during the Super Bowl last week.

Dodge resurrected Paul Harvey’s 1978 ‘So God Made a Farmer’ Speech for the commercial. It certainly got my attention. I was otherwise distracted and paid attention to the TV when I heard what sounded like an old man’s voice talking about God and farmers.

Mythical Image of the Family Farm

Harvey begins with

“And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So God made a farmer.”

The farmers portrayed in the Dodge Ram commercial fit within a particular narrative about farming, that is, who farmers actually are. The commercial shows how farmers and farming are socially constructed. By social construction, sociologists mean how society defines a particular phenomenon. In this case, how does society define and understand farmers and farming?

Dodge Ram pairs Paul Harvey’s words with powerful visuals to illustrate how American farmers are caretakers, deeply religious, hardworking, family-oriented, rugged individuals, community leaders, and mostly white men….

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Sounds like Teen Spirit: Bieber, Black, & the Protestant Ethic

Haters gonna hate, but when it comes to Justin Bieber and Rebecca Black the hating has reached epic proportions. Both teen singing sensations’ music videos continue to attract the highest number of “dislikes” on YouTube. So what gives? Why is hating on J. Bieber and Ms. Black so popular? In this piece, Ami Stearns argues that the answer to this question lies in our understanding of Weber’s Protestant work ethic.

Rebecca Black told reporters she cried when YouTube viewers attacked her song, “Friday,” and music critics called it the “Worst Song Ever.” Justin Bieber’s music videos compete among themselves to fill the majority of top slots for the most disliked YouTube.com videos. These two teen singers seem to have been singled out by YouTube viewers as especially deserving of “dislikes.”

As of January 17, 2013, Bieber’s “Baby” registered a whopping 3,310,479 dislikes on YouTube, while dislikes for Black’s “Friday” has 940,073 dislikes. In comparison, other top videos popular during Bieber and Black’s 2011 releases like Britney Spears’ “Hold It Against Me” currently register 48,324 dislikes, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” has 32,859 dislikes, and the Enrique Iglesias video for “Tonight” shows a paltry 3,499 dislikes. Taking into consideration the number of overall views, the dislikes racked up against Bieber and Black are still disproportional to the number of times they’ve been viewed. What causes viewers to dislike Bieber and Black’s videos so much?

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