Karl Marx’s Trip to a College Football Game

What would Karl Marx make of the labor relations of college athletics? In this post, Sarah Michele Ford shows that we can examine college athletics through a Marxist lens; in doing so we find that the university athletic directors and sponsors are functioning as the bourgeoisie, while the athletes themselves are the proletariat.

Crowd at a football game
It’s a Saturday afternoon in early autumn. The air is crisp, and thousands of football fans are filing into the stadium to watch the members of the proletariat produce entertainment for their consumption.

Wait, what? If it’s fall, and it’s a stadium, aren’t the fans coming to watch football?

I never said they weren’t. Keep reading to find out how we can apply Marxist theory to college football.

Karl Marx’s social class theory is usually taught as grounded in the industrial era. At its core, Marxism is about various groups’ relationships to the means of production. In an industrial economy, the means of production are the resources necessary to produce goods for sale: raw materials, the equipment to turn those materials into salable goods, and the factories that house that equipment. The people who own the means of production are the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie are the wealthy, the upper-crust of society. While they own and control the means of production, they are definitely not dirtying their hands with the actual production process; at best they are overseeing production. Production is handled by the workers, or as Marx termed them, the proletariat. The proletariat are the working class and the poor. They have no resources to speak of, and they get by selling the only thing they do have – their labor power – to the bourgeoisie.

Because Marx’s theory is so firmly grounded in an industrial mode of production, it can be hard to generalize to the current economic climate, which is generally characterized as a service economy. This fall, however, there has been a lot of media attention focused on the issue of college athletes’ amateur status, at least in part in response to Taylor Branch’s powerful article in The Atlantic entitled “The Shame of College Sports”. The basic issue here is that, given the amount of money that is invested in college sports, and the tremendous profits that big-ticket college athletics (primarily football and basketball) generate, can we really say that the players are amateurs? Or are they really just laborers working for the colleges?

Karl Marx would look at the whole situation as one of class conflict. In this scenario, the “student-athletes” are the proletariat, while university athletic directors and corporate sponsors play the role of bourgeoisie. As is the case in an industrial economy, the members of the proletariat work for the bourgeoisie producing goods for sale. In this example, the primary salable good is intangible – the entertainment value gained by fans watching the games both in person and on television. The proletarian “student-athletes”  are exploited in the same way that factory workers were exploited at the height of the industrial era. As Marx himself put it, “[o]f all the animals kept by the farmer, the labourer, the instrumentum vocale, was, thenceforth, the most oppressed, the worst nourished, the most brutally treated” (Das Kapital, volume 1, Ch. 25, section 4(e)).

Branch’s article reveals that the working conditions of college athletes are not too far removed from this. They are barely paid enough to live on, they are highly replaceable (there’s a nearly infinite pool of high school athletes chomping at the bit for the opportunity to play Division I college sports), and they are exploited for their ability to produce surplus value for the bourgeoisie.

Of course, Marx argued that the industrial economy would ultimately self-destruct, giving way to a communist system. In order for this to happen, Marx argued that the proletariat first needed to develop class consciousness, or an awareness of their exploitation by the bourgeoisie along with the power that came with their far-greater numbers. Once they had that awareness, they would be able to overthrow the bourgeoisie and begin to establish a classless communist society. Clearly, this has not happened in the case of college athletics, and it remains to be seen whether or not the current system will change at all.

Dig Deeper

  1. What other contemporary labor situations could Marxist theory help to explain?
  2. Can Marxist theory help you understand your own labor situation? For students reading this, what about your position as a student?
  3. What is the likelihood of a Marxist-style revolution in college sports? What factors might make this more or less likely? Put another way, what labor changes do your think will happen in college sports?