Take college sports, arguably one of most egregiously unjust labor systems in the US. Nowhere else can you find people laboring—indeed college football is like a fulltime job—and inflicting long-term damage to their bodies for little reward. The NCAA generates a billion dollars in revenue, all the while players are contractually barred from reaping the fruits of their labor. As others have pointed out, the “NCAA is a plantation, and the players are the sharecroppers.” That many, if not most, of the prospective players hail from poorer, black regions of the country makes the system seem even more destructive. Football combines start to bear an eerie resemblance to the auction block when one reflects on all these similarities.
The response to such observations always seems to be the same: Don’t these players voluntarily sign the dotted line on the contract? Aren’t they free to do otherwise? The rhetoric of choice is one of the most pernicious discourses today, one that is routinely mobilized to prevent people from digging too deep into systematic inequalities. It is a discourse that tries to eliminate thinking about the innumerable constraints on choice and coercions faced by most people by reframing them all as choices. Consider Paul Ryan’s recent bizarre claim that cuts to Medicaid and the elimination of the ACA wouldn’t eliminate people’s healthcare: Such people would be simply “choosing” not to have it any longer. The transformation of the inability to pay for something into a free choice is just one of the daftest—though politically expedient—outcomes of choice-based rhetoric. In the context of college sports, it ignores that players coming out of the most deprived areas of the country typically have few other opportunities for a college education or many other routes out of poverty. The rhetoric of choice projects the latitude of choice available to only the most affluent citizens onto everyone, regardless of what their lives actually look like.
The case of college sports also illuminates how the mere possibility of success, no matter how infinitesimal, can lead people to tolerate otherwise intolerable circumstances. Compare it to the Black Mirror episode “15 Million Merits.” Work in the society depicted in this episode is unmitigated drudgery: Citizens’s work lives entail endlessly pedaling on stationary bikes. Their only respite comes from a constant connection to an array of entertainment possibilities, and their only hope for a way out lies in winning Hot Shot, an America’s Got Talent-like game show. The metaphor in “15 Million Merits” couldn’t be clearer: Clawing one’s way out of the doldrums of working in what David Graeber has labeled “bullshit jobs” is largely a roll of the dice, dependent on the caprice of those who do have the power to decide. The hosts of Hot Shot sit with an air of superiority, judging who is worthy and who is not—much like a few of the hosts of the show Shark Tank. Like college ball players who must subject their bodies to four years of strain for a shot at an NFL contract, some workers acquiesce to an unjust working arrangement partly because they too are caught up in dreams of getting to be one of the lucky few to strike it rich.
I’m not the first to note that Americans are limited in their ability to think critically about class because of a belief that inequality is okay as long as they have a chance of being on the right side of it. A common quote, routinely misattributed to John Steinbeck, laments how “the poor [in America] see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” The underlying narrative that success invariably comes to those who show grit and determination adds to the rhetoric of choice to prevent critical questions about the sources of poverty. I will never forget the panicked look on a student, who in a class discussion about economic fairness, tried to claim that if he were parachuted into Haiti that he would be successful in six months; while uttering something horrible, he nonetheless seemed to be straining under an immense load of cognitive dissonance, attempting to resolve the conflict between a narrative that gave him hope about his own future and its implication that Haitians are somehow poor because they don’t know how to work as hard as middle-class white people.
In any case, also noteworthy in “15 Million Merits” is how those who, for whatever reason, are unable to handle the strain of cycling all day are treated. They are widely abused, distinguished by particular clothing, and targeted for mockery in violent video games and on television game shows—that society’s equivalent of Jerry Springer and Cops. Citizens of this imagined society, much like our own, are partly driven to labor—often to the detriment of their mental and physical well-being—by the fear of being poor and mocked and the belief that perhaps they too can achieve a state of transcendent affluence. Who gives any thoughts to the hundreds or thousands student athletes who, once injured, are often deprived of their scholarship? Often not earning a degree, or perhaps not one that is worth anything, and carrying a potentially disabling injury, such as cervical spine damage, once phenomenal athletes on the way to stardom become just another impoverished nobody, another one of the “takers” denigrated in contemporary conservative discourse.
It seems to me that achieving a more just American society will not be possible without the simultaneous demise of these poverty justifying narratives. Not only will new narratives be necessary, but such narratives will need to be uttered by the right people. As great as it is that attendees of Ivy League universities and participants in urban art collectives have developed counter narratives to those that today justify status quo inequalities, it seems unlikely that such narratives will ever resonate with average citizens. A recent video by The Onion makes much the same point in satirically depicting a Trump voter whose mind was changed after reading 800 pages of queer feminist theory. In my mind, much of the humanities and social sciences are not worth the paper they have printed on, if they cannot be persuasively conveyed to non-academic—indeed uneducated—audiences. Unfortunately, many of the academics I know are too busy denigrating Trump voters for being ignorant to consider how things might actually change.