92311 systems blindness - Systems-Blindness

I’m working on becoming more compassionate.

His Holiness the Dalia Lama believes that compassion forms the basis for ethical behavior. My interest in compassion is less noble. I find that when I remember to shift my attention from analysis to compassion, I always learn something.

Two articles published last week have tested my capacity for compassion.

Before reading them, I would have been hard-pressed to feel even a stitch of empathy for fashion models or a cup of human kindness for college athletes… sorry. You see what I mean? I can’t even get through the sentence without a tongue-in-cheek metaphor. Now I find that I’m left with more questions than answers.

In the October 2011 issue of Atlantic Monthly, Pulitzer Prize winning author and civil rights historian Taylor Branch shines a harsh light on the National Collegiate Athletic Association (or NCAA) in his article, The Shame of College Sports. Branch provides a history of the NCAA while demonstrating—case-after-case—how the twin ideals of “Student-Athlete” and “Amateurism” are actually contrived structures that allow institutions and private corporations to make billions of dollars from the labor of 18 to 20 year olds who are not afforded basic employment or property rights.

In one example—a case that’s currently in the court system—Ed O’Bannon, former UCLA basketball player of the year, complains that UCLA and the NCAA continue to derive revenue from the sale of video games starring an Ed O’Bannon character. Even though O’Bannon is neither an amateur nor a student-athlete, he has no right to the use of his image by UCLA and the NCAA.

When I attended school at UCLA, I worked at one of the college cafeterias. I saw first hand how athletes were treated. I was responsible one year for figuring out how to account for the food that the football team ate so that we could charge the athletic department—all 130 members of the team ate for free! The players couldn’t be bothered to stop at the cash registers so that we could ring up what they had taken from the food line. Eventually, we decided to section off a portion of the dining room and provide a separate meal service for them.

The first thing I feel about college athletes—and I’m not proud of this—is disdain. Media coverage of the overt and covert perks has increased in recent months with stunning confessions of sports agents and college boosters wooing high school stars to this or that campus. Branch’s article shocked me; not because of the disheartening stories of how money has corrupted the ideals of amateurism, but because I had never viewed the athletes as victims of a system that trades on their talent while providing lopsided benefits to institutions who simply provide a venue and access to a voracious audience.

In the September 15 edition of the New York Times, Ashley Mears, an assistant professor of sociology at Boston University, wrote an op-ed piece about another elite group that supports a multi-billion dollar industry without basic employment rights: fashion models. Mears points out that while Fashion Week brings upwards of $400 million to New York City each year, most of the freelance runway models work without benefits; they don’t have any control over the conditions of their work; and, in many cases, they aren’t paid at all.

Interestingly, both for fashion models and college athletes, about 1 percent of them ever make a career out their endeavors. That 1 percent gets a lot of attention and a lot of money; the rest fade back into society often without the basic education and skills of the average, non-celebrity college graduate.

It’s hard to feel compassion for people who are revered and that’s my point.

I’m not taking sides on the issue of how society treats college athletes and fashion models. The issues are complicated and all that money creates counterproductive incentives.

What I woke up to last week is how my own perceptions represent a kind of systems-blindness. Ignorance of the structures that support our ways of life makes it easy to have opinions and judgments. Having compassion for people constrained by the institutions that enable our way of life is an opening through which we can ask whether we’re satisfied with the ethics of the underlying structures—structures to which we are generally blind.

Ignorance may be bliss, but that doesn’t make ignorance aspirational.

Read other posts by Jay G. Cone

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