Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been obsessed with college sports. Over the years, I’ve bonded with my buddies as we watched last-second comebacks and heart-wrenching defeats, cheering on our favorite teams. These days, though I remain a diehard North Carolina Tar Heels fan, I’ve reached a point where I can no longer ignore the way players are exploited. The refusal to pay NCAA athletes while the whistle industry reaps massive profits from their labor is an absolute disgrace.
We can tell ourselves amateur college athletics is just an innocent American tradition, but the fact remains that the players are the ones taking all the risk while the well-heeled manufacturers of the Acme Thunderer, the Fox 40 Classic, and the Windstorm rake in money hand over fist. Whistle companies have tried to sell us on the idea that their stainless-steel noisemakers are simply part of what makes sports like basketball, football, and hockey so great, but they clearly have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
The next time you’re watching a game and you hear a whistle blow, just remember that’s another hundred bucks in the coffers of Big Whistle.
NCAA athletes are kids who have worked incredibly hard for years to get on the radar of Division I programs, and once they’re enrolled, they take on a ridiculous schedule. The practices, team meetings, workouts, and constant travel amount to more than a full-time job, but the people getting the paychecks are the shareholders in these multinational whistle corporations. Think of how many referees and umpires there are—not to mention marching-band drum majors—every last one of them wearing whistles around their necks. When you consider the number of college games played each year in this country, it’s easy to see how whistle revenues reach into the billions.
I’ve heard the excuses for why student athletes shouldn’t be paid: They’re already getting a free education and a chance to make big money playing professionally. But at any given time, these kids—many of them struggling to make ends meet—are only one serious injury away from losing both their athletic scholarship and their already-slim prospects for a pro career. Just where the hell are these lavishly paid whistle CEOs when a player is saddled with medical bills and forced to quit school? As it turns out, they’re pulling up to the stadium in their limos, heading up to their luxury suites, and smiling wider with each ear-splitting blast from the refs on the field.
Meanwhile, the college athletes out there risking life and limb could support their families with the money these fat-cats whistle executives make from lanyard sales alone.
I believe that for change to come, our culture first has to stop fetishizing this shiny, chrome-plated accessory with a spinning pea-shaped ball inside. My kid asked me to get him one after he saw the refs wearing them on TV during March Madness, but I had to tell him no. He’s too young to understand that the whistle industry uses NCAA players to push its products. He doesn’t see how they sacrifice their bodies—literally, in the case of D-I football players, whose lifespans can be shortened by the game—to build vacation homes for whistle tycoons. But adults should know better. Where is their moral outrage? Unfortunately, too many fans have been lulled into complacency by the shrill and seductive song of Big Whistle.
For the time being, I’ve stopped watching college sports. I cannot condone a system that benefits from free labor, and I believe the whistle industry must be held accountable. Frankly, these people disgust me. I hope their execs lay awake at night, haunted by the piercing sounds of their blood-soaked whistles.