Wednesday, October 9, 2019


The 2019 California law allowing college athletes to retain agents and receive payment for use of their name and image opens the flood-gates to professionalization of college sports. So they say.

Most arguments against it are about its effects on college sports, especially the “minor sports” outside the big time, revenue-generating sports, football and basketball.

But I want to raise a more important point: the worst-case scenario, getting rid of all school sports, would be one of the biggest things we could do to improve American education.

The predominance of sports in American schools at all levels distinguishes US schools from most of the rest of the world. This sports-centeredness is to a considerable degree responsible for why American students score lower than almost everyone else in international comparisons of academic skills.

Most American students just don’t care that much about studying, and their peers put them down for it, in comparison to the athletes who are the center of the school prestige hierarchy. This is not the case in the rest of the world—because their schools aren’t focused on athletics at all.

But this is unimaginable—American schools without sports! Why would people support schools if there were no excitement and no mass spectacle about them? It’s not unimaginable at all. To see how it works, just look outside the boundaries of the USA.

School athletics at the center of attention devalues intellectual students

Anyone who has been to high school in the United States knows there is a prestige system, with the jocks and cheerleaders at the top, and the nerds at the bottom. The term “nerd” has no equivalent in foreign languages; here it means someone who is a grind, not part of the youth culture, not just deficient in athletics but inferentially lacking in sexual appeal and klutzy at social skills. With the rise of the high-tech economy and dissident counter-culture movements this hierarchy has gotten somewhat blurred, but it still has a very strong hold in the way American schools operate. Successful school teams are the way a school—from high-school up through university—gets a public image and public support; and it is the main school-spirit-building activity inside the school.  Athletics are sacrosanct, as the center of most schools’ image, prestige, and money.

There are exceptions: tech schools like M.I.T. and Cal Tech opt out of that system entirely; some elite colleges (mostly Ivy League and nearby) have so much reputation for their graduates going to the top of the corporate and political worlds that they don’t need famous athletic teams. As I will argue later, these are seeds for an American academic system that would replace our current one, if the sports-centered school system self-destructs over the professionalization of athletics.

Murray Milner (University of Virginia sociologist) did a massive study of prestige hierarachies at high schools across the country. He went on to develop an explanation of why jocks and cheerleaders are at the top, and serious students near the bottom. Games by a school team are the one activity where everyone is assembled, focusing attention on a group of token individuals who represent themselves. Games also have drama, plot tension, and emotion, thus fitting the ingredients for a successful interaction ritual. Predictably, they create feelings of solidarity and identity; and they give prestige to the individuals who are in the center of attention. Jocks are the school’s heroes (especially when they are winning). Cheerleaders are their number-one worshipers, high priestesses to the cult, sharing the stage or at least the edge of it. And they are chosen to represent the top of the sexual attractiveness hierarchy, hence centers of the partying-celebration part of school life—out of the purview of adult teachers, administrators, and parents.

In contrast, outstanding students perform mostly alone. They are not the center of an audience gathered to watch them show off their skills. There are no big interaction rituals focusing attention on them. Their achievement is for themselves; they do not represent the school body, certainly not in any way that involves contagious emotional excitement. The jocks-&-partying channeling of attention in schools devalues the intellectuals. When it comes to a contest between the two, the athletic-centered sphere always dominates, at least in the public places where the action is.  The social networks of intellectual students are backstage, even underground. *

* These are not the only identity-groups among students; there are also the theatre crowd, musicians, druggies and counter-culture types, thugs, working class kids and part-time job-holders looked down upon by the fun-and-consumption culture of middle-class kids. Thus nerds tend to be more in the lower-middle of the school prestige hierarchy than at the absolute bottom. See Milner [2004] for details.

Not surprisingly, the majority of American students who could go either way in emulating athletic/partying or intellectual stars, choose the former and downplay the latter. In the era of increasing competition over admission to higher-ranking colleges, most students in the middle prestige levels aim for a respectable level of academic performance (only the top jocks can afford to be largely oblivious to grades); but they don’t pour themselves into it. They are surrounded by counselors and easy-grading teachers who sympathize with the existing prestige system, who make sure they don’t have to work too hard on academics. Of course, America is a large and ethnically diverse population, and there are subgroups in it—above all children of immigrants from China and other places with a stronger academic achievement focus—who push their children to study hard and to come out at the top of the grades and test scores. But it is the home that it is giving these kids the impetus; not the school—its atmosphere mostly works in the other direction.

This is why the average scores on American students in international comparisons of skills in reading, math, and other subjects tend to be at the bottom, far below countries in east Asia and in Europe. It is not a matter of talent, and certainly not a deficiency in school facilities, but a problem of social motivation.

Countries where universities are intellectual and athletics is elsewhere

Compare school life in countries where academic achievement is publicized and celebrated: Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere. One feature they have in common is lack of competitive school athletics. This is not to say there are no students who are athletes in these countries. But athletic teams and practice places are in separate clubs, not representing the school. The pattern of separating sports and schools is strongest on the Continent, where universities frequently don’t even have a campus, let along a stadium.

East Asian schools, especially in China and Korea, take the focus on academic competition to an extreme. In China, high schools receive a great deal of publicity for the test scores of their students—these are published in newspapers and trumpeted in school propaganda, along with the name of those admitted to top universities. Students exhort each other (and are exhorted by their teachers) to work hard on the kinds of problems set for exams; they brag or complain about their school’s standing. Within the school, those who perform at the top are the stars of the school. *  The result is an atmosphere of intense focus on academics. Moreover, it is a highly social focus. Students work together in preparing for exams. They also make a show of being at school for longer hours than are officially required; they stay hours late for special study groups (in Japan, this takes the form of going to tutors or “cram-schools” after school hours, to study for university admissions exams). They voluntarily go to school on Saturdays. They also do a lot of studying at home, where their needs for quiet (and other indulgences) are carefully attended to by their parents. Such students spend many more hours in school during the year, and more hours at home studying, than American students, who are notably lax in these matters.

* A very good Korean student, who I knew as a graduate student at an elite American university, told me that in Korea the mothers’ of other girls would encourage their daughters to be friends with her—she was their shining example. This is extremely unlikely to happen in the US, for all sorts of reasons in the teen culture. On daily life in Chinese schools, see Yi-lin Chiang [2018].

The social atmosphere—or let us say, the spotlight of attention—is completely different in the high-achieving school cultures of the world, and in American schools. Chinese students are much more focused on school and a supportive home; American kids, even when they have helicopter parents (or especially when), have studying as just one of many things they do—athletic practices, music lessons, entertainment, parties with other kids. Officially, parents and talking heads all say learning is important, but it just doesn’t rate that high in everyday life.

Actions speak louder than words: the US is one of the only countries in the world whose laws ban schools from publicizing any information about students’ grades (the Buckley Amendment, passed by the US Congress in 1974). Before the 1980s, like every other professor, I used to post the list of grades after an exam on my office door. This was convenient for students to come and see them; no one ever complained. The rationale for the law banning posting grades—first promoted by legislators and psychologists, not by students—was that it was harmful to students’ self-esteem (i.e. to the self-esteem of students who weren’t at the top.) No one seemed to worry about negative effects of publishing scores on athletic performance: on the contrary, game scores report who did well or badly in basketball, baseball and football games etc.  The unspoken message is clear: academic performance is something we do not give honor to; we treat it almost as something shameful, certainly something private. Athletic performance is the reverse.

Not only do top-scoring European and Asian schools not focus on athletics, but they treat their outstanding students the way we treat top athletes. In France, with its highly centralized national school system, students take competitive exams for entrance to the elite university-level schools in Paris (the so-called grandes écoles). The rankings are published in the newspapers. Individuals who scored highly are remembered for the rest of their lives. (Pierre Bourdieu, for instance, was famed for having ranked number one at the entrance to the Ecole Normale Supérieure in 1950; Jean-Paul Sartre is famous for having flunked the aggregation (school-leaving exam) in 1928, whereupon he spent another year cramming with his new girl-friend, Simone de Beauvoir, and next year passed in first place [Cohen-Solal 1987].  In Britain, students are admitted to the universities with publically announced prize honors (or not), and graduate with ranked degrees in their subject (Firsts, Seconds, etc.) that are widely discussed at the time and during their careers. The contrast is clear: academic performance is widely publicized and intensely focused upon in countries with high-achievement school systems; in American schools, it is not.

Sociological research on student life at American universities supports the point. Arum and Roksa [2011] found that American college students average only a few hours of studying per week. This does not hurt their grades much, as professors have adapted to their clientele by giving fewer and easier exams and papers. And what they learn does not sink in or last long; students retested a year later retained very little of what they once knew. All this has taken place during a period in history when the percentages of the youth cohort who attend undergraduate colleges has risen to over 60%, with those attending graduate and professional schools rising proportionately. This is credential inflation, where the value has declined of a high school diploma, undergraduate degree, or even an M.A. (or for science fields, even a PhD, which now is only preliminary to getting a post-doctoral fellowship). It is a race in which the finish line keeps receding into the distance as more students compete at each level. Universities do well (and professors get paid) as long as they have plenty of paying students (including those subsidized by student loans); it doesn’t matter how little they learn as long as it fits the average that moves them along the pipeline. Grade inflation and lax standards are a way that schools adapt to a system in which there is a great deal of competition to move from one level to another, but this is mostly on formalities rather than what they actually learn.

Ethnographic studies of student life (by young-looking researchers living in the dormitories) show how the culture operates on the ground. Armstrong and Hamilton’s Paying for the Party [2013; see also Moffatt 1989; Sanday 2007] shows that kids from comfortable middle-class (or higher) families are happy to enter big state universities known for being party schools. These are places with big-time athletic programs, football and basketball teams playing in huge stadiums, surrounded by school rituals, partying, an active sex life; they quickly learn how to coast through their classes. Students from working-class backgrounds have a harder time with it, balancing the partying with studying and part-time jobs, and they often drop out without a degree. Universities try to be attractive to students who can finance their own way, and to subsidized students too; outside of the most elite colleges, these universities get what name-recognition they have by their athletic teams and their appearance on TV. Having a team that is a contender generates the atmosphere of the college experience; party schools go in tandem with the big-time athletic schools.  Universities pretend otherwise, but big-time athletics usually goes along with academic mediocrity; its sine qua non being sheer size of its student population, hence size of budget that can invest in big-time teams.

My own experiences teaching at various universities across the USA illustrates the attitude of college athletes. At one of the newer branches of a big state university (not big enough yet to have a football team), the baseball team was its chief claim to fame. The entire team used to enroll for one of my undergraduate classes in sociology (I think they liked it that I gave very clear outlines of what would be on the exams), but only one player would show up for classes, taking notes for the others.  At an even bigger state university, the basketball team was nationally ranked, and one of the basketball players was in my class. One day I saw him in the hall and said: “Hey, Ricky. I haven’t seen you in class for a while.” He said: “Yeah, prof, I’m on injured reserve, and I figure as long as I can’t play, I don’t have to go to class.”  This university also had a staff of assistant coaches in the athletic department, whose job was to call up professors and check whether an athlete in their classes was in danger of falling below the minimum grade (C-minus) that would make them ineligible to play. This was also a way of seeking accommodation for players to have easier assignments or tutoring for exams. *

* In the defensive reaction by sports columnists to the new California law on players receiving royalties, the argument is blatantly stated that players get lots of in-kind payment already, including arranging accomodations from professors so that the academic work is as easy as possible.

The bottom line: the centrality of athletics in American education is a major source of devaluing academic standards and achievement. Eliminating school teams and focusing instead on publicizing academic achievement would be a pathway to catching up with European and East Asian levels of academic performance.

Are we ready to do this just on the merits of the case?  Certainly not. But fighting over the issue of openly professionalizing school athletics could be the way the system undermines itself.

Fake amateurism is a collusive wage-fixing agreement

In favor of maintaining the NCAA ban on any taint of professionalism, the biggest argument is not about what is good for education, but “we need the money.”

Legalizing payments to athletes for their name and image is just the opening wedge. Even this crack in the nationwide front raises fears that the best athletes would migrate to California and other states that adopt similar laws. As legislatures compete with each other over boosting their own school teams, further incentives to athletes would unravel the entire system of control. The NCAA has the weapon of banning schools that violate their rules from competing with schools still within their system; but in a showdown, it is likely the NCAA that would be undermined by schools pulling out.  Even in short-term perspective, colleges would lose advertising dollars they are now collecting.

Fundamentally, the NCAA is a collusive agreement to fix wages for college athletes. The argument of athletic departments is that athletes are already being well-compensated. They get free room and board, fancy dining halls, plane trips, easy class schedules, and the value of their college degree, all without student debt. All this assumes: (a) that athletes on scholarship go on to finish their degree; (b) that the value of a degree from a non-elite university, and in a easy major (not a lot of STEM student-jocks, nor pre-med or even business-school) will get them a good job; (c) continually rising credential inflation won’t make these degrees worth less as the economy grows more dominated by computers and high-tech.

Big-time college sports are already professional. They are professionally managed, with high-paid coaches and administrators, and a  huge, well-paid NCAA bureaucracy to keep money incentives out of the system so that all revenues—tickets, TV rights, name-branded clothing and gear—stay in the hands of the universities. It is a competitive world, dependent on a continual stream of recruiting the best athletic prospects from the high-school farm system. Accordingly, the corporate managers of this university-owned sports-entertainment trust attempt to keep their labor expenses as low as possible, by paying them in kind. In effect, they are like Roman gladiators, captives who fight in the arena for the benefit of the owners of the gladiatorial troupes—the main difference being that college jocks serve a maximum 4-year servitude, with a chance at getting selected by the professional leagues. (Which are another set of collectively-administered trusts that collude with the NCAA to do their training for them). 

Athletes on scholarships are not part of the regular student body. They live in their own dorms, eat in their own dining halls, take a limited range of classes—nothing hard or time-consuming—and exams under special conditions designed for their convenience. Real students on the same campus have little more contact with these semi-professional jocks than they have with professional athletes they view on television.

No more hypocrisy

One good thing: getting rid of the NCAA would relieve us of an endless stream of hypocrisy and scandal. Schools are repeatedly investigated, castigated, and penalized for infractions of NCAA rules over recruiting and rewarding players. Wins and titles are forfeited, coaches are fired. But the scandals keep happening, because scandals re-create the conditions that caused the behavior in the first place.

Scandals don’t change anything, because they are conservatizing. When rules or customs are violated, a public scandal stirs up moral indignation and reenergizes the old values. That is because a scandal is a kind of moralistic mob mentality, where everyone jumps in to enthusiastically denounce the culprit; not to join in the condemnation is to risk being attacked oneself. An archetype of how this works is the condemnation of Oscar Wilde in 1895 for homosexuality [Adut 2008]. His sexual preferences were an open secret in smart society of the time, but when the case became public, his supporters shunned him, and he died in disgrace soon after being released from prison. The scandal was conservatizing, re-energizing old prejudices against homosexuality, missing an opportunity to speak out and revize the old norm. The Oscar Wilde scandal didn’t stamp out homosexuality; it just kept it underground.

Similarly with NCAA-created scandals: the temporary wave of moralistic indignation (or pseudo-indignation by universities, journalists, and politicians chiming in) does nothing to change the underlying problem. For universities whose prestige and prosperity depends chiefly on their athletic teams, there is a continuous pressure to win, and that means recruiting the best players, year after year. Paying them outright is forbidden, so this leads to more and more devious ways of rewarding them. Alumni boosters used to give them fake off-season jobs and gifts like cars. Money is channeled to parents by helping them buy a house. Sports agents offer their services in lining up future deals in advertisements and professional prospects; then the NCAA cracks down on that too. Recruiters and assistant coaches try to attract players with a good time: scandals spread about trips featuring strip clubs and parties with ready sex. Other scandals are generated by eligibility rules that require players to keep up minimal grade levels; this leads to cheating on tests or fabricating grades by sports-friendly administrators or faculty.  The underlying problem is that these are not really “student athletes”, but quasi-professional athletes pretending to be students, and not committed to the student role very much at all. Nobody feels guilty about this kind of academic cheating because those involved regard the system as a hypocritical façade. The scandals are so much show; when you get caught, you have to play sorry and repentant, but everyone understands you have to do that or the fury against you grows even worse.

The latest version of such scandals, breaking in 2019, consists of students who get admitted to colleges by pretending to be athletes in minor sports. These scandals are generated by rules that require a certain number of scholarships for women’s sports, plus the determination of colleges to portray their entire athletic program as amateur because it also gives scholarships in sports that don’t make money. But in the era when a large majority of all high-school graduates apply for college, and most of them apply to a half-dozen or more schools, the sheer volume of application materials that schools have to process leads to a maze of complications that can be exploited. American schools are under pressure not simply to rely on grade-point averages and test scores (since students from higher social classes and dominant ethnic groups do better on them), so all sorts of non-academic criteria are added—extracurricular activities, public service, and being active in sports. It is not too surprising, in this perspective, that go-betweens with contacts in athletic departments created channels for getting fake athletes admitted to colleges in minor sports—which up to now had been below the radar of NCAA investigators obsessed with the big-money sports. Ironic, isn’t it? We have athletes who pretend to be students, and now students who pretend to be athletes.

Will scandal and exposure bring this kind of thing to an end? Every time there is a scandal, official people repeat the same idealized statements about amateurism and a level playing field. But dire punishments and a wider list of things for NCAA investigators to keep track of have not prevented new scandals from happening. The pattern is clear. Scandals will keep on going into the future as long as the hypocrisy goes on about student-athletes who generate major revenue for schools. *

* As a former professor, I have to laugh whenever I watch a bowl game. These always feature advertisements by the participating universities, showing pretty pictures of campus, plus a spiel about student-athletes earning degrees and becoming medical doctors or some such. If the NCAA regime collapses, at least this kind of hypocrisy might disappear.

But what about funding non-revenue sports?

OK, big-time college sports are just another kind of oligopoly capitalism that happens to be run by legally non-profit organizations. But isn’t it all necessary, to fund all other college sports?

Profitable, big-time sports are the revenue stream that pays for all the other sports on campus: women’s soccer, lacrosse, wrestling, tennis, track and field, you name it. In many or most of these, the players really are students who also do athletics. They get treated under the same rules and bureaucratic procedures as the money-sports jocks, but generally they would be playing for fun, exercize, and local prestige even if they didn’t have athletic scholarshps. All this would disappear, too, if the big-time sports are openly professionalized, and college athletes cut into the revenue stream that has been going to athletic departments.

All right, assume that it does disappear. What would it actually look like? There is nothing to prevent students from playing various kinds of sports. There would be no more scholarships for hockey, soccer, golf etc. Money for travel to play against other school teams around the country would dry up; they would have to play closer to home. They might even have to go back to intramural play.

To see what this looks like, all we need to do is look at Britain. These universities do not have school teams competing against each other, but they have plenty of athletics. These students are quite literally amateurs, playing cricket for the love of the sport. There are no athletic scholarships and no recruiting rules that could be violated. There are plenty of athletic fields; this is a cheap expense and universities are willing to absorb it, as part of the university tradition. British students generally enjoy sports; but for them, it is much less as spectators, since they actually get to play the games themselves.

Some top athletes trained in this system. Roger Bannister became the first runner to break the 4-minute mile in 1954 on a track at Oxford, when he was a medical student. Wait a minute, an American might say: since when do medical students get to compete in college sports? We have the rule that only undergraduates can compete, with a maximum of 4 years eligibility; this rule is a by-product of restricting athletics to those on scholarships. The one big inter-university sporting contest in England is the annual Henley Regatta, an 8-man crew race between Oxford and Cambridge on the Thames River. The teams are made up of students, mostly at graduate and professional school level, as well as university personnel such as scientists and medical doctors. Why not? These are the best rowers, and they represent the university as a whole; there are no bureaucratic rules as to who can take part, except that you must be a member of the university. 

On the Continent, the decoupling of sport from education is even more extreme. French, German, and other universities have no sports teams at all; nor do they have stadiums or playing fields. *  (For the most part, this is also true of secondary schools,) Students who want to take part in sports join a sports club. This has nothing to do with any school; it is a place with facilities for swimming, soccer, rugby, gymnastics, etc., funded by dues, or sometimes by local communities. (Sweden got to be big in tennis by a program of building indoor courts.)  In some countries, where sports is considered important for national prestige, the government has its own sports programs or schools (notable in the old Soviet bloc and in China), where the curriculum is purely sports. These are not countries without sports, but countries where sports are in one sector and one social identity, and being a student is another social identity, and no one confuses the two. 

* German universities generally have buildings for a particular faculty or specialty in a particular part of the city, with other faculties in other places; they have their own cafeterias and gathering places, but these form identities by what you study, not around the university as a whole. Living in dormitories and going to school athletic events together—the American pattern—does not exist in most places.

The result is that intellectual and academic achievement is not clouded by a prestige system that focuses on sports and defocuses everything else. These are the countries that lead the world in student test scores. More importantly, they are places where intellectual work is respected, and intellectual standards are high. They win Nobel Prizes and have heavily cited scientific papers—at a proportion to their educated population that is higher than the US; here we have more university students and professors than anywhere else, but our average intellectual productivity is modest. Since the early 20th century, when American universities began to dwarf other countries in sheer numbers, size, and money, the top intellectual talent from Europe and the rest of the world has migrated to American universities. This continues in the 21st century. To the extent that there is intellectual excellence in the U.S., it depends to a considerable degree on the presence of foreign students and faculty from more intellectually-oriented systems.

It doesn’t have to stay this way. The collapse of the NCAA regime and similar fusions of sports spectacles and educational institutions would put the US back into the situation of the rest of the world—at least in this respect, where we are lagging.

Would university prestige fall, if we didn’t have famous college teams?

Yes, for some schools. Especially for the big state universities that don’t have top faculties and have low academic standards. (I don’t mean Michigan or Berkeley or UCLA, which have dominant research faculties; but I do mean most of the schools in the top-25 football or basketball weekly rankings.) These are places that you would never hear of if they weren’t in the sports pages.  And since attending team games is the one big collective event at most schools, and the big party weekends at universities, the attractiveness of attending college would decline for many of these students.

How severely such schools would be hit remains to be seen. Credential inflation has ramped up for the last half-century or more, and competition for college degrees may keep these schools afloat even with a more utilitarian atmosphere. The elite colleges and universities have long since gone beyond resting their prestige on their athletic teams. * Eliminating school athletics there would have no effect at all on their financial condition, or their prestige.

* Football was invented and publicized at schools like Yale, Penn, and Rutgers at the turn of the 20th century, where it started as a pastime organized by students themselves; and then became a rallying-point for public prestige and school spirit as universities changed from being clubs of the local upper class into nationally competitive institutions. But the growth of scientific research, especially during and after WWII, gave an alternative source for prestige; and the wider struggle for admissions led to more emphasis on elite schools as a route into top corporate and government careers. For these universities, athletic fame (which they had held up through the 1920s) became superfluous. The University of Chicago was a big football power in the 1920s; but an academically-oriented president eliminated football, and the university went on to become the most intellectually-elite university in the country. It already had a lot of money from John D. Rockefeller, and it was famous for hiring away the best professors in the country. If most people have never heard of the University of Chicago, it is because they get their information from the sports news.

The open professionalization of college sports would bring some schools into a crisis. But this would feed into a trend already under way. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the public has begun to question the economic payoff of a college education instead of taking it for granted. There have been more discriminating looks at what kinds of schools pay off in career success and which ones don’t. Purely profit-oriented schools have poor results, and are already failing economically as there is a squeeze on government-supported student loans. Athletics-dependent universities may be the next to go. The elite colleges and technical schools continue to do well, above all because of their prestige networks into elite science, professional firms, corporations and politics. Such pipelines are by their very nature restricted; which is one reason why they are awash in applications. Even if the big state universities were to collapse, it would only return the US to a situation like Britain or Germany, where there are relatively few universities but all of them of high intellectual quality.

In a wider perspective, collapse of the NCAA system would be only one of several major crises already looming. The sustainability of credential inflation into the endless future is in question.  The threat of computerization and artificial intelligence displacing most middle-class jobs—and potentially most intellectual work—would be a crisis of how to find jobs, or at any rate sustainance, for the bulk of the population. In the context of these other crises, the disappearance of the athletic-centered university would be just another feature of the next epoch of historic change now on the horizon.


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Armstrong, Elizabeth A., and Laura Hamilton. 2013. Paying for the Party. Harvard Univ. Press.

Arum, Richard, and Josipa Roksa. 2011. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Chiang, Yi-lin. 2018. “When Things Don’t Go as Planned: Contingencies, Cultural Capital, and Parental Involvement for Elite University Admission in China.” Comparative Education Review 62:

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