Never have we seen such an exploitation of physical abilities since slavery. Until College Football.

We had a debate about this in our English class.

Our English teacher said that since there was a period after slavery, slavery was off the table and it only meant that College Football was an exploitation of physical abilities.

However, I feel like it was a direct comparison because it said that we haven't seen that much exploitation since slavery, and then says "Until College Football".

I'm not saying my teacher was wrong, but I didn't understand her explanation. So which is it and why?

  • 1
    Equate as in physical exertion? Yes. Equate as in nastiness? No. – Mohit Aug 13 '16 at 18:36
  • Let’s see with an example: exploitation in slavery 10; maximum exploitation in any other field but football after slavery 5; so the statement says exploitation in football is greater than 5; we don’t know whether greater or lower than 10. So the statement does not compare slavery and football. Although, presumably, if you thought exploitation in football was greater than in slavery you’d say it was greater than at any time in human history. The more important difference is though that college footballers have a choice; slaves didn’t. Looks to me this is more about logic than English though. – Jacinto Aug 13 '16 at 19:03
  • Go ahead and say it: your teacher is wrong. The first sentence says that slavery had no institution comparable -- that's the such -- to it with regard to exploitation of physical ability. The second sentence (fragment), says that situation changed with the advent of college football, which is now comparable to slavery in that area. It's irrelevant whether the sentiment is true or which institution is worse. Can you get a better teacher? – deadrat Aug 13 '16 at 20:10
  • @deadrat I changed the title, and yeah I thought it was weird that slavery would just get "thrown off the table" because there was a period there. What would you compare football against? – Areeb Aug 13 '16 at 20:37
  • @Jacinto I'm not saying that the statement is right or wrong, I was wondering what it meant. – Areeb Aug 13 '16 at 20:41

I think this can be read three ways, because constructions like this are used in different circumstances:

I haven't seen such a big fish today. Until that one. We haven't seen such a wet winter since records began. Until last winter.

Here the time period is arbitrary. I happen to be talking about today, or about recorded weather. I'm not saying the last winter before records began was wetter or drier than last winter. I'm not saying if I didn't or didn't see a bigger fish yesterday. I'm just not talking about that long ago. "Such" clearly refers to fish/winter that I introduce in the sentence fragment, not to anything that happened exactly at the start of the time period I'm talking about. So here I'm not making a comparison.

I believe we can rule this interpretation out, unless we wish to be way more pedantic than it's likely the author intended us to be. The author might in theory have selected slavery as a completely arbitrary time period, but since slavery is itself an exploitation of physical abilities, that would be some coincidence. No, the choice isn't arbitrary.

We haven't seen such a genocide since the Second World War. Until Rwanda.

(Please don't debate how bad a genocide Rwanda was or talk about the Khmer Rouge or whatever: my point here is not about whether my hastily-chosen example is correct, just the construction of the sentences).

Here, the Holocaust is an extreme case of genocide, and we've chosen the Second World War to mark off our time period because of that. We're not saying here that Rwanda is worse than the Holocaust. We're saying that it's the worst in the time period 1945-1994. "Such" again means "as much as the thing I'm about to mention next", not "as much as the thing I'm using to limit my time period". I think this is probably how your teacher interprets the quotation.

And although we're not quite saying that the Holocaust was worse than Rwanda, we're strongly suggesting that it is worse or else why choose it to mark off the time period we're going to consider, a time period that by design excludes the Holocaust? So we are making a comparison between the two, and we're saying the Holocaust is worse, and that's why we've chosen the time period "since then".

It is worth bearing in mind that when someone says "this is the worst since X", and it's possible to compare X with this, then they do usually mean that X was worse than this, so they are making a comparison. Sometimes this leads to unintentional humour when they don't mean X was worse: "9/11 was the worst thing that had happened to the USA since Bush was elected".

Still, I'm not entirely satisfied with that interpretation for two reasons. Firstly because of the way the quotation uses the full stop and the sentence fragment. This abruptness suggests to me that the author actually intends it as a counter-point of what went before, "It used to be the case that slavery was the worst we'd seen. Then college football happened". But it's not conclusive and it might not be intended that way just as my Rwanda example isn't intended that way. Even if it is intended that way it might be intended as hyperbole, it's not possible to tell without context. The second reason is that if "such" is supposed to refer to "college football", off in another sentence, then it's much clumsier than if "such" is supposed to refer to slavery.

So, I can't rule that interpretation definitely right or wrong. It could instead be interpreted with "such" referring to slavery. Then it becomes like:

Never had we seen an exploitation of physical abilities as bad as slavery. Until college football

That would be unambiguous and would be a clear comparison of college football with slavery, saying that it's at least as bad an exploitation of physical abilities. Against this interpretation, the author could have just put it this way, and didn't. Other people have compared college football to slavery more directly, but this author chose to use a construction that could reasonably be interpreted not as a comparison between football and slavery, but only as a comparison between football and anything that has happened since slavery.

Lacking any other context, I'm inclined to take the quotation as being deliberately vague about exactly what comparison is being made, and even whether a comparison is being made. The comparison is insinuated but not exactly stated. Whatever order we place them, we're invited to hold in our minds slavery and college football as the two big exploitations. Your teacher's interpretation avoids guessing what the author is trying to make us think, and sticks only to what is definitely said. But I still think your teacher should have taken into account that even in my middle interpretation, there is an implied comparison between the two.

  • Thanks for the great answer. I think that my teacher didn't take the implied comparison into account because of the emotional baggage. – Areeb Aug 14 '16 at 13:42

First, you should realize that the statement does not (strictly speaking) equate University Football with slavery, although it attempts to use the moral repugnance of slavery to assert that a similar repugnance should attach to the exploitative practices of University Football.

Consider a town on a river which occasionally has floods. 100 years ago the town was completely washed away in a flood with water levels 40 feet above normal. Last week, flood waters 3 feet high (the highest in 100 years) damaged many homes. While it would be entirely accurate to say "the highest water since the Great Flood", but that would not actually say that the flood was even close to the 40 foot levels of 100 years previous.

In the same way, the statement that the exploitation of University Football has not been seen "since slavery" is a nice rabble-rousing bit of misstatement. It attempts to tar the football system with the brush of slavery, without actually calling it such.

The teacher's statement, though, is wrong. It is taking the statement at its symbolic, propaganda value, and trying to deal with it as a literal statement. Since the original statement does not actually state that the University Football system actually is slavery, the objection by the teacher is not really to the point.


Let's remove the emotional baggage:

Never have we seen such a whole number since 3. Until X.

No, I don't think the questionable period takes 3 off the table. It's called context. I think a comma would have been better but a period does not isolate you from your context. If it did it wouldn't mean College Football was anything since the only word College Football relates to is "Until".

  • That's what I thought, why would the context go away?; however, how would the comma have helped? – Areeb Aug 13 '16 at 20:39
  • "Until College Football" is a sentence fragment. Is it a preposition for words that never come? In which case it's missing ellipses. Is it a conjunction that has been amputated by the period? That should be a comma. If you said these words to me what I'd have written down wouldn't have been this. – candied_orange Aug 13 '16 at 20:44

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