This article is bound to bother the hell out of some of you. I’ll be honest – it disturbed me, too. Not because it’s poorly researched, or clumsily argued, but because when I rail about the unfairness of the NCAA’s amateurism protocol, I tend to do so from the perspective of someone who believes in the purity of the classical liberal approach to free markets and leave it at that.
That’s all fine, but it ignores the reality of race. And while I don’t think amateurism at its heart has ever been about racial animus (nor do I think that about the people running college athletics)…
Understand this: there’s nothing inherently racist about amateurism itself. And there’s no reason to believe that its defenders and proponents—including current NCAA president Mark Emmert—are motivated by racial animus. When amateurism was fashioned out of whole cloth by Victorian-era English aristocrats, its ethos was strictly classist: snobby upper-class rowers didn’t want to compete against unwashed bricklayers and factory workers, and concocting an ersatz Greek athletic ideal of no-pay-for-play provided convenient justification. Likewise, the American colleges that copied their English counterparts at the dawn of the 20th century weren’t looking to plunder African-American athletic labor—not when their sports and campuses, like society at large, were still segregated.
Today, the economic exploitation within college sports remains race-neutral on its face. The association’s strict prohibition on campus athletes receiving any compensation beyond the price-fixed value of their athletic scholarships applies equally to players of every color. White former Texas A&M University quarterback Johnny Manziel couldn’t cash in on his market value any more than black former Auburn University quarterback Cam Newton could. When black former Vanderbilt University center Festus Ezeli was suspended in 2011 for accepting a meal and a hotel room from a school alumnus, it wasn’t any different than when white former University of Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch was suspended eleven years earlier for accepting a plane ride and a ham sandwich from a candidate for the school’s board of regents.
… it’s simply impossible to deny the math that suggests strongly that the college athletics business model is powered by racial exploitation. Black men made up only 2.5 percent of the overall student population at the schools in the five biggest Division I conferences. Yet, look at this chart.
Then, look at these charts.
After seeing that, how do you argue against a conclusion like this?
“You could argue that the system is not failing us, that it is doing exactly what it is intended to do, ” says Eddie Comeaux, an associate professor of higher education at the University of California, Riverside who has studied race, diversity, and structural inequality in college sports, and once played Division I baseball at the University of California, Berkeley. “Think of the stakeholders. The coaches, presidents, the people in positions of privilege and power—namely, white men—all benefit handsomely from this enterprise.”
Along those same lines, consider this rebuttal to the argument you hear from many that the revenue generated by these black student-athletes in football and men’s basketball is needed to allow schools to pursue their agenda of promoting the athletic experience for students in non-revenue generating sports.
This matters, too. As Fortune points out, U.S. Census data indicates that African-American households make around $35,000 a year, about 35 percent less than the average white household. Meanwhile, the Aspen Institute’s Project Play reports that the poorer the family, the less access their children typically have to the increasingly expensive youth sport feeder system that stocks the rosters of these non-revenue sports. The result? Black athletes paying the freight for white ones, even though the former group is more likely to need the money than the latter. “The idea that you rob the poor to pay the rich is what’s happening,” says Renae Steiner, a Minneapolis-based antitrust lawyer who worked on the O’Bannon case. “The [college] lacrosse team gets no revenue. Well, who plays lacrosse?”
The numbers are brutal. And there’s much more in that piece than I’ve quoted here. For those of you offended by what that suggests, and those of you who, like me, want to resist acceptance of the statistics because it leads to a conclusion you don’t want to draw as a fair one, run through this mental exercise and answer it honestly.
A few weeks ago, Yee spoke to students and faculty at the University of Virginia’s School of Law, his graduate alma mater. When college sports came up, he noted that most NCAA-level women’s cross-country teams are made up of white runners. He then asked listeners to participate in a thought exercise. Imagine, he said, if those teams brought in millions of dollars. Then imagine if the money mostly went to well-paid black administrators, and to black athletes competing in non-revenue sports. Would that situation be tolerated, let alone tolerated for decades?
This is the kind of stuff left unresolved that eventually fuels revolutions. I’m not talking about the kind with guns, of course. Just the kind with player strikes and lawsuits.
“They’ve imposed a tax on football and basketball players,” says Sonny Vaccaro, the longtime shoe company dealmaker who helped spearhead the O’Bannon lawsuit and has become one of the NCAA’s most vocal critics. “That’s what it is. A tax. Like what the British put on the Americans. They take the money that could be pouring back into those player’s lives. The money comes from mostly one segment of society: African Americans.
“It is Downton Abbey. We just won’t accept it.”
It’s easy to suggest things like making student-athletes’ admission strictly reflect the admission standards of the general student body, but that ain’t happening, because it doesn’t fit with the schools’ business model. Nobody’s paying billions to watch cross-country or equestrian riding on ESPN. There aren’t recruiting services following women’s crew religiously. We’re just not that interested.
Let’s face it. If it did fit, we’d already be there. (Remember Jim Delany’s threat to go Division III with the Big Ten? Good times.) Instead, you’ve got this structure that’s becoming ever more creaky, ever more hypocritical, largely because the money flowing through has become so enormous that it’s impossible for any of us to ignore and because the schools are too addicted to the cash to face going cold turkey… at least willingly.
Don’t stop with the schools, though. We’re part of the sausage making, too. At heart, it’s our interest in the revenue generating sports that’s driving this train and makes the math we find so disturbing a real thing.
It’s only going to get uglier. Even if the NCAA refuses to see that, don’t say you weren’t warned. Math is hard.