Could Dr. King Watch Big Time College Sports? Race Beyond Shame
by David Leonard and C. Richard King | NewBlackMan
In “Shame of College Sports,” legendary American historian Taylor Branch turns his college sports in this month’s The Atlantic. Focusing on the profits generated through college sports, the lack of power available to student-athletes, and the absurdity to claims of amateurism and student-athletes, Branch exposes the exploitation and hypocrisy that is as much part of the NCAA experience as March Madness and Bowl Games. Almost hoping to disarm critics who often scoff at ‘slavery analogies,’ Brand avoids that comparison instead embracing one that centers on colonialism.
Slavery analogies should be used carefully. College athletes are not slaves. Yet to survey the scene—corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as “student-athletes” deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution—is to catch an unmistakable whiff of the plantation. Perhaps a more apt metaphor is colonialism: college sports, as overseen by the NCAA, is a system imposed by well-meaning paternalists and rationalized with hoary sentiments about caring for the well-being of the colonized. But it is, nonetheless, unjust. The NCAA, in its zealous defense of bogus principles, sometimes destroys the dreams of innocent young athletes.
Providing readers with an amazing history, including the origins of the term student-athlete (as part of a systematic effort to avoid paying workers’ compensation claims for injured football players) and illustrating the methods used by NCAA and its partner schools to maintain the illusion of amateur sports all while raking in the dough, Branch surprisingly avoids the issue of race. The colonial analogy notwithstanding, there is virtually no discussion of the racial implications in this system, the larger history of the NCAA in relationship to race, and the ways in which white racial frames help to justify an acceptance of such a system.
Branch seems to point to the racial implications here in a section entitled, ““The Plantation Mentality,” where he quotes Sonny Vaccaro:
“Ninety percent of the NCAA revenue is produced by 1 percent of the athletes,” Sonny Vaccaro says. “Go to the skill positions”—the stars. “Ninety percent African Americans.” The NCAA made its money off those kids, and so did he. They were not all bad people, the NCAA officials, but they were blind, Vaccaro believes. “Their organization is a fraud.”
The reference to the “Plantation mentality” and the explicit acknowledgement that the bulk of profits are generated within sports that in recent years have been dominated by African American athletes generates surprisingly little discussion of the radicalized political economy of college athletics today. Over a decade ago, D. Stanley Eitzen observed
These rules reek with injustice. Athletes can make money for others, but not for themselves. Their coaches have agents, as many students engaged in other extracurricular activities, but the athletes cannot. Athletes are forbidden to engage in advertising, but their coaches are permitted to endorse products for generous compensation. Corporate advertisements are displayed in the arenas where they play, but with no payoff to the athletes. The shoes and equipment worn by the athletes bear very visible corporate logos, for which the schools are compensated handsomely. The athletes make public appearances for their schools and their photographs are used to publicize the athletic department and sell tickets, but they cannot benefit. The schools sell memorabilia and paraphernalia that incorporate the athletes’ likenesses, yet only the schools pocket the royalties. The athletes cannot receive gifts, but coaches and other athletic department personnel receive the free use of automobiles, country club memberships, housing subsidies, etc.
To our minds, then, Branch clearly misses an opportunity to reflect on the ways in which the system is built around generating profits through the labor of young African American men. Those profits – the billions of dollars earned through television contracts, merchandizing, video game deals, concessions, booster donations, ticket sales – find there way into the hands of overwhelming white constituency, coaches and athletic directors, in support of a largely white establishment.
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