The Myth of the Student-Athlete – Remix … March Sadness

By C. Richard King and David Leonard

"Basketball and Chain" - Hank Willis Thomas

“Basketball and Chain” – Hank Willis Thomas

With back-to-back nights of national championship games, with Mark Emmert and others denouncing player unionization, and with the NCAA propaganda wing – ESPN – continuing to paint a rosy picture of college sports, thought it would be instructive to return to this piece.  This is part of a piece that was published after the conclusion of Bowl season at Mark Anthony Neal’s site, New Black Man.  That piece also includes more discussion of football.  Read here and then read there

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Although a longstanding concept, one that ultimately constrains agency and power resulting in a system of exploitation and abuse, the history of the student-athlete parallels the increased financial power of collegiate sports. With each television contract, with 7-figure coaching salaries, and a corporate partners ranging from CBS to the U.S. military, the NCAA needs the “student-athlete” mythology more than ever.

The mythology surrounding student athletes creates a system where student-athletes have no power regarding their future. From the fact that scholarships are renewable each year to the inability of students to take their talents to another university, the lack of protections resulting from the amateur myth creates a system devoid of freedom.

For example, shortly after the hall-of-fame coach Larry Brown arrived on campus at SMU, he told several players that their services were no longer needed; in other words, he kicked them off the team. Can you imagine if a university hired a new department chair, and the first order of business was to tell several teaching assistants their services were no longer needed? That is what Brown told several student-athletes, although each would be allowed to remain at the school on scholarship. Despite the public pronouncements regarding the importance of academics, about student-athletes, the dismissal of these players is yet another reminder of what counts: athletics performance and wins/losses.

Jeremiah Samarrippas, the Mustangs starting point guard was one of those dismissed from the team, telling the “school’s student newspaper that Brown basically told him that he “wasn’t good enough to play for him.’” The callousness of a system that has turned student-athletes into athletic commodities is nothing new, in part resulting from a NCAA rule change in the 1970s that made scholarships renewal each year. Regarded as little more than property, these players were tossed away with little regard for their future.

Such disregard has become commonplace, and is evident in the recent case involving a student-athlete at Florida International University. Dominique Ferguson decided that FIU was not the place for him. Like other students, athletes and otherwise, he realized that FIU was not the best fit for him academically and personally. “I wanted to go to a school close to my family in the Midwest. I went to Hargrave [Military Academy in Virginia] my senior year in high school and came straight here and had seen my family only a handful of times. It was hard on me and affected how I played,” Fergusson told ESPN.com.

Unfortunately, his request was denied first by the athletic department and then by a “3-person academic board,” who paternalistically and arrogantly sent the following email: “After considering your email appealing the decision of the Athletic Department to refuse to grant you permission to speak to and transfer to another institution, and after listening to you during the appeal hearing, the appeal panel affirms the Athletic Department and denies your appeal. We believe it is in your best interest to continue your studies here at FIU. We would particularly encourage you to apply yourself to your courses for the rest of the semester.”

According to Fergusson, his experiences at FIU was a stark reminder of what Dave Zirin describes as collegiate sports’ “sham-amateurism:” “It was like I was held hostage,” Ferguson said. “They made me feel like I could never leave here.” While coaches, fans, and administrators often balk at any invoking of the phrase slavery to describe collegiate sports, situations like Fergusson’s make it hard not to make connections with the history of servitude. As noted by Taylor Branch, in The Shame of Sports, “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.”

The experiences of Fergusson are emblematic of the cartel model embraced within collegiate athletics. The power of the NCAA and their respective members is able to restrict the movement and opportunities available to student-athletes. Isn’t this by definition a cartel? Unable to transfer to a school that met his academic needs and his desires to be close to home, Fergusson has decided to enter the NBA draft, one of the few paths available to him in his search for freedom.

The myth of amateurism fuels the exploitative relationship and the lack of compensation.  Student athletes are required to spend their wages at the “company store.” Akin to sharecroppers who not only worked the land for virtually no compensation, but what little compensation they received had to be spent at the company store (usually owned by the land owner).  From food to tools, sharecroppers were forced to use their wages at these stores, often leading to debt and additional subservience.

Collegiate athletics is similar to sharecropping in that student-athletes must use their wage to pay for tuition, books, and room and board within the campus community.  According to McCormick and McCormick, “By this last arrangement, then, these athletes, unlike any other working people, are not free to spend their limited wages where they choose, but must spend them on college tuition, books, and other institutionally related expenses, regardless of their real needs or those of their families.”  The tuition provided to student-athletes in compensation of blood, sweat, and tears, is losing its value each and every year.  Beyond abysmal graduate rates and the funneling of student-athletes into “jock majors,” student-athletes are paid in a wage that is losing its value.
Sports, particularly basketball and football, and its athletes generate millions for the NCAA, its representative schools, coaches, and a number of corporate partners.  It is a billion dollar industry.  Yet, the wages paid are dubious at best and the value of that compensation is in steady decline.  This becomes even more striking as we focus our attention on the disproportionate number of African American student-athletes within revenue sports. 

The level of exploitation is certainly aggravated by the amounts of money generated by these athletes within these sports.  Worse, yet given the continued significance of race, the level of compensation provided to black “student-athletes” is that much worse.  The unemployment rate for black college graduates over 25 is almost twice the national average for blacks compared to whites (8.4 versus 4.4).  Studies have also shown that blacks are 50% less likely to receive a call-back from a potential employer; that whiteness is worth 8-years of job experience; that a white job candidate with a felony conviction is more likely to secure a job than black men without any criminal record, and we can see the fools gold that is collegiate athletics.

Imagined as amateurs, denied the rights as workers, and constructed through America’s racial fabric, today’s student-athletes, especially those with America’s revenue sports, are not only denied rights as laborers but also are denied the basic social contract. A lawsuit brought by former athletes, most notably Ed O’Bannon of UCLA, offers a case and point. The athletes filed suit against the NCAA, arguing rightly that they did not consent to having their likenesses used in popular and profitable video games, nor did they share in profits generated by them. 
We noted above some of the ways the slavery analogy applies to college athletics, it might be good to remind ourselves of the two complimentary systems consuming black bodies that satisfies the drives and desires of white America today, a nation in which those with power and privilege deny of the ongoing and systematic significance of race and power. On the one hand, the criminal justice system secures inequality and injustice through race-based policing and incarceration assuages the manufactured fears of white America; on the other hand, the sport-entertainment complex feeds its dreams of “one shining moment” and momentary intoxications during bowl season and March madness by capturing and controlling those supposedly free blacks, hiding their bondage under cover of academics and amateurism.

The most prestigious and profitable college sports programs in the country are all historically white institutions, some which resisted for decades efforts to integrate them, and which continue to remain overwhelmingly white with limited outreach to or interaction with historically under-represented groups . In addition many boast embarrassing rates of minority recruitment and retention. Now, ironically, even as these ivory towers remain disproportionately white, they happily exploit those too long excluded and marginalized.  Moreover, these white dominated institutions of higher learning still refuse to properly educate African Americans. 

To continue reading/read the entire piece please go Bowling for Dollars: The Myth of the Student-Athlete | NewBlackMan (in Exile).

One thought on “The Myth of the Student-Athlete – Remix … March Sadness

  1. Just a point on the Kentucky basketball image about those graduating…Is the focus here on those going pro being considered as failures for the school? I would take the money and get educated as I could as the years went on. No need to risk injury and career sticking around at the college level, if you are ready for the pros and can be financially stable for a long time. They could even get private tutors.

    I am personally a Syracuse fan and in the last 12 years of so we have see more players leave after just one or two years, thus they did not graduate, though some are doing extremely well in the NBA.

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