Plantations on the Playing Field: The Problem With College Sports

Kari Lydersen

Taylor Branch, renowned biographer of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., doesn’t lightly throw around allusions to slavery. So in exposing the shame of college sports” in the current issue of The Atlantic, Branch stops short of a slavery analogy but more than makes the case for an unmistakable whiff of the plantation” and a version of neo-colonialism, in which African-American athletes make billions of dollars for institutions of higher learning, merchandisers and TV broadcasters while all they are allowed to earn in return is an education that doesn’t even guarantee them a low-wage job.

When one hears scandal” or shame” and college sports” in the same breath, the things that might first pop to mind are the highly publicized instances of rape, physical abuse, homophobic slurs or other bad behavior by college athletes who often get away with it. And there do appear to be intertwined trends of misogyny, homophobia and impunity in college athletics. But Branch’s piece convinces the reader that without belittling these issues, the entire structure of college sports and specifically the prohibition on athletes being paid for their labor is a much greater and more systematic scandal and injustice.

He describes the neo-colonial” system, which could be forced to change in coming months as several lawsuits against the NCAA proceed:

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. Last year, CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting paid $771 million to the NCAA for television rights to the 2011 men’s basketball tournament alone. That’s three-quarters of a billion dollars built on the backs of amateurs — on unpaid labor. The whole edifice depends on the players’ willingness to perform what is effectively volunteer work.

Branch quotes retired LSU basketball coach Dale Brown saying

Look at the money we make off predominantly poor black kids…We’re the whoremasters.

Branch cites numerous cases of athletes punished for violating the NCAA rules against in-kind or cash payments for athletes, including for infractions as seemingly minor as accepting discounted or free tattoos. In many cases coaches, boosters and administrators knew about minor and major infractions but looked the other way as long as possible, putting the athletes in an awkward and unfair situation. Branch summarizes some high profile cases:

In 2010, the NCAA sanctioned the University of Southern California after determining that star running back Reggie Bush and his family had received improper benefits” while he played for the Trojans. (Among other charges, Bush and members of his family were alleged to have received free airfare and limousine rides, a car, and a rent-free home in San Diego, from sports agents who wanted Bush as a client.)…

Last fall, as Auburn University football stormed its way to an undefeated season and a national championship, the team’s star quarterback, Cam Newton, was dogged by allegations that his father had used a recruiter to solicit up to $180,000 from Mississippi State in exchange for his son’s matriculation there after junior college in 2010…Late this summer, Yahoo Sports reported that the NCAA was investigating allegations that a University of Miami booster had given millions of dollars in illicit cash and services to more than 70 Hurricanes football players over eight years.

The NCAA logic holds that not only can athletes not be paid cash for their athletic performance, but that they also cannot work for payment at all because that raises the risk of stars being given fake jobs involving little or no work to entice them to certain schools. While such practices were rampant before NCAA crackdowns, the result is that now athletes from impoverished backgrounds don’t even have a way to earn pocket change as their skills earn millions for others.

True, a college degree is worth tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars these days, and at some sports powerhouses student-athletes do come away with degrees, skills and contacts setting them up for successful careers beyond the playing field. But at all too many schools, students don’t get the academic support and guidance they need to excel or even graduate…and/or their degrees and skills aren’t marketable enough to give them a career or even a job once their playing days are over. The reportedly common practice of padding student athletes’ grades to keep them eligible to play might make their lives easier temporarily, but it doesn’t do them any favors in the long run.

Branch, who also recently published a book called The Cartel about the NCAA, points out that the head injury controversy currently wracking the NFL played a key role in the formation of college athletics.

Today, much of the NCAA’s moral authority — indeed much of the justification for its existence — is vested in its claim to protect what it calls the student-athlete.” The term is meant to conjure the nobility of amateurism, and the precedence of scholarship over athletic endeavor. But the origins of the student-athlete” lie not in a disinterested ideal but in a sophistic formulation designed, as the sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has written, to help the NCAA in its fight against workmen’s compensation insurance claims for injured football players.”

The battle crystalized in the face of a workers compensation claim in the 1950s by the family of a Texas A&M student, Ray Dennison, who died of a head injury from football. Branch writes:

Did his football scholarship make the fatal collision a work-related” accident? Was he a school employee, like his peers who worked part-time as teaching assistants and bookstore cashiers? Or was he a fluke victim of extracurricular pursuits?

Given the hundreds of incapacitating injuries to college athletes each year, the answers to these questions had enormous consequences. The Colorado Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the school’s contention that he was not eligible for benefits, since the college was not in the football business.”

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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