Before Robert and Amy McCormick could see the racial injustice at the heart of big-time college sports, they had to wake up—literally. It was the summer of 2002, and the McCormicks, a married pair of professors at Michigan State University, were living in an East Lansing neighborhood located between a block of student housing and the school's athletic department.
Every morning around 5:30 a.m., Michigan State athletes would ride their bicycles past the McCormicks' house on their way to practice. Among them was Charles Rogers, one of the best college football players in the country, a tall, speedy wide receiver whom professional scouts were likening to National Football League star Randy Moss.
One morning, Robert saw Rogers whizzing by, his 6-foot-3 frame dwarfing a rickety bike that barely seemed road worthy. He's a first-round NFL draft choice, thought the sports and labor law professor, who had attended Michigan State himself and taught a sports law class at the university since 1984. Next year, he'll be making millions. But now, he's making nothing.
The imbalance ate at the McCormicks: college sports were a multibillion-dollar business, and here was a top talent stuck with a dilapidated two-wheel. While standing on the field at the school's Spartan Stadium during a football game, something else struck Robert, an image he couldn't shake. The players were in uniform, covered in Michigan State's green and white colors, but Robert could see their bare lower legs. "Almost all of them," he says, "were black." Just like Rogers. Meanwhile, everyone else—the coaches, the administrators, the faces in the crowd, and Robert himself—was overwhelmingly white.
"I saw a small group of black faces in the stands, and they were [football] recruits," Robert says. "It was incredible. I realized all of the people being paid or getting the pleasure out of the game were white, and the vast majority of the people playing and risking their health were black."
When the championship game of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's men's basketball tournament between the University of North Carolina and Villanova University tips off tonight in Houston, the scene will be similar, a microcosm of major college revenue sports as a whole. Most of the players on the court—whose sweat and sacrifice make the whole show possible—will be African-American. Almost everybody else, from Tar Heels coach Roy Williams and Wildcats coach Jay Wright to the corporate glad-handers in the luxury boxes, will not. The game will be the culmination of another successful season for a cash-rich campus athletics industry—and thanks to the NCAA's longstanding amateurism rules, which apply to college athletes and no one else in America, the lion's share of that money will flow from the former group to the latter. From the jerseys to the suits.
From black to white.
"You have two sets of legal rules that treat two different classifications of people differently, and it's unjustified," Amy McCormick says. "I would never say college sports are as bad as a system where people are jailed and killed, but it's an Apartheid system."
In 2010, Amy and Robert co-authored a law journal article titled "Major College Sports: A Modern Apartheid_,_" arguing that revenue-producing campus football and men's basketball hold black athletes in "legal servitude for the profit and entertainment" of whites. "These are sharp words," they wrote, "but the facts are indisputable."
Others agree. Sports agent Don Yee, whose firm represents NFL players including New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and retired linebacker Dhani Jones, calls the NCAA's refusal to pay athletes a racial injustice. Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker described campus amateurism as a regressive wealth transfer from mostly poor African-American athletes and their families to mostly well-off white managers, non-revenue sport athletes and their families. Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian Taylor Branch has written that Division I revenue sports exude "an unmistakable whiff of the plantation," while former NCAA executive director Walter Byers—a man who ran the organization for decades and essentially built modern college sports as we know them—wrote in his Road to Damascus memoir that his creation was suffused with a "neo-plantation mentality" in which the economic rewards "belong to the overseers," with "what trickles down after that" going to young men such as Rogers.
It's not hard to see what's happening, the McCormicks say. You just have to look.
"One group is predominantly white, the other is predominantly black, and only one has the power and writes the rules for its benefit," Robert says. "I was a big Michigan State fan for a long time before we wrote our first article, and it's kind of embarrassing it came so late in my life. But once you see it, you can't unsee it."
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.
And yet, while the NCAA's intent is color-blind, the impact of amateurism is anything but. In American law, there is a concept called adverse impact, in which, essentially, some facially neutral rules that have an unjustified adverse impact on a particular group can be challenged as discriminatory. For instance, the Supreme Court ruled in a landmark 1971 case that a North Carolina power company could no longer require prospective employees to have a high school diploma and pass two intelligence tests—a screening process that didn't relate to job performance but did have the effect of excluding high numbers of African-American applicants at a workplace that already was highly segregated. Similarly, sociologists speak of structural racism when analyzing public policies that have a disproportionately negative impact on minority individuals, families, and communities. State lottery systems that essentially move money from predominantly lower-class African-American ticket buyers to predominantly middle-and-upper-class white school districts fit the bill; so does a War on Drugs that disproportionately incarcerates young black men; so does a recent decision by officials in Maricopa County, Arizona, to drastically cut the number of presidential primary polling stations in and around Phoenix, which unnecessarily made voting far more difficult for the residents of a non-white majority city.
Big-time college sports fall under the same conceptual umbrella. Amateurism rules restrain campus athletes—and only campus athletes, not campus musicians or campus writers—from earning a free-market income, accepting whatever money, goods, or services someone else wants to give them. And guess what? In the revenue sports of Division I football and men's basketball, where most of the fan interest and television dollars are, the athletes are disproportionately black.
According to the NCAA, 58.3 percent of Division I basketball players and 47.1 percent of Division I football players in 2014-15 were black, making them the largest racial group in both sports. Focus on the Power Five conferences that gobble up most of Division I's broadcast revenues, and the picture largely looks the same—black participation percentages are a bit lower in the Big Ten and Pac-12, and the same or higher in the others:
African-Americans also make up a disproportionate share of the very best, most valuable athletes in college sports—that is, the prep recruits ranked the highest coming onto campus, and the departing players most coveted by the NFL and the National Basketball Association. The McCormicks found that 82 percent of the top 250 high school football seniors and 88 percent of the top 150 high school basketball seniors in 2010 were black. Don Yee, the sports agent, calculates that in recent NFL drafts, five times as many black players were taken in the first two rounds than white players. In the last five NBA drafts, 84 percent of the top 10 selections who played college basketball were black.
According to the U.S. Census, blacks made up 12.3 percent of the nation's total population in 2012. Meanwhile, a 2016 study by the University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education found that black men made up only 2.5 percent of the overall student population at the schools in the five biggest Division I conferences. In other words, African-Americans aren't just overrepresented in big-time college sports; they're wildly overrepresented.
This does not hold true, however, when it comes to positions of power. The head of the NCAA always has been a white man, and none of the Power Five conferences has ever had a non-white commissioner. A 2015 study by the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport of the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision schools—most of the major college sports money-makers—and a second UCF study of campus athletics as a whole found that industry decision-makers were overwhelmingly white:
The white majority leadership of college sports has a long history of acting in its own economic self-interest when it comes to the rights of black athletes. Consider basic participation: in the 1930s and 1940s, Northern teams typically benched their African-American players in order to participate in profitable Southern bowl games—Boston College twice benched Lou Montgomery to play in the Cotton and Sugar Bowls—while in the 1960s and 1970s, Southern teams integrated their football squads because failing to do so was competitive (and financial) suicide. Does the current amateurism status quo reflect more of the same? It's hard not to wonder.
"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."
Now follow the money. The NCAA takes in roughly $700 million annually from CBS, Turner, and ESPN for the broadcast rights to March Madness—a sum that reportedly will jump to nearly $900 million per year from 2019 to 2024. ESPN is paying $7.3 billion over 12 years to televise the College Football Playoff and four other bowl games—about $470 million annually, or roughly $67 million per contest. Major football conferences are collecting hundreds of millions more through their own television deals and networks—the SEC made a NCAA record $455.8 million in 2014-15—and Yee says college sports merchandising and licensing revenue exceeds $4 billion annually.
According to Institutional Investor, the 124 schools with major football teams brought in a combined $8.2 billion in athletic revenue in 2014, double what they made a decade earlier. Dan Rascher, a San Francisco-based economist and expert witness for the former athlete plaintiffs in the recent O'Bannon v. NCAA federal antitrust trial, estimates that Division I football and men's basketball generate between $10 billion and $12 billion in yearly revenue.
No matter how you measure it, that's a lot of cash. Where does it go? Mostly not to the predominantly black athletes who play the games. NCAA rules restrict player compensation to athletic scholarships, small cost-of-living stipends—worth roughly $2,000-$5,000 per semester—and association hardship funds for things such as travel for family medical emergencies. (Oh, and athletes are also allowed to keep up to $1,350 worth of bowl game swag bags and gifts, like the XBox One video game consoles handed out at the Military Bowl.) The result, Rascher says, is that Division I college football and men's basketball players only receive about 10 percent of the total revenue they help generate.
The rest largely ends up in white pockets. Outside of the athletes, compensation levels across major campus sports are astronomical. Williams and Wright, the coaches in tonight's men's basketball championship game, earn $2 million and $2.5 million a year, respectively. NCAA president Emmert was paid $1.8 million in 2013. The five power conference commissioners, all white men, earned between $2.1 million and $3.5 million the same year. University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban, who won the college football championship earlier this year, makes about $7 million annually; his program's strength coach (who is also white) reportedly makes over $600,000. Clemson University football coach Dabo Swinney was the lowest-paid College Football Playoff coach at $3.3 million per year, and has a "chief of staff" who makes only $252,000.
According to USA Today, nine campus athletic directors in 2013 were paid more than $1 million a year, and the average salary for the position at FBS schools was roughly $515,000. Average base pay for head football coaches at the same universities exceeds $2 million, while 37 of the 68 head coaches in this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament made more than $1 million annually. Yee notes that bowl game directors can make nearly $1 million for administering a single game. There are other job perks, too. The Washington Post reports that the Pac-12 gave commissioner Larry Scott an interest-free, $1.86 million loan to buy a four-bedroom, four-bathroom, wine bar-equipped 4,600-square-foot home in 2009. Expense report documents viewed by VICE Sports show that former University of Washington football coach Steve Sarkisian, who made about $2 million a year in salary, was also given football and basketball tickets in 2011-12 valued at almost $19,000, all while the school leased his wife a $55,000 sport-utility vehicle.
Then there are non-revenue sport athletes: swimmers and rowers, golfers and cross-country runners, tennis and lacrosse players, most of them supported and subsidized by the profits from big-time football and men's basketball. Like the people in charge of college sports, NCAA statistics indicate that this group is primarily white:
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?"
Add it all up, and this is the amateurism-enabled wealth transfer that Nobel Prize-winning economist Becker and others have diagnosed, the one the McCormicks can't unsee. Just how much money is being extracted from black athletes and their families by the major college sports industry? Let's do some back-of-the-envelope math. In the NFL and NBA—where football and basketball players are free to unionize and collectively bargain with their employers—athletes receive about half of total league revenues. In major college sports, it's 10 percent. Bump that up to a pro-level 50 percent, and that's an extra $4 billion annually for all revenue sport athletes.
Since African-Americans make up about 53 percent of football and basketball players put together, that means they're losing about $2.2 billion, each and every year.
Of course, that's a rough guess, and one that lumps both sports and every Division I conference and school together. In 2011, the National College Players Association, a college athlete advocacy group, and Drexel University professor Ellen Staurowsky published a study estimating that if FBS football and basketball players received the same percentage of industry revenues as their professional counterparts, the average football player would be worth $121,048 per season, and that the average basketball player would be worth $265,027. For the very best athletes at the biggest, most lucrative college programs, those numbers could be even higher: the average University of Texas football player would be worth $514,000 a season, while the average Duke University basketball player would be worth $1 million.
Keep in mind, those numbers were based on college sports revenues in 2010-11; given the subsequent influx of additional television money, those estimates would be even higher today. Moreover, Staurowsky's estimates don't take into account any potential outside athletic income—like athletes signing autographs for cash, or starring in commercials for local car dealers, or getting paid for wearing Nike hightops instead of seeing coaches and administrators pocket money for wearing branded shoes during golf outings with donors, and sticking the company's swoosh logo on equipment trucks. Nevertheless, they help show what amateurism costs the average African-American major college football or basketball player: somewhere between $500,000 to $1 million over a four-season campus career, a tidy sum that those same athletes will never, ever get back.
A well-known NCAA television advertising campaign claims that "there are 400,000 NCAA student-athletes, and almost all of them will go pro in something other than sports." This is true. Only 1.2 percent of college basketball players are drafted by the NBA; just 1.6 percent of college football players reach the NFL. So for the vast majority of those revenue-sport athletes, the four years they spend starring on ESPN's Big Monday or in the Battlefrog Fiesta Bowl are the prime earning years of their athletic lives, and likely of their lives in general—in 2010, the percentage of American households with adjusted gross incomes of over $500,000 a year was less than one percent in 49 of 50 states.
"Several black athletes have told me how even when they get a [cost-of-living] stipend, they have to send it back home to help family out," says Billy Hawkins, a University of Georgia professor who studies the sociology of sports and is the author of The New Plantation: Black Athletes and College Athletics. "Whereas the majority of white athletes coming from middle class families don't have those same responsibilities. So even if and when white athletes are experiencing economic exploitation, it can still be a disproportionate impact."
When African-American former Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter led a high-profile push to unionize his school's football team in 2014, he did so for a number of reasons: deep misgivings over the power imbalance between NCAA schools and athletes; a lack of financial support for players, especially ones from poorer families; a pattern of steering athletes away from useful and demanding courses of study, the better to keep them eligible for sports; and a system that didn't seem to do enough to protect football players from brain trauma, nor provide medical coverage for athletes whose campus injuries can afflict them for life.
According the book Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA, Colter also had a personal motivation for demanding change: the story of his uncle, Cleveland, a former football star at the University of Southern California.
Cleveland Colter was supposed to be one of the athletic one-percenters. As Indentured reports, he went from top high school recruit to All-American safety, and was considered the best athlete on a Trojans defense that also featured future NFL stars Junior Seau and Mark Carrier. However, a debilitating knee injury his senior year derailed his professional prospects. Years of investing his time and sweat into a sport, and he wouldn't have a cent to show for it. Today, he runs a school lunch catering business. Imagine what an extra $500,000 would have meant to him, and how it might have changed his life. Imagine what that it would mean to any black revenue sport athlete. That's money to start a business. Buy a home or a rental property. Pay for a child's education. Take care of a sick relative. Stick into a stock market index fund, ignore for 40 years, and then retire with peace of mind. Imagine black athletes building lasting wealth for themselves and their communities—in 2013, the median net worth of white American households was $141,900, while the same figure for African-American households was just $11,000—instead of watching powerful white people do the same.
"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."
Hold up. Aren't African-American football and men's basketball players receiving something of immense value from the NCAA system? Aren't they getting a college education—and a debt-free education, to boot?
Isn't that a fair and just exchange?
A few days before the Final Four, Pac-12 commissioner Scott, a white man who made $3.4 million in 2014, and Big East commissioner Val Ackerman, a white woman whose salary is unreported—her predecessors in the job reportedly made around $500,000 annually— co-published an editorial on CNN.com arguing as much. Under a headline reading "College Athletes Are Educated, Not Exploited," they claimed that 67 percent of all Division I athletes will go on to become college graduates—a slightly higher graduation rate than that of non-athletes—and that campus athletes receive something even more important than a degree: namely, "they're taught how to be successful in college and in life."
For black athletes, however, this is too often not the case. Already disproportionately shut out of an economy they power through sweat, blood, and concussions, they disproportionately receive substandard educations as well.
Seventeen years ago, a NCAA report examining Division I athletes who enrolled in school in 1992-93 found that just 42 percent of black football players and 33 percent of black basketball players had graduated after six years—far below a 54 percent graduation rate for male students in general. Today, the situation has improved, but not by much. In 2012, a University of Pennsylvania study reported that the six-year graduation rate for black male college athletes in six major Division I conferences was 50.2 percent, less than comparable graduation rates for all students (72.8 percent), all college athletes (66.9 percent), and all African-American male students (55.5 percent). In 2016, an update found that the black male graduation rate had slightly improved to 53.6 percent. Also this year, a UCF study found that the NCAA's graduation success rate—another six-year measure that accounts for school transfers—for black men's basketball players on this year's 68 NCAA Tournament teams was 75 percent, 18 points lower than the rate for white players. (The graduation rate for black football players on 2014-15 bowl teams was 66 percent, 19 percent lower than the rate for white players).
"Disproportionately, they are not graduating," Comeaux, the UC Riverside professor, says. "It's largely based on a notion that it's not a priority, that classes are just there to maintain eligibility so they can participate in sports."
Indeed, graduation rates don't tell the whole story. In his research, Comeaux has found that engagement with faculty is crucial for academic achievement, yet professors tend to spend much more out-of-class time with white male athletes than black ones. Furthermore, athletes frequently find themselves choosing (or steered into) undemanding majors, which is hardly surprising given that playing big-time college football or basketball is a year-round, high-pressure, physically taxing, 40-60 hour-a-week job with frequent and irregular travel demands. African-American former Duke basketball player Shane Battier, an excellent student, majored in religion because it didn't conflict with his basketball schedule. Kain Colter started at Northwestern as a premed student, but switched his major to psychology after football practice forced him to miss too many science classes. In 1991, African-American former Ohio State University running back Robert Smith, an aspiring doctor, quit the school's football team for a year and instead ran track after accusing coaches of not taking his academic responsibilities seriously.
This year's Final Four featured two schools, Syracuse and North Carolina, whose basketball programs were recently involved in academic scandals. A NCAA investigation found that Syracuse's athletic staff members accessed the email accounts of several athletes, communicated directly with faculty members while pretending to be those athletes, and also did school work for them; most notably, the Orange's former director of basketball operations helped former Big East Defensive Player of the Year Fab Melo remain eligible by completing one of his papers. Meanwhile, malfeasance at North Carolina was far more widespread: school employees steered 1,500 athletes over 18 years toward no-show "paper classes" in the school's Department of African and Afro-American Studies that never actually met and only required students to hand in a single research paper. African-American former Tar Heels basketball player Rashard McCants, a member of the school's 2005 national championship team, told ESPN that he even made the dean's list in the spring of 2005—despite not attending any of the four classes for which he received straight A's. Last year, McCants' sister Rashanda, a former North Carolina basketball player, and African-American former UNC football player Devon Ramsay filed a federal class action lawsuit against the school, alleging that athletes were harmed by the paper class scheme—a practice that lead plaintiff's lawyer Michael Hausfeld said "was nothing more than an integral, foreseeable part of the entire enterprise of big-time contemporary college athletics, in which academics is truly the stepchild to athletics, and the meaningful education that the NCAA promises and commits to is nothing more than an illusion."
McCants' case is extreme. But are second-rate athlete educations all that uncommon? Eight years ago, USA Today investigated the phenomenon of academic "clustering"—that is, large numbers of athletes taking particular majors at much higher rates than the general student body, possibly (or presumably) because those majors are less demanding and will help them remain eligible—and determined that it was commonplace at big-time sports schools. A 2009 study of clustering in ACC football found that black players were more likely to cluster than their white counterparts, and that at six schools, over 75 percent of the black players were enrolled in one of two majors.
"Graduation doesn't equal education," says Hawkins, the University of Georgia professor. "That's one of the things I've always been critical of. I've been on this campus 20 years. We can graduate athletes. But what's the quality of that education, and does it lead to gainful employment in fields that are comparable to what they've studied? We've studied football players 10 years out and we find that's not the case. Players are working in fields that are sort of beneath their degree. I think that's a pattern."
On the first night of the NCAA tournament's Sweet Sixteen—around the same time Villanova tipped off against the University of Miami, Florida—sociologist and longtime civil rights advocate Harry Edwards stood behind a podium at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, addressing a college athletes' rights conference.
"Let's be honest and straight up," he said. "When we talk about football and basketball, we are talking about the black athlete."
In the early 1960s, Edwards had been one of those athletes himself, a basketball player and record-setting discus thrower at San Jose State. Looking around, he saw a campus that was mostly white—students, faculty, administrators, curriculum; everything save its sports stars—and an athletic department that was defined by its "willingness to exploit black athletic talent." He saw white athletes "get [summer] jobs that black starters didn't get," and "tours to places that black athletes didn't even know were being given." After returning to the school as a part-time instructor, Edwards presented a list of civil rights grievances to San Jose State's leadership on behalf of the school's black students and athletes; the group included black football players, threatened to sit out the first game of the 1967 season if their demands—including more black students and professors, equal access to student housing, and desegregated fraternities and sororities—weren't met. (Shortly thereafter, Edwards would become famous for attempting to organize an African-American athlete boycott of the 1968 Summer Olympics, an effort that inspired John Carlos and Tommie Smith's seminal black power salute on the medal stand in Mexico City.)
"Why should we play where we can't work?" Edwards said, recalling that San Jose State cancelled the game. (The cancellation prompted a war of words with then-California governor Ronald Reagan, who called Edwards "a criminal, unfit to teach." Edwards dubbed the future president "a petrified pig, unfit to govern.") "People thought that question was insane at the time," Edwards continued, adding that the school's athletics and campus sports in general could be characterized as "a plantation structure."
"Fifty years later, that statement can still be made," he said. "It has not changed."
Most of the people who currently run college athletics would disagree. Vehemently. The entire enterprise can't possibly be unjust, let alone racially unjust. Not when athletes—including African-American athletes—are given so much. Small cash stipends. Four-year scholarships. Unlimited snacks. Access to world-class coaching and palatial training facilities. Athletes get to play exciting games before large crowds of adoring fans; they get academic tutors to help them learn, and to literally walk them to and from class. Exploited? If anything, they should feel grateful—and not like the former players suing the NCAA in federal antitrust court, whom Texas women's athletic director Chris Plonsky, a white woman who makes roughly $500,000 a year, says are entitled malcontents who "sucked a whole lot off the college athletics pipe."
Except: the injustice in college sports isn't just about the terms of the deal. It's about the terms of the dealing. Amateurism deprives athletes—again, predominantly black athletes—of freedoms and rights the rest of us take for granted. The same antitrust laws that prevent schools from colluding to limit assistant basketball coach salaries don't protect campus athletes, even when federal courts rule that the NCAA and its member schools are violating those laws. Sports labor lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, who is currently leading a bellwether case against the association, says athletes "don't have any rights under federal labor laws. They don't get to form a union, strike, collectively bargain, or file unfair labor practice complaints. That's not available to college athletes." Instead, they exist as second-class citizens, separate and unequal, just as the NCAA intended—according to former association director Byers, the term "student-athlete" was a legalistic ruse specifically created in the 1950s to prevent injured football players from collecting workers' compensation.
Throughout American history, exploitation has flowed from inequality. It flowed after blacks were deemed three-fifths of a person at the original Constitutional Convention, and when they were later denied due process under Jim Crow; it flowed when women were denied the right to vote. Under Apartheid, the McCormicks write, South African laws prevented black workers from striking—sapping whatever bargaining power they otherwise might have flexed—and also mandated specific wages and hours for many blacks. Meanwhile, whites were allowed unfettered access to a free market. Sound familiar?
"I've used the term 'racial injustice' [to describe college sports], but I try to avoid using the term 'racism,'" says Yee, the sports agent. "I can't look into someone's heart and know their intentions. But the facts are in plain view.
"I've never ever had one of my [athlete] clients ever say to me that the current system is equitable. Nobody. In fact I have one caucasian client who grew up with black friends, played at a prominent school, has done very well for himself, came from an upper-class family. And he thinks this is one of the greatest injustices in American society. It really bothers him at his core."
March Madness really is a stirring reminder of what America was founded on: making tons of money off the labor of unpaid black people
— Bill Maher (@billmaher)March 22, 2014
Yee's client is in the minority, at least among whites. In 2014, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that while 66 percent of non-whites supported college athlete unionization, only 38 percent of whites did. Similarly, 51 percent of non-whites favored paying college athletes—but just 24 percent of whites agreed. A HBO Real Sports/Marist poll last year revealed more of the same: while 59 percent of African-Americans felt college athletes should be paid, only 26 percent of whites concurred.
Numbers like those caught the attention of Tatishe Nteta, a University of Massachusetts political science professor whose research focuses on ethnic politics. So did a 2014 soliloquy from then-ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd, who caught flack from civil rights groups after making arguably coded statements about pay-for-play. "I don't think paying all college athletes is great, not every college is loaded and most 19-year-olds (are) gonna spend it—and let's be honest, they're gonna spend it on weed and kicks," Cowherd said on air. "And spare me the 'they're being extorted' thing. Listen, 90 percent of these college guys are gonna spend it on tats, weed, kicks, Xboxes, beer and swag. They are, get over it!"
Nteta knew from previous studies that underlying racial animus helps shape whites' attitudes toward health care, welfare, and criminal justice—in short, the more resentment a white person feels toward African-Americans, the more likely they are to oppose public policies they perceive as benefiting blacks. "Say you ask a question about building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico," Nteta says. "Rather than think about about how much that will cost, or how ridiculous the idea is, you just think about your attitudes toward undocumented immigrants and Mexicans, and that influences how your think about building a wall."
Do white attitudes toward amateurism work the same way? In the fall of 2014, Nteta and two academic colleagues attached a set of targeted questions to a larger public opinion poll connected to Congressional midterm elections. They found that race isn't the only reason whites oppose pay-for-play, but it's a major one. In fact, Nteta says that negative racial views about blacks were the single most important predictor of white opposition to paying college athletes, with higher levels of resentment corresponding with higher levels of opposition. "We tried to look at factors like interest in college sports, your love of the NCAA, if you were a college athlete, if you were a union member," he says. "We found that none of that is important. But race can't be divorced from this story."
Nteta cautions that his research is preliminary, and not quite ready to publish in an academic journal. Additional work is needed. Still, it raises an unsettling possibility: if college sports carries Branch's "whiff of the plantation," then perhaps the rest of us do, too.
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?
"The reaction was largely silence," Yee says.