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.
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.
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