Letters to the Editor

'Amateurism' Rules Benefit Whites at Blacks' Expense

May 15, 2011

To the Editor:

In "The NCAA and the Athletes It Fails" (The Chronicle, April 17), Thomas Palaima describes a disturbing state of affairs in college athletics. We write here to applaud his message and to add an important perspective to the problem he addresses. Professor Palaima notes that some athletes at U.S. universities "generate millions of dollars for their coaches, athletic directors, and institutions," but that "we have failed ... to make sure they have legitimate experiences as students." This, he says, has become "essentially a moral issue." We agree. Not only do our universities fail our students academically; they also prevent college athletes from sharing in the vast revenues of college sports even though the athletes' labor is an essential component of that lucrative product. We hasten to add, moreover, that the NCAA's amateurism rules—which cause this result and which arbitrarily limit compensation for players to the level of a scholarship—operate to disproportionately burden African-Americans and to benefit European-Americans.

In "Major College Sports: A Modern Apartheid," our forthcoming article in the Texas Review of Entertainment & Sports Law, we observe that NCAA amateurism requirements are imposed only upon athletes, not upon coaches, athletic directors, university presidents, NCAA officials, conference administrators, or any of the other beneficiaries of major college sports. Focusing on the top-ranked football and men's basketball teams—programs responsible for vast athletics revenues—we analyzed the racial composition of players as well as of key university officials. In doing so, we found that college football and men's basketball players at these major universities are disproportionately of African-American descent, while the beneficiaries of the lucrative enterprise of college sports—coaches and other administrators—are overwhelmingly of European-American descent. By applying only to athletes, NCAA amateurism rules operate to disproportionately burden African-Americans and to benefit European-Americans, reserving the revenue generated by the former only for the latter. In this manner, the NCAA's amateurism rules have an adverse and grossly disparate impact upon African-Americans.

The NCAA and its member universities attempt to justify their regime through the concept of "amateurism." Amateurism fails as a legitimizing factor, however, because major college sports are decidedly not amateur except in the pernicious sense that the persons most responsible for creating this product—the athletes themselves—are denied all but a sliver of the great wealth they create. In every other way, college sports has become a sophisticated, visible, and highly lucrative commercial enterprise. Until the members of the NCAA acknowledge the commercial nature of the college-sports industry and lift the ban on payment for athletic services, their shameful legacy will be the knowing maintenance of a system that disparately and adversely impacts African-Americans.

Today a largely African-American work force generates extraordinary wealth by creating the product of college sports, but those players are forbidden to share in that wealth. Instead, NCAA amateurism rules guarantee that the money will be reserved to benefit the overwhelmingly European-American managers of the college-sports industry.

Robert A. McCormick
Professor of Law
Amy Christian McCormick
Professor of Law
Michigan State University
East Lansing, Mich.