The Chronicle Review

Emancipate the Black College Athlete

Raymond Allbritton

May 05, 2014

History was made on April 25 as the scholarship athletes of the Northwestern University football team, led by the former quarterback Kain Colter, cast their votes on whether or not to unionize after a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that they could be considered employees. The results won’t be known for weeks or even months, as the university appeals the decision to allow a vote. But if the students are successful, college athletics as we know it could change drastically.

The regional ruling indicated that college athletes in the high-profile and high-revenue sports have a right to unionize and, thus, to bargain collectively over health-care coverage, transfer rules, and even practice time. (Testimony indicated that football players can spend 40 to 60 hours a week on football-related activities during the season.) But most notably, the NCAA is concerned that athletes would be able to negotiate for potential compensation for their role in the college-sports industrial complex.

The athletics governing body responded to the recent NLRB announcement by stating, "This union-backed attempt to turn student athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary." The NCAA’s president, Mark Emmert, expressed a similar concern: Unionizing, he said, "would blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics." The suggestion here is that players compete solely for the love of the game—and that paying them would damage their intrinsic motivation to play.

It is clearly time for reform in college athletics. But should players be paid for their part in a multibillion-dollar industry?

Northwestern’s football coach, Pat Fitzgerald, has been adamantly opposed to his players’ unionizing. After the initial ruling, he told reporters, "I believe it’s in their best interest to vote no."

But is his advice really in the best interest of the players? Maybe it’s the roughly $11-billion in annual revenue that the not-for-profit NCAA rakes in from sporting events; maybe it’s the 40 of the 50 states where a university’s head football or basketball coach is the highest-paid public employee in the state; maybe it’s the $2.2-million a year that Fitzgerald himself makes as one of those highly paid coaches: Whatever the reason, the interests of the university and the NCAA appear to run counter to those of the athletes. Fitzgerald’s attempt to persuade his athletes to vote against unionization smacks of disingenuousness.

The decision to unionize or not belongs to the players. Black men from disadvantaged settings are the silent voices at the center of the fray. Overrepresented in the two top revenue-producing sports, football and basketball, these young men are used for their brawn and are promised unrealistic rewards. One study noted that between 2007 and 2010, black males constituted 57.1 percent of football players and 64.3 percent of men’s basketball players, but just 2.8 percent of full-time, degree-seeking undergraduates. Black men are significantly underrepresented in the scholastic side of the "student athlete" experience.

Academic success for black athletes faces a number of challenges. Because public education in the United States is unequally funded by a system of local property taxes, the masses of young black males who reside in deprived settings obtain fewer resources and "get what they paid for" by receiving a marginal education through no fault of their own. Nevertheless, these same unprepared black males are recruited to universities solely for their athletic prowess. The picture becomes clear: Universities and colleges rely on black bodies to fill their coffers and to further the interests of whites through a coordinated method of black exploitation.

Sadly, none of this is new. From 1619 to 1865, black muscle was used to build this nation's infrastructure and, in essence, its wealth. Black Americans were forced to perform an estimated 222 million hours of unpaid labor, working from sunup to sundown in the fields, in the mines, and in other areas of backbreaking drudgery. Post-slavery America continued to use black men and women for their labor for an additional 100 years, during the sharecropping era of Jim Crow racism. Blacks often earned meager wages (invariably falling short of their living expenses), which further left them destitute and indebted to whites.

Today big-time college sports is one of a handful of activities in which blacks can be controlled for profit. Young black men follow directives from modern-day robber barons who dictate the terms and conditions of play.

As former and current players of Northwestern University demonstrated in their brief to the NLRB, football occupies most of a player’s time, with a highly regimented daily schedule from meal time to film study to practice. This is not unusual: Players nationwide put in an unreasonable amount of training time as they prepare to fill the seats in stadiums across the country. The message sent here by college stakeholders is "cultivate your brawn."

Even more concerning is the lack of academic preparedness among these students when they arrive on campus. It is utterly self-serving on the part of the institution to recruit players who lack the basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills necessary to obtain a good education. This is not to imply that all African-American athletes are struggling. But because public education has uniformly failed black children, especially those from impoverished areas, these black students are often primed for academic failure long before they arrive at college. To the 17-, 18-, or 19-year-old students from disenfranchised neighborhoods, a college education is too often an impractical and improbable recompense.

If there is not enough time, manpower, or resources to fulfill the promise to provide these young men with a legitimate opportunity to earn an adequate education and degree, the least colleges can do is pay them for the use of their bodies. Colleges use black athletes to increase the enrollment, as football and basketball success can be a reason for a student’s choice of institution. A familiar pattern emerges: Blacks are used for monetary gain, to which they have no access­—they do not own their own labor power. The black male athlete represents the "mule" in college sports, doing what he has been conditioned to do in society by serving white interests.

Black athletes find themselves disproportionately located in the athletics departments of most major Division I colleges. A recent study shows that only half of black athletes finish their degrees in six years, compared with 67 percent of athletes over all. The poor graduation rates for black athletes at some of America’s finest colleges is indicative of the systemic failure of American public education and its continued racist practices of exclusion.

These young men deserve an exceptional education. Short of that, compensation would improve their college lives.

It is, at the very least, educational negligence to profit off the backs of the least advantaged players, somehow suggesting that the predetermined majors, no-show classes, and mock degrees are more than sufficient for these students. These young men deserve an exceptional education, one that will set them on a path toward excellence. Short of that, compensation for athletes in high-revenue sports would be a significant way to improve their college lives.

Unionizing will allow athletes to negotiate with the college for provisions specific to their needs. Because most black athletes received a less-than-adequate primary and secondary education, colleges must invest in bridging the achievement gap. The money that flows into university systems could be used to greatly enrich the lives of black men who too often live at the margins of society.

It is obvious to the casual observer that the bulk of young men who entertain and thrill fans in these most high-profile sports happen to be African-American. These students, most of them from urban landscapes, stand to gain the most from reform. The big business of college sports could soon morph into a system in which players own various aspects of their labor in ways that ensure their success during and beyond their college careers. With all the talk on both sides of the issue, what has been lost here are the voices of the powerless.

Darron Smith is an assistant professor in the department of physician assistant studies at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. He is the author of the forthcoming book The Truth About the Honor Code: When Race, Religion and Sport Collide (Rowman & Littlefield).