September 23, 2021

Lakeway Parks

The Smart Business

Race, money and exploitation: why college sport is still the ‘new plantation’ | College football

“I think NIL is just to keep kids from going overseas, especially in basketball, to keep them in college. They’re still not getting the cut they deserve. I think it’s still a slave mentality.”

That’s how CJ Watson, a former University of Tennessee and NBA player, characterized the 1 July move by the NCAA, the main governing body of US college sport, to liberalize its policy on name, image, and likeness (NIL) rights. The decision permits college athletes to make money from things such as sponsorship and public appearances, activities that were once prohibited under the dubious rationale they would compromise the integrity of amateur sport (amateur sport, incidentally, in which the coaches and administrators often make millions of dollars a year).

For many proponents of reform in college sport, the news was heralded as a major victory. And, indeed, the denial of these rights was symptomatic of the exploitative economy of college athletics in the United States. Yet, to celebrate NIL rights – in some cases yielding as little as $3 per endorsement – as the end of racialized exploitation in college athletics obscures the reality highlighted by Watson: big-time college sport is often about rich white people using Black people for profit.

In his 2010 expose of the NCAA, sociologist Billy Hawkins traces the relationship between predominantly white colleges and universities (PWIs) and Black athletes. For Hawkins, the structure of big-time college sports reflect long-standing systems of economic, political, social, and cultural coercion, producing an “intercollegiate athletic industrial complex,” at PWIs – a new version for a plantation mentality that has long exploited Black people in the US for economic gain.

NCAA sport was built upon the foundational racial inequalities of American society and higher education. White colonizers and later Americans established the first universities in the US on land stolen from Indigenous peoples, and built and paid for these institutions using the exploited labor of, and profits extracted from, enslaved people. American racial capitalism permeated the structure of higher education from the 1600s on. Though historically Black universities and colleges (HBCUs) served as the predominant places of university instruction and athletic success for Black people due to racial segregation, white-dominated state legislatures sought ways to reform and maintain their racial control over higher education when racial segregation was outlawed in the postwar era.

Generous state funding for PWIs and their athletic departments (in contrast to HBCUs) became an avenue to legally reshape the plantation system. Seeking to boost their athletic success and prestige, PWIs lured Black athletes away from HBCUs with scholarships and better facilities than HBCUs could offer. Hawkins shows how the racialized organizations of the NCAA created a system of internal colonization, where the dominant group of PWIs became the colonizers who ‘bought’ Black athletes for their exploitative plantation system. The big colleges wielded the disciplinary cudgel of amateurism to prevent Black and Brown athletes from monetizing their labor through the specious goal of “protecting them from exploitation.”

A level playing field

The plantation dynamics of college sport today are most readily apparent in the elite power five conferences (the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Pac 12, and Big 12) and the sports that bring in the big money: football and basketball. In the 2018-2019 season, the 65 power five universities generated $8.3bn in revenue between them. Yes, 8.3 billion. As Watson succinctly puts it, “There’s still a lot of revenue going out there.” Yet, that money does not find its way into the pockets of the disproportionately Black athletes responsible for generating it. While only 5.7% of the students at the PWIs that make up the power five are Black, that number surges to 55.9% for men’s basketball, 55.7% for football, and 48.1% for women’s basketball. These athletes receive only cost of attendance scholarships in exchange for their labor. In many cases, they do not even receive health insurance.

So, where do those billions go? Well, the primary beneficiaries are the coaches, athletic department officials, and university presidents who oversee their work. White people disproportionately rule the campus athletic work in the power five conferences, whether at the level of chancellors and presidents (84%), athletic directors (75%), or head coaches (81% of men’s basketball coaches, 82% of women’s basketball coaches, and 80% of football coaches). The denial of compensation to the Black athletes who drive revenue is the single most damning dimension of the plantation dynamics of college sport.

Darius, a current SEC football player, told us: “It’s frustrating for me because NIL doesn’t change the fact that I show up every Saturday and play in front of thousands of screaming fans and everyone else gets paid.”

David West, a former NBA all-star who now helps run the Professional Collegiate League, an alternative to NCAA competition, says: “Even with [NIL], the same mechanisms of control are still in place, meaning the system is still set up to benefit the players last, not first.”

Connecticut senator Chris Murphy, co-sponsor of the pro-unionization College Athlete Right to Organize Act, agrees: “Majority-white executives have long exploited the talents and labor of majority Black college athletes, but America is finally waking up to the injustices that are inherent in college athletics. Giving athletes the ability to make money off their name, image, likeness should be considered the floor and not the ceiling. We must still ensure athletes receive fair compensation for their labor as well as health, safety and academic protections along with real power in their industry. This is a civil rights issue.”

Grappling with the plantation dynamics of big-time college sport also requires confronting the insidious myth legitimizing them: that players consent to participate. What the insipid platitude that ‘they signed up for it’ conveniently leaves out is the coercion at the heart of college athletics, even in the NIL era. This coercion comes in two forms.

First, the very decision to accept a scholarship and participate in big-time college sports is grounded in a form of racialized structural coercion. Borrowing from Jill Fisher, structural coercion refers to the social and economic conditions that shape the choices available to a person. The massive gap in social, economic, and cultural conditions produced by racial capitalism in US history, and the accompanying chasm in access to higher education and high-paying jobs, is exactly what structural coercion looks like. Today, Black families have less than 15% of the wealth of white families both on average and at the median. Moreover, while 45% of white 25-29 year olds have attained a bachelor’s degree and 56% have attained an associate’s degree, only 28% and 36% of Black Americans have. Given these disparities, a scholarship to participate in college sport becomes less a choice than a necessity.

College sports attract huge crowds, generating billions of dollars in revenue. Photograph: Gary A Vasquez/USA Today Sports

Kaiya McCullough, a former UCLA and pro soccer player and co-founder of the United College Athlete Association says: “Educational compensation is a far cry from full compensation for the amount of labor done and revenue generated by college athletes, and any substantial change in plantation dynamics within college sport would have to address this issue.”

Likewise, once on campus, athletes are confronted by a second form of coercion referred to by sociologist Erin Hatton as status coercion. Status coercion shows the myriad ways in which athletic departments exercise power over athletes by controlling chances to showcase their abilities in the hope of turning professional. The fact that coaches control whether an athlete plays means that they can also regulate what they are allowed to say and do via discipline and surveillance, fundamentally curtailing their freedom.

NIL rights do not resolve either structural or status coercion because college athletes must still remain in the good graces of their programs. For example if a football star isn’t playing every week, he’s unlikely to win a sponsorship from the local car dealer.

Ryan, a current Pac 12 player, says: “I don’t think NIL has fundamentally changed the plantation dynamics of college sports. There isn’t actually any pay for play. All that’s guaranteed is some money that you can possibly make off your own name.”

NIL also ushers a new era of gig-work into the lives of athletes – a labor environment literally subsidizing athletic departments by forcing players to seek out income from private companies. As Darius puts it: “It’s like I’m a fuckin’ Uber driver delivering tacos except I’m out there hawking some BBQ joint for money I’ve already earned.”

He continues, “no matter what they do, until we get paid for our work it’s still going to be a bunch of white guys getting paid on the back of Black folk like me.” Coaches and athletic department personnel reap the rewards of athletic labor whilst not paying the workers themselves. “In my eyes it’s fucked,” says Darius. “I gotta do even more work and everybody else is getting money that me and my brothers earn out there on the field.” These are plantation dynamics, rearranged.

McCullough is also unsure about who benefits from NIL. “I think some of the same racial dynamics are replicated in [NIL]. Black athletes have the potential to generate large amounts of personal profit with their NIL, however, in most cases these athletes have little to no help on how to properly market themselves … individuals with resources and access will be able to fully reap the benefits of NIL, while those who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds with less professional connections may not.”

Current WNBA player and WNBPA executive Elizabeth Williams sees NIL changes as “a step in the right direction,” particularly for “women to profit in a way they could not in the past,” but adds, “there are still certain players with access to resources like marketing and PR firms that Black players may not have access to.”

There is another important dimension to the equation. According to the current logic of big-time college sport, universities pay their players in the form of a subsidized education. But, if education is compensation, any way in which that education is compromised amount to wage theft. This is particularly problematic for Black players at PWIs often made to feel they don’t belong, including by professors. For Darius, “Some profs don’t give a shit about us, they see us as a nuisance or trouble or not worth their time … like we ain’t even real students. I have had profs help me figure shit out and really pay attention to my needs as someone who basically works a full time job for the university and I had profs who basically tell me I’m not a real student and I shouldn’t be there.”

The problem for racialized players, like all players, is, in part, the structural conditions of that education, which make learning almost impossible – athletes are commonly up before dawn, well before other students, for gym sessions and are often discouraged from taking classes that clash with training. Darius notes, “I want to further my education and all that, but sometimes that’s hard when I can barely stay awake [because I’m] tired as fuck from practice. I don’t even blame people for thinking I don’t care about school … how can I after a three-hour practice, film session, and team meetings?”

So, has NIL revolutionized the plantation dynamics of college sport?

West says that “NIL hasn’t fundamentally changed anything in college sports.” For Darius, in the end, “This whole thing is built on sand and NIL won’t change that.” Ryan concludes: “Racial injustice is an ongoing issue that getting a cut of the revenue can help but not erase from revenue sport. NIL certainly doesn’t do that.” And for Watson, “They’re still bringing in this fresh meat every year to build up the school’s name and that’s just going to continue until kids stop going the college route.”

That’s also how McCullough sees it: “Ultimately, until we address the fact that coaches are signing multimillion dollar contracts to control a largely Black labor force while that same labor force is denied adequate compensation, prohibited from unionizing, and literally killed from a lack of safety guarantees, plantation dynamics are here to stay, regardless of how much an individual athlete can make from their NIL.”

  • Nathan Kalman-Lamb, Derek Silva, and Johanna Mellis are co-hosts of The End Of Sport podcast.