'I signed my life to rich white guys': athletes on the racial dynamics of college sports

·14 min read
<span>Photograph: John Minchillo/AP</span>
Photograph: John Minchillo/AP

On 30 January, Rutgers basketball player Geo Baker wrote on Instagram in response to a post by US college sports’ governing body, the NCAA: “I have to sign a paper that says my name and likeness belongs to the school. Modern day slavery. u realize we are playing in a pandemic being told to stay away from everyone we love just for y’all entertainment but i can’t sell my own jersey with my last name on it to help my future financially. That makes sense to u?” In invoking “slavery” and linking it to both the denial of economic rights for US college athletes – or, to call them what they really are, campus athletic workers – and the ongoing requirement of play during a pandemic, Baker highlights one of the ugliest dimensions of the college sport industrial complex: the disproportionately racialized nature of its exploitative dynamics.

This week marks the start of the biggest event on the college sports calendar, the NCAA Basketball Tournament. And for those unfamiliar with the absurdist world of US college sports, it is big business. Like, really big business, particularly in the elite Power Five conferences. How big? In the 2018-2019 academic year, the 65 Power Five universities generated $8.3bn through athletics. Yet, aside from scholarships, players don’t see any of that money directly. If players did receive a share, economist David Berri has calculated that men’s basketball players at an elite Power Five school like Duke would receive between $145,000 and $4.13m per year. And, here’s the thing: an extremely high proportion of the players being systematically denied the revenue they are responsible for generating are Black.

Based on the NCAA’s own figures, at the predominantly white institutions (PWIs) that comprise the Power Five, as of the 2019-2020 season, Black students comprise only 5.7% of the population. Yet, in the Power Five, Black athletes make up 55.9% of men’s basketball players, 55.7% of men’s football, and 48.1% of women’s basketball. At some schools, the numbers are particularly startling. Texas A&M, the second-highest athletic revenue earning institution in US college sports, has only 3.1% Black students in the general student body. Yet, its college football team is 75% Black, and its women’s basketball team 92.9%. It is hard to deny from these numbers that Black athletes are admitted into institutions that usually ignore them specifically to have their labor exploited for the universities’ gain.

These numbers are all the more galling given recent events. When Texas Longhorns football players did not remain on the field during the singing of The Eyes of Texas this fall because of what they called the song’s “racial undertones,” wealthy alumni threatened to pull donations and spammed the university with racist vitriol. One particularly troubling email sent by donor Larry Wilkinson read “less than 6% of our current study body is black...the tail cannot be allowed to wag the dog….and the dog must instead stand up for what is right. Nothing forces those students to attend UT Austin. Encourage them to select an alternate school...NOW!” As a consequence of these letters, players were told that if they did not participate, they could lose access to job opportunities after graduating.

More recently, Creighton men’s basketball head coach Greg McDermott admitted that he demanded players “stay on the plantation” during a postgame talk. Although he claimed to have offered to resign, the university chose not to take him up on the offer, presumably due to the success of his tenure. Meanwhile, in Tennessee, GOP state law-makers called on universities across the state to prohibit athletes from engaging in anti-racist protests during the national anthem. Each of these incidents offers us just a hint of the too-often veiled racist climate Black athletes must endure on campuses across the country.

Former University of Wisconsin men’s basketball star Nigel Hayes explains, “It’s always been an interesting situation and dynamic. Black athletes, but white school, white coaches, white fans… minimal Black people.” Hayes, who briefly played in the NBA and currently plays professionally in Europe, adds: “Most are aware these university teams, primarily men’s basketball and football, are filled with Black players. Making money for usually white people and not being able to have their share of a billion dollar plus industry. So the visual you get is white institutions recruit Black talent to make millions. While dealing with all the other hurdles of being Black.”

Related: A ruthlessly exploitative college football season finally draws to a close

We spoke to a number of current or recently graduated players about the racist dimensions of their experiences at Power Five PWIs. Most athletes were granted anonymity given the potential for reprisal from their colleges or employers.

Hayes’s sentiment was echoed by Paul, a former SEC men’s basketball player: “Every time I signed that piece of paper that said my name and likeness belonged to [university], I felt like I was giving up a piece of myself. Why should my school own my name? My image? How is that fair? I am a grown man. A Black man. And I have to sign my life away to who? To a bunch of rich white guys.”

The most recent data available from the NCAA (the 2018-2019 season) makes it clear that the primary beneficiaries of college sport are white. Although non-Hispanic/Latino white people make 60.1% of the US population, 84.4% of Power Five chancellors and presidents are white. In athletic departments across the Power Five, 75% of athletic directors. At the coaching level, 80.6% of head men’s basketball coaches, 81.54% of head women’s basketball coaches, and 80% of head football coaches in the Power Five are white. Why does this matter? The enormous revenue generated by Power Five sports subsidizes the salaries of white individuals in leadership roles despite the enormous pool of Black candidates for those jobs.

Former NBA player David West puts it this way: “Athletes are expected to be content as an unpaid labor force for a system that allows economic opportunities for everyone but [them]. The racial undertones are always there.”

In the 2018-2019 academic year, the 65 Power Five universities generated $8.3bn through athletics
In the 2018-2019 academic year, the 65 Power Five universities generated $8.3bn through athletics. Photograph: Joe Camporeale/USA Today Sports

It is not only the schools and their well-paid leadership that benefit from this unpaid labor. The college sport industrial complex also subsidizes major media corporations and the journalists who staff them. According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, 85% of sports editors and 82.1% of sports reporters are white. Pre-pandemic, CBS/Turner pulled in at least $655.1m from the men’s basketball NCAA Tournament alone, while ESPN networks earned $792.5m in ad revenue from college football. This revenue is entirely predicated on the racialized labor of unpaid campus athletic workers largely at Power Five schools.

It is impossible to fully grasp the nature of these exploitative dynamics without viewing them within the broader context of racial capitalism, the concept made famous by Cedric Robinson, which is to say global histories of colonialism and capitalism build to systematically extract wealth from people of color. Precisely because of the violent and systematic exploitation of unfree labor that built the United States, there exists what we might call a racialized political economy of life chances – one that distributes opportunity and access in massively unequal ways, particularly between white and Black Americans. This is how racial capitalism functions as a form of coercion.

If a scholarship and chance to play college sport is one of the best possibilities available for material uplift, it is something of a no-brainer to take that opportunity. But, when a choice is between bad and worse, then it isn’t really freely made – and that is exactly what we are talking about in the context of college sports. How else do we explain McDermott’s instinctive use of the plantation analogy? McDermott’s repulsive comments should not be dismissed as one-off lapses of judgement, but part and parcel of what Billy Hawkins calls “the new plantation”: a structure that views Black bodies as expendable and their labor essentially exploitable.

Guardian columnist and former NBA player Etan Thomas explains the impossibility of authentic consent in a neocolonial context this way: “You know when a company goes into an underdeveloped country and sets up shop there, and hires the locals there for pennies while the company makes billions of dollars. Then pretends that they are doing the locals a favor by providing a job opportunity for them that they otherwise wouldn’t have, and [provides] other benefits – maybe food and clothes and some form of healthcare – so they can stay healthy enough to continue working. That’s basically the system the NCAA has.”

Joe, an ACC football player, in reflecting on Black athletes working for PWIs, immediately picked up on the fictitious notion that participation equates to consent: “It is a dynamic we are kind of forced not to think about in my opinion. For me football was always used as a ticket or a way out of the way I was living. Therefore I feel as though I was never able to address the fact that people don’t care about me but only my athletic ability. It is especially hard doing it for no compensation that is worth what we have to endure both mentally and physically. It is kind of like slave owner Mandingo fighter, in that my coach is measured on how good his slaves perform. I even had a white woman tell me I ‘better be careful, boy,’ cause I was going south. All in all I don’t think everyone in my community was like this. I just feel as though I was looked at and treated a certain way and did not have the same opportunities as some of my teammates due to my skin color.”

Related: John Chaney used sport to fulfill a greater mission: giving hope to the disadvantaged

Similarly, Marla, a current WNBA player, shed light on the unique challenges faced by Black women in this context: “As a Black woman, the dynamics I experienced while I was at school were different. Yeah, of course we felt that we had no choice but to do what they told us and that our time wasn’t ours until basketball was done, not even when it came to school. But there was also this constant need for us to justify our existence compared to the guys. Everything for us was much harder to get credit for, even if we won more games.”

Jordan M Fields, a former track athlete at Pittsburgh, told us that “the extreme power imbalance that exists between Black college athletes, and white athletic administrators and coaches was obvious to me.”

Like Joe, she ultimately viewed college sport through the prism of the plantation: “College athletic programs rely on Black athletes’ labor and increase their profit the more they exploit them physically and restrict their academic and social freedom. My comparisons of sports at the college level, to the plantation system, focus on the ‘plantation’ not necessarily as a place, but as the extremely self-degrading and manipulated mindset of countless Black athletes caused by their exploitation and the undermining of their personal and professional growth as young Black men and women. I never had the opportunity to speak freely amongst other athletes at my alma mater about this, and I don’t believe the conversation would’ve been welcomed amongst athletic department leadership.”

This position was shared by another current ACC football player: “Recently, especially this last 2020 season, you could see the slave mentality some have regarding athletes. If you’re producing there is no problem, but however you show or express any concern outside of football or your respective sport, you’re a ‘liability.’”

Andrew, a SEC football player, highlighted how the NCAA’s prohibition on earnings have consequences for Black players, who are often denied the social capital that accrues to white athletes from college sport.

“While the education is great, being a minority and an athlete disadvantages you from being able to take full advantage of the opportunity. I was told by coaches to drop classes that would take up too much time. I was told that my GPA was fine as long as my eligibility wasn’t at risk. To have a lack of support from the athletic side, and to not be able to fulfill my academic potential is tough.

“The system isn’t fair, and many seem to think it’s broken. The truth is that it’s working as intended. The majority of scholarship athletes who are Black struggle to find good paying jobs out of college if they can’t make it [to the NFL], while white players, walk on or not, often land jobs at least earning $60,000 a year. This isn’t a coincidence, I’ve witnessed first hand the difference in experience white players have compared to their Black counterparts. Boosters and alumni are typically white, and they’re more than happy to hire people that look like them, especially if they came from the team they love. Players who are persons of color aren’t afforded these opportunities because we aren’t members of the same ‘club’ that our white counterparts are beckoned into. Being a student athlete is valued on campus and off, but few experience the prestige it offers, especially when the color of their skin is seen first.”

Players also pointed to the problem with the compensation they did receive in exchange for their labor: the cost of attendance scholarship and the degree that ultimately results – in other words, their education. In fact, the story itself is already told by graduation rates. While the graduation rate by 2019-2020 of the 2013-2014 cohort across Power Five schools was 78% for all undergraduates, that number fell to 68.6% for Black women’s basketball players, 60.6% for Black men’s football players, and all the way down to 46.7% for Black men’s basketball players. These numbers offer a fuller measure of the exploitation of Black athletes on campus. In addition to being denied a fair portion of the revenue they produce through their labor, they also don’t receive the full compensation they are promised: an education resulting in a degree.

Andrew described to us the feeling of being othered within academic spaces on campus: “I would purposefully not wear any team issued gear to class for the first few weeks in order to not be labeled as an athlete. Attending a PWI like I did brought enough negative assumptions about me without football adding to it. A decent number of my peers probably already thought I had gotten into the school because of my race instead of my merit, and professors weren’t always exempt from this thinking.”

Marla also picked up on this theme: “you know, I remember reading The New Plantation in a class and it makes a lot of sense to me. I often ask myself where I would be without basketball. Would I have had those opportunities? … Would I be accepted as a Black woman in the same way? Would I have been able to go to college? Would people on campus treat me the same? To be totally honest I think the answer is no way.”

Just days after his claim that college sport is “modern day slavery,” Geo Baker seemed to walk back his comment, clarifying: “I’m disappointed in the words that I used but I think there’s a bigger discussion that needs to be made. The headline was three words that were at the very end of very truthful facts, that we are owned by someone else.”

What Baker suggests is not so much that his analysis of college sports was incorrect, but that he is not permitted to name it for what it is. That too is a symptom of the white supremacist dynamics that shape and constrain the experiences of Black athletes in college sport today.

It’s long past time for that to change. Power Five revenue sport is saturated in plantation dynamics that essentially amount to forms of unfreedom for Black workers laboring to earn revenue for white institutions and the predominantly white officials who govern them. The problem is not calling the conditions of college revenue sport racism, white supremacy, or a new plantation; the problem is that no matter what label we put on it, that is what it actually is, and it is exactly what a lot of very wealthy and powerful white people want it to be.

  • Some names of interviewees have been changed

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