New York Law School

Profiting off of Black Bodies: Racial Prejudice a Major Factor in Denying Pay to Elite Collegiate Athletes

College sports have become an extremely lucrative business. The National College Athletic Association (NCAA) is contracted to receive $7.3 billion from ESPN for game broadcast rights between 2014 and 2026, and $11 billion from CBS and Turner Sports to broadcast “March Madness” basketball games over the next 14 years. In 2013, NCAA Football revenue topped $3.4 billion dollars, making it one of the most profitable sports, college or professional, in North America. To put that into perspective, the revenue generated by NCAA football comes relatively close to the NHL ($3.7 billion), the NBA ($5 billion) and the NFL ($6 billion). With all of this money being generated by college sports, especially basketball and football, the way colleges compensate their athletes has also come under great scrutiny.

Although the revenue generated by college football rivals that of other professional sports, the difference is those leagues have unions, and their players get a large piece of the revenue, while collegiate athletes are “paid” with scholarships that cover tuition, room, and board. When you add up all of the time a collegiate athlete spends practicing, training, playing in games and participating in team events, it is evident that they “work” the equivalent of full-time hours for the universities they play for. The value of these scholarships, when compared to the hours worked and revenue generated, would be considered an insignificant compensation in any other industry or setting. Additionally, the opportunity to obtain a college degree for free, one of the major justifications for not paying collegiate athletes, often takes a back seat to the sport itself.

However, despite the above facts, there is still strong opposition against paying collegiate athletes wages comparable to their work and revenue generated. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, 64% of people oppose paying collegiate athletes. To add insult to injury, the NCAA actually restricts athletes from receiving other forms of compensation (such as selling their own merchandise, working at a job that pays them more than $2,000 annually, and accepting monetary help from coaches). Yet this lack of adequate compensation is not considered exploitation in the eyes of the general public. So what could be the reason society feels that these dedicated and hardworking athletes should not receive all of the fruits of their labor? It turns out that reason just may be racial prejudice.

According to an HBO Sports/Marist Poll, attitudes towards paying collegiate athletes at the top football and basketball programs vary starkly by race. About 53% of Black people back paying collegiate athletes – more than doubling the support expressed by Whites at 22%. Racial divisions on controversial issues are not new phenomena. Strong differences in opinion exist between Blacks and Whites even on seemingly race-neutral policies, such as health care, voting rights, school discipline, and welfare. However, research has found that those gaps in opinion occur when Whites believe that a policy mainly affects or is beneficial to Blacks. Their opinions on those policies are inevitably swayed by their feelings towards Blacks as a group. The gaps in opinion for paying collegiate athletes based on race may not be any different.

According to data compiled by the NCAA, Blacks currently constitute the majority of players in division I college football and basketball, the two most profitable and well-known college sports. In many cases, these Black athletes come from low-income homes. Thus, it is not implausible to assume that most Americans think of poor young Black men when answering survey questions about paying collegiate athletes. To test whether racial prejudice influences White opinion on paying collegiate athletes, the Washington Post conducted a survey on “pay for play” policies. Their findings were this: negative racial views about Blacks were the single most important predictor of White opposition to paying collegiate athletes. In other words, the more negatively a White respondent openly felt about Blacks in their survey, the more they opposed paying collegiate athletes. The surveyors also conducted an experiment to check their findings validity. Before they asked White respondents whether collegiate athletes should be paid, they showed one group pictures of young Black men with stereotypical African-American first and last names. They showed another group no pictures at all. About 80% of the respondents that were shown the photos were opposed to paying collegiate athletes, versus 60% for those that were not shown any photos.

For proponents of paying collegiate athletes, it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that we have an “unpaid” labor force that is predominantly Black, and an incredibly highly paid management/coaching system that is predominantly White. You see, paying collegiate athletes means empowering one of the most exploited groups of Black people and could quickly equalize a massive inequality in profit from the labor of Black bodies. Paying collegiate athletes means taking away profits from the mainly White NCAA Corporate executives and collegiate coaches. Potentially, paying collegiate athletes could foster very long-term benefits to the Black community, in both community ownership and aspiration toward higher education.

Opponents, however, assert that collegiate athletes should be grateful for the opportunity to obtain a “free” education. This is essentially the notion that Black athletes have already made it further in life than they statistically should, thus should be grateful for any bones that are thrown their way. The “free” education is used as a justification to substitute scholarships for payment, and to also bar players from making any other money altogether. However, like any collegiate football player at a major program will tell you, that “free education” includes up to 60 hours a week of practice, film study, workout time, conditioning, traveling, and games (not even including classes). To make matters worse, before the NCAA recently decided to cover unlimited meals for athletes, there were many instances where players would go to sleep hungry. Additionally, these athletic scholarships do NOT cover many basic living expenses; such as clothing needs or groceries for those that don’t want to eat the often-unhealthy food being served on campuses. And let’s be honest, these student-athletes are not brought to campus to receive an education, as evidenced by the horrid graduation rates for collegiate football players as a whole. These athletes are brought to entertain and to serve as spectacle for the masses.

The NCAA President himself also asserts that fans like college sports because they believe the athletes are playing simply for the love of the sport. This “amateurism” is said to be the backbone of the success for NCAA collegiate sports. Fortunately for him, he is paid a salary of nearly $2 million per year.

Furthermore, the notion that it is the “love” of the sport that attracts fans is simply false. These mostly low-income Black athletes that make up the majority of the profitable NCAA sports are NOT playing for the love of the game. They are playing for a chance to feed their families, to lift themselves out of poverty, to simply “make it”. This hunger fuels their drive to lay their bodies on the line day in and day out, for the enjoyment of others. Yet despite the fact that these athletes are putting themselves at risk for long-term health issues, they are willing to sacrifice their bodies for a chance to become part of the one percent of collegiate players that go pro. Our Black athletes are being sold a pipe dream in the form of an educational opportunity, but even the educational opportunity is just smoke and mirrors. About half of Black football players in the top collegiate football programs do not graduate within six years of enrolling, which further proves their existence on campus as expendable bodies with only one purpose: generate revenue by entertaining the fans.

Thus, paying collegiate athletes, especially basketball and football players, is a racial justice problem. The NCAA has created a billion dollar industry on the backs of predominantly low-income Black youth, and refuses to pay fair wages for the substantial amount of labor being performed and revenue generated. Therefore, in order to end this form of exploitation and ensure fairness, we must ignore the racial prejudices and false justifications that have plagued the subject of paying collegiate athletes, and implement policy changes to the NCAA’s compensation rules. For instance, the NCAA could use some of the new TV revenues to provide athletic scholarships that actually cover each school’s cost of attendance, and a cost of living – not just tuition, books, and room/board (i.e. parking permits, transportation costs, groceries, toiletries, clothing). The NCAA could also adopt the Olympic amateur model by lifting restrictions on collegiate athletes’ commercial opportunities, such as endorsements and autograph signings. They could also adopt new policies that allow for athletes to receive a portion of their schools revenues that can be placed in an educational lockbox, a trust fund if you will, that can be accessed to assist in or upon the completion of their college degree.

These types of policy changes would not only aid in increasing the amount of Black collegiate athletes graduating with degrees at their respective schools, but would blaze the trail in subduing the exploitation of elite collegiate athletes in general by raising them out of poverty, and would foster a more sincere educational opportunity. Lastly, giving these athletes the compensation that they deserve is the just and fair thing to do.

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