By Elen Tesfamariam
It’s quite fascinating how a documentary that I posted about on Instagram 62 weeks ago found its way on this cultural artifact blog post. At the time, I knew that what I was watching was rather disturbing but in no way did I realize that there is a direct correlation between the documentary and a slave plantation. Instead it was just another alarming documentary that angered me as they typically do. It wasn’t until I was forced to think about ways in which the slave experience of racial slavery has implications today that I made this connection. We see associations of what slavery has done, and its lasting effects on black people in obvious ways, but there are also those subtle inferences that are difficult to identify. Recently I had a conversation with my best friend, who was a former college football player when a light bulb went off in my head. I found my cultural artifact. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is the modern day planation, which was best described in the documentary called Schooled: The Price of College Sports created by Taylor Branch. This one hour and twenty minute masterpiece made a full circle in which we can see similarities between collegiate athletes of today to slavery and Jim Crow laws of the past.
Taylor Branch is an amazing author and public speaker who spent the majority of his life geared toward civil rights. He is known for putting together a masterpiece trilogy of books on the history of the civil rights era in Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-1965, and lastly Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-1968. Although a white man, Branch expressed a deep sympathy for the civil rights movement. It was evident in his writings that he wanted to create an accessible work of art in which future generations could learn about the civil rights period in history. Even though it took Branch a little over twenty-four years of intensive research to chronicle these books, the black movement was nothing new to him. At an early age Branch immersed himself in blackness by moving down south, but his curiosity grew as he continued to research for his books. Through the National Archives, Branch had access to taped conversations between civil rights leaders and the FBI. By listening to these tapes, Branch began to have a personal connection to leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and other greats. He also mentioned that Martin Luther King Jr. had been trying to preach America out of segregation with movements such as the Montgomery bus boycotts, but it wasn’t until college students challenging the system that really sparked a change. In his research branch discovered that the civil rights movement rested largely on the brain power of college students by initiating sit-ins in segregated lunch counters and segregated libraries. For these reasons Branch had a special connection to college students. This is when his research about the NCAA began to unfold in his documentary Schooled: The Price of College Sports.
In this documentary Branch exposed the NCAA for all of the ways in which it exploits student athletes who just so happen to be mostly black. The NCAA is supposed to be a non-profit organization that regulates athletes of institutions and conferences. The purpose of the NCAA is to organize the athletic programs of colleges and universities. However, this nonprofit organization has turned into a billion dollar industry in which athletes who keep the organization afloat are unpaid. Not only are they unpaid, but they typically live below the poverty line. Although some may argue that college students are supposed to be poor, one can say that a regular student does not have a fair market value of about $265,027 as the average basketball player brings in. There is even a greater disparity when it comes to students of large programs such as Duke University in which the average basketball player is valued at about one million dollars while the athlete lives $732 above the poverty line. Scott Loukrod who is a professor at Harrisburg University has said that “I have heard some debate about schools benefiting financially from student athletes to the tune of millions of dollars, while the athletes themselves scrape by while in school and see nothing afterwards unless they become a professional athlete. When phrased that way, it seems unfair.” In 2012, the NCAA brought in 71 million dollars and rewarded the coaches and administrators quite handsomely. In the documentary Schooled: The Price of College Sport one of the star running backs for UCLA Johnathan Franklin mentioned, “We are college students, but we are really working in my opinion.” Operating as non-profits untaxed and no shareholders, the NCAA not only brings in the big bucks, but owns the rights to the players in an elaborate way.
While players are prohibited by the NCAA from profiting from their own jerseys, an online search for their football jerseys lead to the team store with jerseys bearing the athletes numbers instead of their last names. As soon as the new stars come through the program, the numbers on those jerseys change and the school along with the NCAA continues to profit from the player’s individual success. Meanwhile, the players see none of the money they generate for the university. Recently the NCAA found another elaborate way to make money off of student athletes by funneling searches engines to lead folks to the team shop if they simply typed in the player’s name. In an interview the ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said, “It’s not about need. It’s about exploitation. Any time an entity or a person makes money off of another entity or person, while at the same time restricting that person or entity, that’s exploitation. It’s wrong to the point of being immoral when you really think about it.” Furthermore, athletes are unable to profit off of their own signatures, or memorabilia such as championship rings, uniforms, or awards. If they violate this rule, they will be suspended. Essentially the NCAA have the rights of “owners” and receive payment from the labor of the athletes in various forms while prohibiting players to earn any money.
College athletics today bear a striking resemblance to the decades following emancipation in which blacks were denied the whole value of their labor through Jim Crow laws. Southern legislatures enacted laws that allowed former slave owners to limit the economic opportunities available to black workers and increase their profits. This sort of exploitation was allowed to continue because it harmed blacks which were a disfavored group of people. For example “sunset” laws were put in place in order to limit economic growth for newly freed blacks. Sunset laws made it so that blacks were not allowed to leave work during the day which stopped the ability for blacks to do what they wished with what their own hands created. We saw an example of a similar situation in 2010 when the University of Georgia’s star running back Todd Gurley was suspended for reportedly selling his signature. Just as blacks were prohibited from selling specified agricultures goods from sunset to sunrise the NCAA prohibits college athletes to benefit from their own goods.
Furthermore, we see another connection to college athletes and slaves during racial slavery with subsistence production. Because slaves were not given basic necessities such as food and medicine, they had to become resilient innovators. My best friend, who I mentioned was the former college athlete told me stories of how he and his teammates would regularly “doctor up” Top Ramen noodles by adding ground beef and additional seasonings because they were too poor to eat real food. It is a big misconception to believe that college athletes are rolling in dough. Although their coaches and administrators may receive a nice income, outside of the one or two stars on the team, most of these athletes receive dismal funds if anything. Often time’s athletes run out of scholarship money, so they have to make way with what they are given.
For the most part slaves were unable to hold jobs. In fact if they did receive any outside work, it was rare that they were paid in cash. It was also up to the good will of the master to allow slaves to partake in these activities only after working long hours on the field. We saw an example of this in 12 Years a Slave when Solomon Northup had to get permission from his master in order to play the violin for pay. Similar to the cotton field student athletes are not allowed to hold jobs that pertain to athletics. So for instance if the athlete wants to do a commercial or sell their merchandise, they cannot do so. However, if they get the permission of their coaches, they may be able to obtain a job working at a pizza shop which is nearly impossible with their long hours. Due to their grueling practice schedules these players do not have the opportunity to procure these sorts of jobs. Recently we have seen a shift.
In an unprecedented move, Northwestern University’s football team became the first school to try and unionize their college football team. The NCAA believes that unionizing student athletes undermines the purpose of college which is to get an education. Although student athletes generate billions of dollars for the NCAA without receiving a penny, the NCAA has made the argument that athletes are not employees and instead have said participation in sports is completely voluntary. In response, the NCAA issued a statement saying that “student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act. We are confident the National Labor Relations Board will find in our favor, as there is no right to organize student-athletes.” Unfortunately the National Labor Relations Board did not want the decision of unionizing Northwestern University’s football team to be left to them, so they declined to exercise jurisdiction. However, this is not a setback because this forces the schools to step it up. They have now allowed for students to receive more money and perhaps this may be the stepping stone for athletes like my best friend to eventually receive compensation for their labor.
Branch, Taylor. “The Shame of College Sports.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 07 Sept. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.
“Professor Perspectives: Should Student Athletes Be Paid? – NerdWallet.”NerdWallet Credit Card Blog. N.p., 05 Feb. 2014. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.
“Schooled: The Price Of College Sports.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.
“Taylor Branch.” | About. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.
“Northwestern Football Players Seek to Unionize; What Does the Development Mean?” SI.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.