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The current debate around student athlete pay is a de facto referendum on race and unpaid labor.

This is the second installment in a series on the history of labor organizing in college athletics.

Last month, the NCAA cautiously supported a proposal to allow college athletes to sign endorsement contracts and receive personal payment from the use of names, images and likenesses. This anticipated response to California's Fair Pay to Play Act seems to be a pivot towards more equitable labor practices. However, the loosely sketched proposal is not without its loopholes. NCAA and schools themselves would still be able to regulate the types of deals allowed and impose financial caps on how much players can receive. Only time will tell whether the new proposal leads to recognition and compensation for disenfranchised athletes or more of the same self-interested lip service when member schools vote the proposal next January. Either way, April's announcement is only part of a much longer labor battle that Black athletes have been waging since the 1950's.


In 1904 alone, according to reporting from the Chicago Tribune, 18 players died on the football field along with 159 receiving life-altering injuries. At the dawn of the 20th century, American football was suffering decreased turnouts and an unfavorable public opinion. So Roosevelt endeavored to save the college game he loved

Roosevelt pressured a group of university officials to come together and create reforms, and in 1906, the NCAA was born with the expressed desire to "protect young people from the dangerous and exploitative athletics practices of the time." 

In 1906, the students that the NCAA swore to protect from exploitation were by default all-white. At the same time Black Codes and Jim Crow legislation were exploiting and effectively re-enslaving young Black people and their parents across the country. What may not be as commonly understood was how institutions of American football like the NCAA emerged alongside these racial apartheid laws. It would be more than 50 years before Civil Rights were enacted to address the continued legal subjugation of Black folks and those overdue reforms would be enacted about 73 years after the days of William Henry Lewis, the first Black football player at Harvard in 1892. It would not be until 1931 that the first Black basketball player would be named to the All-American team, a 6'4" center named George Gregory Jr.

"What may not be as commonly understood was how institutions of American football like the NCAA emerged alongside these racial apartheid laws."

During the Civil Rights era, the NCAA underwent a rapid expansion, bringing in new conferences while following the system of segregation, particularly in its southern schools.

On the gridiron, it was not until 1969 that the first integrated game would happen, a game between Tampa University and the University of Florida A&M. Florida A&M coach Jake Gaither endured being perceived as a "race traitor" for his efforts in working with the segregationists in power in Florida to make the game possible.

During this gradual shift of Black players, who had formerly only enrolled and played at HBCUs due to being locked out of the larger flagship universities, now enrolling in historically white universities, a wave of player deaths and grave injuries on the football fields began again,  due in large part to a lack of protections from the NCAA. Walter Byers coined the term "student athlete," which bought the NCAA a perception of good-will towards the players they were actually exploiting. A far cry from protecting young athletes from exploitation, now the NCAA would lean into building its empire.

As Billie Dennison's case for death benefits for her late husband Ray Dennison dragged on, it appeared that the NCAA's construction of the idea of a "student-athlete" which protected and championed this ideal of pure amateur athletics was working. It also had an additional effect of insulating the NCAA from any legal obligations resulting from injury or death as ruling after ruling in their favor was predicated on the absence of any employee-worker relationship. With the NCAA's labor force now no longer as white as it was when the organization was first established, the exploitation of Black labor began in earnest.

See also: By the numbers—College football royalties

The current debate about the NCAA's responsibility to pay its "student-athletes" can correctly be called a referendum on race, akin to the political focus on reparations, which has long been regarded as a 'pipe dream' or derided by white Americans as a 'hand out'. A 2014 Getty poll reveals, in general white Americans are resistant to the idea of America making financial redress for slavery through reparations payments to Black families. Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney, who recently signed a multi-year $93 million contract with the University of Clemson, said in 2014 that he would quit coaching if the NCAA decided to pay the players. Swinney's team is largely constructed of Black players and though Swinney does not say that he has an issue with who gets paid specifically, he did call the notion of paying the players an issue of players feeling entitled. It's difficult to call players who are driving athletic revenues up entitled for wanting compensation for what they help create for the university, unless you believe that the players do not deserve compensation for some other reason.

The current debate about the NCAA's responsibility to pay its "student-athletes" can correctly be called a referendum on race, akin to the political focus on reparations

Dr. Harry S. Edwards, now a retired professor, made the same claim in his seminal text from 1969 The Revolt of the Black Athlete as some professional and ex-college athletes have made of the NCAA. That claim being that athletes, particularly Black athletes were steered towards 'Mickey Mouse' courses, classes which have been called "paper classes" designed for the students to merely remain academically eligible, not to challenge them as thinkers or humans. Edwards alleges that this desire was not merely born out of a desire to keep them on for athletic competition, but it was also born out of the inability to see those Black athletes as intellectually competent.

A 2016 study by the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education's Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education examined the "Power 5" conferences (Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC, ACC) and in their opening comments, they allude to the hyper-representation of Black male athletes on the campuses. In his remarks, ESPN panelist and Washington Post columnist Kevin Blackistone made strong, pointed remarks as to the true nature of the Black student athlete on college campuses:

"His (Professor Shaun Harper, Director of the CSREE) 2012 study, "Black Male Student-Athletes and Racial Inequities in NCAA Division I Revenue-Generating College Sports," showed that young Black men represented only 2.8% of undergraduate students on major college campuses, but 57.1% of the football teams and 64.3% of men's basketball teams. In other words, the reason they were on college campuses was not as part of the educating class, but as part of a special working class: the massively underpaid, poorly insured laborer called "student- athlete." More disturbing, Professor Harper showed that their ostensible remuneration of a college degree was realized at rates that paled to other groups of their college classmates."

Just preceding California's passage of the Fair Pay to Play bill, the NCAA created controversy for itself by passing a rule, which barred agents without a college degree from representing any basketball players who were seeking to make the jump into professional sports. This rule was immediately dubbed the "Rich Paul Rule" because it seemed exclusively designed to target a single individual.

See also: Atlanta and the politics of the losing South

James and his agent squarely regarded the NCAA rule change as yet another way to restrict not only the earning potential of agents of color like Paul but of the student-athletes themselves. Paul also represents Darius Bazley who was able to get himself drafted in the first round by the Oklahoma City Thunder after withdrawing his commitment from Syracuse University and training on his own for a year before he signed with Rich Paul. The NCAA assumed that Paul was able to orchestrate these events and regarded him as a threat to their model of exploitation and swiftly moved to eliminate him from influencing other top prospects in the same manner. Unfortunately for the NCAA, the rule was blasted by Paul in an op-ed for The Athletic, which prompted the NCAA to immediately amend the rule and offer a sheepish apology claiming they didn't research before creating the rule. As Rich Paul writes in his op-ed: "NCAA executives are once again preventing young people from less prestigious backgrounds, and often people of color, from working in the system they continue to control. In this case, the people being locked out are kids who aspire to be an agent and work in the NBA and do not have the resources, opportunity or desire to get a four-year degree." 

Unpaid Black labor that enriches white corporate leaders, and the blurred lines between consensual participation and forcing young Black players into violent exploitation remain unresolved crises within powerful sports institutions like the NCAA

Unpaid Black labor that enriches white corporate leaders, and the blurred lines between consensual participation and forcing young Black players into violent exploitation remain unresolved crises within powerful sports institutions like the NCAA. Nathan Kalman-Lamb, lecturing fellow in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University, whose work focuses on the intersections of race, labor, sport, and social inequality describes the connection between the late-post slavery work of sharecropping and the practices of the NCAA in this way: 

"I do not see labor in the NCAA sport as precisely the same as the contract labor of Uber within the gig economy. If we want an analogy for NCAA labor, I think we need to look at different forms of unpaid work. Gig work, after all, is still paid work. The labor of so-called student-athletes, on the other hand, really shares more with other forms of work, like for instance, internships. I would argue that in some ways, the most generous framing of the work of student athletes is as an internship in NCAA sport. If I was being less generous, however, I might compare it to other forms of exceptionally exploited labor such as sharecropping or indentured servitude. Because, in both those forms of labor, the worker essentially receives compensation in the form of subsistence that allows them to reproduce themselves and continue to provide work for capital–and nothing more." 

"Just the threat of a boycott would change the game. But the person or team that does it would carry that for life. A lot of people would not understand the boycott. They would ask 'Why us? Why you? Why our team? Why this game?'"

In 1995, Ed O'Bannon won a title with UCLA but 20 years later, after his lawsuit against the NCAA resulted in a meager increase in money for college athletes, O'Bannon told The Undefeated that if he could experience his college years over again, he would definitely be more vocal. However, he cautioned that asking 19-, 20-, or 21-year-olds to risk essentially their sports careers to be activists was a big ask. 

"Just the threat of a boycott would change the game. But the person or team that does it would carry that for life. A lot of people would not understand the boycott. They would ask 'Why us? Why you? Why our team? Why this game?'"

O'Bannon's lawsuit against the NCAA was the first real win for student-athletes in decades, a win that paved the way for the college athletes of today to be compensated for the use of their images and likenesses by the NCAA even as it continued to profit from them, much like EA Sports was able to profit from the use of Ed O'Bannon's likeness in its NCAA Basketball series. O'Bannon isn't the only person who has seen how the NCAA uses its student athletes for profit;  in 2018, Kylia Carter, the mother of Chicago Bulls center Wendell Carter Jr., testified before the Knight Commission on InterCollegiate Athletics. Carter told the commission that the system is "nauseating" and charged the NCAA with running a system that is identical to prison or slavery.

Carter testified: "When you remove all the bling and the bells and the sneakers and all that, you've paid for a child to come to your school to do what you wanted them to do for you, for free, and you made a lot of money when he did that, and you've got all these rules in place that say he cannot share in any of that. The only other time when labor does not get paid but yet someone else gets profits and the labor is black and the profit is white, is in slavery. To be honest with you, it's nauseating." 

In a 2018 Op-Ed for the Chicago Tribune, Victoria L. Jackson drew out more of the NCAA's exploitation of what she termed revenue athletes (football, basketball players) for the benefits of non-revenue athletes (track, swimming, etc.) Jackson argued that the exploitation of the revenue athletes can also be viewed through a racial lens as the majority of revenue athletes are Black athletes, particularly at the Power 5 schools (Big 12, Pac-12, ACC, SEC, Big 10) while the majority of non-revenue athletes are white athletes. Jackson concludes her op-ed by drawing a line from the fundamentally unequal experiences of these two classes of student athletes by reminding us that most athletes who are allowed to earn "quality degrees" are white, while those who have to sacrifice their education (much like Ms. Carter told the Knight Commission) are Black and that particular system is a version of Jim Crow, but for college athletes.

Occasionally, there are moments such as the 2015 hunger strike led by Jonathan Butler in direct protest of the handling of multiple racist incidents on the campus of the University of Missouri. A swastika was smeared on a wall using human fecal material. Many of the school's Black students were called slurs while walking on that campus, yet President Timothy M. Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin did nothing to address it until the school's football team refused to play in protest and solidarity with Butler's hunger strike. As a result of the football team's refusal to play that weekend, the two men lost their jobs and the school lost a million dollars in a weekend. This is a picture of the power that can be wielded by college athletes as a collective, particularly when the leadership on their campuses refuses to act in the benefit of the demographic most represented by their most visible athletic programs.

It remains to be seen if such power can be animated at a mass scale to force the hands of those with the most power to offer college athletes the recognition, compensation, and sense of dignity they have long fought for.