by Dr. Boyce Watkins
NCAA athletics has become the new prohibition – the illogical construct that creates a destructive underground economy because leadership is being guided by an illusion of what should be, rather than confronting the NCAA for what it really is: a professional sports league. Some of our most highly educated figures within academia are forced to convince themselves that a multi-billion dollar sports entertainment behemoth should be able to get away with not paying its primary employees.
The smart white men running the NCAA also took enough history classes to easily see the parallels with slavery: An oppressive and unethical institution that everyone knows to be a farce, yet it continues to survive because it would be entirely too costly to shut it down. It’s hard to walk away from a billion dollars per year, even if you have to be a criminal and pathological liar in order to protect it. Actually, the NCAA earns more ad revenue in March Madness than the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball earn during their post-seasons; that much money would tempt any of us to become crooks.
NCAA athletes are not slaves, we know this, but exploitation is a continuum, not a dichotomy. Even the five-year old child working in a Chinese sweat shop has the right to stay home from work if he chooses to do so. But staying home would be to his family’s detriment. If one allows the beast of capitalism to operate in an unregulated manner, we quickly find that allegedly free human beings are ultimately left with no option but to work for an unfair wage. While the NCAA spends millions monitoring the choices of college athletes, almost no one monitors the actions of the NCAA to ensure that their labor practices are consistent with American values – as a result, they are as un-American as Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
NCAA President Mark Emmert, who earns nearly a million dollars per year off the families of NCAA athletes, has maintained the lie of the league by stating publicly that college athletes will not be paid under his regime. He’s the latest overseer in a system that loves the idea that in a racist society like this one, Black men should be happy with whatever scraps you choose to give them. He and others are allowed to get away with their exploitation because most Americans are as unoffended by the exploitation of Black families as they are by the slaughtering of chickens at KFC.
“I don’t see why they should get anything more than what I get,” says the typical white kid on any campus USA. “They already get special treatment and I’m sick of it. I’d love to be able to go to school for free.”
Well, I would tell that kid this: As soon as you grow to be seven feet tall and can score 20 points per game on a nationally televised show that draws 10 million viewers and $30 million dollars in revenue, then I’ll speak up for your mother too. I’ve always been amazed at how the nerdy Chemistry major somehow believes that he’s made as strong of a financial contribution to the university as the basketball star who draws tens of millions of dollars in advertising. If that’s the case, then I should be paid the same as Will Smith.
It’s interesting that the same NCAA administrators who stand adamantly against the idea of compensating a family for their child’s labor have no problem collecting their own massive salaries every year. If coaches, administrators and commentators are not interested in taking a vow of poverty, then athletes’ families should not have to do so either. The notion that an administrator or coach deserves to be fairly compensated while the individual doing the work does not is nothing more than the same second class citizenship that African Americans have faced for the last 400 years – simply asking for equality is out of the question.
So, not only does the NCAA continue to pimp the athletes, it also pimps the rest of us. Their multi-million dollar ad campaigns (again, financed by the labor of the athletes) have convinced us that it’s scandalous when a player (worth over $10 million dollars to his university) signs autographs in exchange for a free tattoo (as with the suspended players from Ohio State last year). They paint “street agents” who share money with an athlete’s struggling family as criminals, while simultaneously making it clear that they could care less if the player’s mother and siblings starve to death. They’ve convinced us that they are the good guys — the benevolent overseers who are giving these pathetic Negroes something that is a far cry better than anything these kids could get from “the hood.”
While NCAA officials might hope our response would be, “Thank you massa, that’s mighty kind of you,” a better reaction might be, “Why am I doing all the work and you’re keeping all the money?” But then again, there’s a reason slave owners didn’t want slaves to learn how to read — it’s for the same reason NCAA administrators want Black men focused on bling, women and fame rather than intricate business models and labor rights. When an oppressed group of people start asking hard questions, it makes for a very uncomfortable conversation.
The bottom line is that NCAA athletes deserve the same labor rights as the rest of us. They should also be able to unionize and engage in collective bargaining. There is no logical reason why athletes shouldn’t receive liberties that are freely given to those who aren’t doing the work to earn the money.
Slavery didn’t end because slave owners decided to do the right thing. It ended because those who’d become possessed by the demons of capitalism had their power forcibly taken away from them. Athletes, parents and concerned citizens must file lawsuits, organize, protest and refuse to play until they are fairly compensated. Money and power are typically not given away without a fight, and if you’re not willing to fight for your freedom, then you do not truly deserve it.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition. He is also the founder of ALARM, the Athlete Liberation Academic Reform Movement. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.