NCAA: The Supreme Court deals a blow to their slave labor policy, but how was it allowed to exist in the first place?

For an organization that claims to be woke and not-for-profit, the NCAA has a lot of explaining to do.  Coaches and executives make millions, players make nothing and can’t even control the usage of their own image.  We’re told it’s for their own good, but slaveholders in the antebellum south said much the same thing once upon a time.

Imagine, if you will, an organization of over 50% black employees, but those employees received no compensation.  Instead, massive profits flowed only upward.  The highest paid of these “bosses” makes $9.3 million per year.  The second and third make $8.9 million and $8.3 million respectively.  The average “boss” rakes in around $2.7 million.  The immediate bosses are not the only ones reaping the rewards of unpaid minority labor, either.  Another set of “executives” makes huge bucks, $2.4 million, $1.7 million, $.9 million, etc.  The black employees, on the other hand, receive no direct salaries, only stipends and living expenses, nor do they have any control over how their own image or personal story is used.  Further, to call the unpaid black labor merely “employees” completely misses the mark:  The entire system is built on their backs, literally.  They take all the risk and are the sole reason any of the others reap these huge rewards.

Incredibly, the organization perpetuating this slave-labor model, exploiting black bodies for largely white “bosses” and executive gains, claims to be woke, completely onboard the anti-racist bandwagon.  For example, earlier this year they touted their “commitment to inclusion and social justice.”  They renamed two of their locations, “Equality” and “Unity,” Equality being named for the slave labor that have “used their voices and actions to make a difference for social and racial justice.”  They launched a new initiative to forge “A (Racially) Just Future,” with the goal of broadening “perspectives and inspire action through short, powerful discussions meant to shape their collective future.”  Just this passed weekend, they “closed” in honor of Juneteenth, saying without irony “to celebrate and honor Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in America.”

This organization is, of course, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and, some slight hyperbole in my choice of words aside, the facts are pretty stunning.  In 2018, 56% of Division I college basketball players and 48% of football players were black.  The highest paid coach, Alabama’s Nick Saban, made $9.3 million.  The average Football Bowl Subdivision coach pulled in $2.7 million in the middle of a pandemic.  The President of the NCAA, Mark Emmert, earns well over $2 million a year.  His chief lieutenant, EVP Mark Lewis, makes close to $2 million.  His other EVPs and high ranking executives make between $500,000 and a million.  This doesn’t include the money the colleges rake in, the university president’s salaries, the millions they spend on stadiums and facilities, and all the rest.

Meanwhile, the players themselves, the stars of the show, on whose labor all of this is built and the very reason this operation generates so much money, receive no direct compensation at all.

If this sounds like slavery or at least indentured servitude, that’s because it is, dressed up in the guise of “amateur” sports.  Many of these players have no choice in the matter:  If you want to pursue a career in the NFL or NBA, college sports is pretty much your only passage through and therefore colleges have an endless stream of top flight, largely minority talent to exploit, mercilessly, while patting themselves on the back for their anti-racism.  Even if your ambitions don’t lie in professional sports, college athletics can be your only means to attend a good school and the exploitation of your body is the price they force you to pay.  Nor is a collegiate athletic career without substantial risk.  These aren’t academic scholarships where hitting the books is the key to success.  These are rough and tumble, sometimes violent games, requiring thousands of hours of hard work per year, where even the brightest stars can permanently injure themselves, sometimes simply in training, all for no actual compensation.  In addition, the colleges and universities themselves claim to be not-for-profit institutions, as is the NCAA itself, while reaping millions of dollars from the sale of merchandise, attendance at games, concessions, and more, not a penny of which actually goes to the players themselves.

Can anyone honestly say this is a fair and equitable arrangement or an acceptable way to conduct business in the year 2021?  I’ll admit I am not a college sports fan, but I understand that many people, conservative and liberal alike, are.  You need to ask yourselves:  If this were any other business, would it be considered moral or even legal?  If we learned that Amazon or Facebook didn’t pay their black employees to better line Bezos’ or Zuckerberg’s bank account, what would your reaction be?

To be sure, I am not the first person to point this out.  While researching this post, I came across a similar sentiment from Marc Edelman, writing for Forbes, “NCAA Leaders Are Using Woke Language, But The Message Doesn’t Match Their Athlete Labor Policies.”   Mr. Edelman quotes Pulitzer-Prize winning historian, Taylor Branch, who said the NCAA labor system has “an unmistakable whiff of the plantation” and civil rights leader Dr. Harry Edwards who believes ending these abhorrent practices is “the civil rights movement in sports of our time.”

My interest in the topic was prompted by the recent Supreme Court decision that, at least, opens the door to reform or hopefully scrapping the system altogether.  At issue was a lower court ruling that found the NCAA violated antitrust law by placing limits on the benefits, specifically education-related benefits, schools can provide to student athletes.  In a rare unanimous decision, the nine justices upheld the district court.  The opinion was authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch and allows schools to provide unlimited education-related compensation.  Justice Brett Kavanagh wrote a concurring opinion that says this ruling didn’t go nearly far enough.   “The NCAA is not above the law,” Kavanaugh wrote. “The NCAA couches its arguments for not paying student athletes in innocuous labels. But the labels cannot disguise the reality: The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America.”

At issue is how the NCAA defines student athletes as “amateurs.”  Since its inception in 1906, the NCAA has used various definitions of “amateurism” to create eligibility rules and compensation plans for student athletes.  The organization has generally upheld that no compensation can be provided to players because of this arbitrary amateur status.  While the purported goal was to differentiate collegiate athletics from professional sports, the monetization of college sports had begun before the NCAA was even created.  As early as 1929, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching published a comprehensive study on the economics of college athletic programs.  After analyzing 112 programs, they identified a profit motive going back to at least 1880, “charges for admission to football contests advanced in some instances to $1.50…special financial support began to be solicited from alumni. One result was that alumni who made generous contributions to college athletics received, openly or covertly, in return, a generous share in their control.”

The student athletes were, perhaps needless to say, the only ones left out.  It wasn’t until the 1950’s that they were even allowed to receive a scholarship, room and board, and “laundry money,” all while the college sports industry grew and grew, generating billions of dollars in revenue on an annual basis.  Today, that revenue is generated in all sorts of ways.  For example, video games regularly use the student’s images without paying them directly.  They have no control whatsoever even over their own likeness, it’s reproduction, and the compensation they receive.  In fact, this was the subject of an earlier lawsuit.  Back in 2014, a former UCLA basketball player, Ed O’Bannon, sued the NCAA over his right to control his public image.  Theoretically, the court sided with Mr. O’Bannon, but they did so by increasing the athlete’s stipend by a mere $3,000.  A subsequent court took even that away.

The NCAA itself continues to strictly define amateurism.  If a student does not comply, they cannot play.  The rules include, “Athletes are stripped of their amateur status and thus their right to participate within NCAA sporting events if they receive payment for their athletic skills,” regardless of whether that payment is even for collegiate sports.  Technically, the NCAA limits a schools ability to sell merchandise with the students name on it, but there are loopholes.  “The physical appearance, name, and pictures of a student-athlete can be used by the institution that he/she attends for both charitable and educational purposes. Items that do not single out one particular athlete’s name or physical likeness can be sold by the institution or its outlets. Items containing one student-athlete can only be used for informational purposes.”  It sounds tough in theory, but in practice the schools are not for profit; they can use the likeness as a promotion, just not sell it, but given that promotions drive sales overall, they are still substantially benefiting even if the student’s face isn’t even on the tee-shirt.  Ultimately, “A student-athlete will lose their ability to participate in NCAA sporting events if they are discovered to be receiving payment through commercial advertisement, promotion, or endorsement.”

Believe it or not, these draconian rules are purportedly to protect the athletes, enabling them to be students first and receive an education free from the pressure of professional sports.  Can anyone possibly believe this nonsense?  For all practical purposes, these students are professional athletes, the equivalent of at least minor league baseball players, in some cases even more famous and well known, except without the paycheck.  The NCAA alone rakes in over $1 billion a year, $1.1 billion as of a few years ago, on the backs of this labor.  There is absolutely nothing amateur about it, from the stadiums they play in, to the facilities they train at, to the commitment required, to compensation of the coaches, to the money being made by everyone except the athletes themselves.  It’s all a lie so someone else can steal the fruits of their hard work. 

While the Supreme Court has put these rules on notice and legal experts expect further challenges to their monopoly on college athletics, the NCAA is not without its supporters.  They will attempt to strongarm states into passing legislation that protects them and are apparently planning to offer a fig leaf that allows student athletes to benefit from the use of their likeness.  No matter what they do, it will not be enough.  Nothing can make up for over a hundred years of exploitation, and everyone who supported this system should be ashamed of themselves.

If you think I’m being hyperbolic again, consider the mindset of a coach happy to make almost $10 million per year while his players make nothing, or the universities themselves reaping huge rewards and paying nothing for them, or a not-for-profit organization making obscene profits without paying anyone to do it, and all the while telling the players it’s for their own good.  The slaveholders in the antebellum south said much the same once upon a time.  Perhaps the most frightening thing about the situation is how long this has been going on and how many people except the students have benefited.  The media, for example, prides itself on rooting out oppression everywhere they find it, but not here, likely because they were also making money covering NCAA events.  This isn’t hypocrisy.  It’s insanity, if not evil.  The system should be dismantled in its entirety and replaced with a for profit model.  There is no other option, except for maybe reparations. I am half kidding, of course, but I’d still love to see the lawsuit at least.

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