As a political scientist, Tatishe Nteta studies how racial resentment affects attitudes toward public policy. But it took Colin Cowherd for him to realize that the same dynamic also might be influencing the ongoing debate over paying college athletes.
It was the spring of 2014, and Nteta, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, was listening to sports talk radio while driving to work. Cowherd, then an ESPN host, was discussing a federal antitrust lawsuit brought by former University of California, Los Angeles basketball star Ed O'Bannon against the National Collegiate Athletic Association—a much-publicized case that sought to allow past and present campus athletes to be compensated for the use of their names, images, and likeness.
"I don't think paying all college athletes is great, not every college is loaded and most 19-year-olds [are] gonna spend it—and let's be honest, they're gonna spend it on weed and kicks," Cowherd said. "And spare me the 'they're being extorted' thing.
"Listen, 90 percent of these college guys are gonna spend it on tats, weed, kicks, Xboxes, beer and swag. They are, get over it!"
Weed and kicks. Tats and swag. To Nteta's ears, this sounded familiar, like the coded language sometimes used by politicians to indirectly talk about race. "To be fair to Cowherd, he didn't explicitly racialize this," Nteta says. "He simply said college athletes. But from the blowback he got from civil rights groups, it was clear that he was talking about young black men."
This piqued Nteta's curiosity. In politics, researchers know that negative racial attitudes can impact support for government initiatives like health care and welfare. For example, if you're white, and you believe that African-Americans tend to be, say, lazy, and you also think a particular program is likely to benefit blacks, you're far more likely to oppose that program.
"So the question was," Nteta says, "does race play a role in opposition to or support for this overarching issue of paying college athletes?"
Two and a half years later, Nteta and his colleagues have done enough work to produce a tentative answer: Yes. When it comes to arguments over NCAA amateurism, race definitely seems to matter.
How so? In a study recently published in Political Research Quarterly, Nteta and fellow professors Kevin Wallsten, Melinda Tarsi, and Lauren McCarthy analyzed responses to public opinion survey questions from 2014 and additional follow-up polling, and concluded that:
* Whites were more likely than blacks to oppose college athlete pay-for-play.
* Harboring negative racial views about blacks was the single strongest predictor of white opposition to paying athletes—more important than age, education level, political affiliation, sports fandom, or even if respondents had played college sports themselves.
* The more negatively white respondents felt about blacks, the more they opposed pay-for-play.
* Racially resentful whites who were primed to think about African-American athletes before answering questions were more likely to oppose paying athletes than racially resentful whites who were primed to think about white athletes.
"It's not race and only race," Nteta says. "There are a number of reasons why people will support or oppose policy options here. But race can't be divorced from the story. Race is one of the central reasons why whites are opposed to pay-for-play."
Happy to cheer athletes, so long as those athletes aren't being paid? Photo by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
At first glance, that conclusion may seem counterintuitive. Off-base. Even offensive. After all, the players in big-time college football and men's basketball—the two sports at the center of pay-for-play arguments—are predominantly African-American. And they're popular. Majority white fan bases tune in to their broadcasts, buy tickets to their games, and loudly cheer for their performances; they wear replica jerseys essentially celebrating black athletic excellence. Where, exactly, is the racial animus?
Nteta has a more nuanced view. His father, a professor of African-American history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, left South Africa in the 1960s to attend divinity school in the United States. He became involved with the international anti-apartheid movement, and after working to pressure Harvard University and Polaroid to divest from South Africa in the 1970s, he was exiled by his home country. "The intersection between race and politics has sort of defined my family's history," Nteta says.
The same intersection defines much of Nteta's professional work. Decades of social science research have found that there are strong differences of opinion between whites and blacks on policies that seem race-neutral—think opposition to gun control laws, or support for harsher law enforcement—and that some of those splits can be explained in part by negative attitudes toward African-Americans. The textbook example, Nteta says, is white opposition to welfare prior to 1990s federal reform. "It was best explained by negative attitudes toward blacks," he says. "Even when you took into account every other explanation—like you don't want to pay taxes for welfare, or don't think people deserve a handout—none of these things explained it statistically as well as racial animus.
"What [researchers] found is that when whites thought about welfare, the first picture they had [in their minds] was a black welfare queen, and that this person was stealing from hardworking Americans, who in the perceptions of most folks are white. It turned out those perceptions colored the way people responded to any question about the expansion of welfare."
Perception is key. As studied and defined by social scientists, "racial resentment" is not the same thing as traditional racism. The latter—used to justify both South African apartheid and American slavery and Jim Crow—is rooted in a belief that blacks are genetically inferior to whites. By contrast, the former is "not outright hatred, but negative views about blacks justified by a belief that other races don't share the values of my group," Nteta says. "It's like when [FOX News host] Bill O'Reilly said on his radio show that he went to dinner with [African-American television host and civil rights activist] Al Sharpton in Harlem and it was just like any other restaurant, with people being respectful and eating their food."
Nteta laughs. "As if that was a surprise."
After hearing Cowherd, Nteta and his colleagues looked at previous public opinion polls on college sports. When it came to pay-for-play, they showed a clear racial divide. A 2014 Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 51 percent of non-whites favored paying campus athletes, while only 24 percent of whites agreed; similarly, 66 percent of non-whites supported athlete unionization, compared to 38 percent of whites. A 2015 HBO Real Sports/Marist poll found that 59 percent of African-Americans believed college athletes should be paid; by contrast, 74 percent of whites believed the opposite.
How to explain the split? Nteta and company knew from NCAA demographic data that blacks made up the largest share of athletes in Division I college football (47 percent in 2013-14) and men's basketball (58 percent), the two highest-profile campus sports. The numbers in the six largest athletic conferences from 2007-11 were even higher, with African-Americans accounting for 57 percent of football players and 64 percent of men's basketball players. If whites perceived young black men to be the primary beneficiaries of pay-for-play, and if those same whites also harbored negative attitudes toward African-Americans in general, then perhaps college athletics and public policy had more in common than anyone realized.
"Whenever you see those kinds of splits, you know there may be a place for blacks' self-interest and whites' racial resentment," Nteta says.
Racial resentment plays a role in our political divides. What about college sports? Photo by Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
That was the theory. To test it, Nteta, Wallsten, and McCarthy came up with a short series of questions about people's feelings toward the NCAA and college athletes, what schools they had received their undergraduate degrees from, their interest in college sports, if they had been college athletes themselves, and whether they agreed or disagreed that college athletes should receive salaries in addition to their scholarships. The researchers also selected three questions used by political scientists to measure racial resentment among whites:
* Do you support the statement "the Irish, Italians, Jews, and many other minorities overcame prejudice, and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors"?
* Do you agree with the statement "it is really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder, they could be as well-off as whites"?
* Do you agree with the statement "generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class"?
The questions were added to a portion of the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, an online public opinion poll conducted by YouGov before and after the midterm elections. Analyzing responses from 1,000 survey recipients—674 of them self-identifying as white—Nteta and his colleagues found that nearly 58 percent of whites opposed paying college athletes.
That wasn't a surprise. What was surprising were the nitty-gritty correlations. Sentiment toward the NCAA had no statistically significant effect on how whites felt about pay-for-play, nor did sentiment toward college athletes. Identifying as a Democrat or a Republican didn't matter. Neither did political ideology. Higher interest in campus sports actually dovetailed with increased support for athlete compensation.
Meanwhile, racial resentment was the strongest predictor of opposition to pay-for-play—the more resentful whites were, the less they supported it. The finding was clear, but two questions remained. First, were white respondents thinking of African-Americans when they thought about college athletes? Second, "the problem was that even though you find racial resentment matters, you couldn't dismiss the reverse causation argument," Nteta says. "You can say negative attitudes towards blacks influence opinions on pay, but someone else can say that opinions on pay are actually influencing opinions on blacks."
To address those issues, the researchers conducted a second online survey last spring through Amazon's Mechanical Turk. In the new poll, the pay-for-play question was accompanied by one of two images of college athletes: either an "all white faces" treatment of three head shots of young white men in athletic uniforms, or a "mixed faces" treatment featuring two of the same white faces and one African-American face.
Nteta and his colleagues found that whites with low levels of racial resentment who saw the "mixed faces" treatment were generally supportive of pay-for-play—but whites with high resentment levels who saw the same treatment were strongly opposed. Moreover, the gap between those groups was bigger than the one between high and low-resentment level whites who saw the "all white faces" treatment.
"The idea is that if race matters, then randomly assigning or priming people to think about white athletes and black athletes while giving them the same question will make people have different levels of opposition to paying them," Nteta says. "And that's what we found."
In a study, racially resentful whites who were primed with images of black athletes were more likely to oppose pay-for-play. Photo by Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
What does this mean for college sports? In some ways, Nteta's work seems to fit a bigger picture. Many observers and critics—including yours truly—have described the NCAA's amateur economy as both regressive and structurally racist, a system that annually transfers billions of dollars of wealth from poorer, predominantly black football and men's basketball players and their families to better-off, predominantly white coaches, administrators, and non-revenue-sport athletes. Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian Taylor Branch has written that college sports exude "an unmistakable whiff of the plantation." Former NCAA executive director Walter Byers, who built the organization and ran it for decades, wrote in his memoir that campus athletes were characterized by a "neo-plantation mentality" in which the economic rewards "belong to the overseers." The compensation rules are ostensibly color-blind, but the end results are not.
Perhaps that helps explain the racial divide in public support for amateurism, and why whites are more likely to support the status quo. Former Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter says he saw something similar when he spearheaded an attempt to unionize the school's football team in 2014.
At first, Colter says, almost all of his teammates supported the effort, but as time went on—and both the school and the team's coaching staff expressed opposition to unionization—support began to fracture. As reported in the book Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA, black players largely remained committed to the cause. White players largely did not.
Colter doesn't believe his white teammates harbored any overt racial resentment, but he can't help but wonder if socio-economic factors associated with race didn't play a part in the split. After all, the union drive wasn't explicitly about pay-for-play; to the contrary, its stated bargaining goals were better health insurance, enhanced safety protocols, and more time away from football for academics.
"Maybe it was more of a class thing, and an affluence thing," Colter says. "Maybe some players won't ever have to worry about medical coverage, or some of the other concerns that kids from lower-income neighborhoods and family situations do have to worry about.
"I got a lot more support from the black community. Look at the makeup of the revenue sports. Look at it from a statistical, objective standpoint. African-Americans dominate. We're talking about all this money created by all these athletes. Once you start addressing these things, it's probably going to hit home more with them.
"If the situation was flipped—three percent of white kids on an all-black campus, and they're the revenue sports producers—then whites would probably notice some things, too."
Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter (right). Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Nteta is confident in his group's findings. That said, he's the first to admit that social science can be fuzzy and inexact, particularly when it comes to race. People lie on surveys—respondents with negative racial beliefs don't want to be seen as racist. Moreover, there's vigorous debate among academics about how to measure racial resentment, with some researchers arguing that studies conflate and confuse negative views of African-Americans with color-blind conservative principles and policy preferences.
(Indeed, much of Nteta and company's paper focuses on college sports pay-for-play as an ideal test case for detecting racial resentment. Because the NCAA is a private entity and athletes work for what they receive from their schools, attitudes toward amateurism shouldn't be tangled up with conservative distaste for government and wealth redistribution. "You can't say there are two worlds on this issue between Democrats and Republicans," Nteta says. "We are in such a hyper-partisan environment, but you don't see differences based on partisanship on compensating athletes.")
Besides race, Nteta's research found that only two other factors were statistically significant when predicting white opinion about college sports amateurism. The older whites were, the more likely they were to oppose pay-for-play; the more educated they were, the same. Resistance to compensating athletes was particularly strong among whites who attended a school in a Power Five major football conference—a finding that took Nteta by surprise, and makes him wonder if there are other types of resentment at work.
"Imagine if you go to Alabama, and you see treatment of the football players, and you are just a struggling student trying to get your tuition payment in on time," he says. "Folks who have high levels of educational attainment are also really cognizant of the costs of that education—educational debt has replaced credit card debt as the central debt that the majority of Americans have to deal with.
"So maybe if you're someone who has hundreds of thousands of dollars in college debt, you feel athletes are not respecting the worth and importance of a scholarship. 'They want to get paid on top of a free ride that I didn't have? That's an affront to everything I did at school.' We don't have data to support that, but we think that might be playing out."
To get more data—and to better understand how racial resentment and other factors influence attitudes toward play-for-play—Nteta and his colleagues included a larger set of questions on a 2016 election survey, information they are just beginning to analyze. Ultimately, he says, the goal is not to reduce everything to race, or to call people like Cowherd racists. Rather, it's to help both the public and college sports decision-makers see their own possible biases, unwitting and otherwise, so they can better evaluate the fundamental fairness of the NCAA's economic system.
"Until we recognize that one of the reasons there's opposition to paying college athletes is because of negative views of the group that is seen as benefitting, we will never be able to have an adult conversation about the real, true merits of the policy," Nteta says. "If we sweep race under the rug, we will never get to a place where we can have a real debate."
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