Aaron Dana

Four Years A Student-Athlete: The Racial Injustice of Big-Time College Sports

While the NCAA’s rules governing college athletes are colorblind, the impact of amateurism is anything but—disproportionately costing black football and men's basketball players and benefiting white stakeholders by as much as $2 billion a year.

Apr 4 2016, 7:25pm

Aaron Dana

Before Robert and Amy McCormick could see the racial injustice at the heart of big-time college sports, they had to wake up—literally. It was the summer of 2002, and the McCormicks, a married pair of professors at Michigan State University, were living in an East Lansing neighborhood located between a block of student housing and the school's athletic department.

Every morning around 5:30 a.m., Michigan State athletes would ride their bicycles past the McCormicks' house on their way to practice. Among them was Charles Rogers, one of the best college football players in the country, a tall, speedy wide receiver whom professional scouts were likening to National Football League star Randy Moss.

One morning, Robert saw Rogers whizzing by, his 6-foot-3 frame dwarfing a rickety bike that barely seemed road worthy. He's a first-round NFL draft choice, thought the sports and labor law professor, who had attended Michigan State himself and taught a sports law class at the university since 1984. Next year, he'll be making millions. But now, he's making nothing.

Read More: How The NCAA Scams Taxpayers For Welfare Money

The imbalance ate at the McCormicks: college sports were a multibillion-dollar business, and here was a top talent stuck with a dilapidated two-wheel. While standing on the field at the school's Spartan Stadium during a football game, something else struck Robert, an image he couldn't shake. The players were in uniform, covered in Michigan State's green and white colors, but Robert could see their bare lower legs. "Almost all of them," he says, "were black." Just like Rogers. Meanwhile, everyone else—the coaches, the administrators, the faces in the crowd, and Robert himself—was overwhelmingly white.

"I saw a small group of black faces in the stands, and they were [football] recruits," Robert says. "It was incredible. I realized all of the people being paid or getting the pleasure out of the game were white, and the vast majority of the people playing and risking their health were black."

When the championship game of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's men's basketball tournament between the University of North Carolina and Villanova University tips off tonight in Houston, the scene will be similar, a microcosm of major college revenue sports as a whole. Most of the players on the court—whose sweat and sacrifice make the whole show possible—will be African-American. Almost everybody else, from Tar Heels coach Roy Williams and Wildcats coach Jay Wright to the corporate glad-handers in the luxury boxes, will not. The game will be the culmination of another successful season for a cash-rich campus athletics industry—and thanks to the NCAA's longstanding amateurism rules, which apply to college athletes and no one else in America, the lion's share of that money will flow from the former group to the latter. From the jerseys to the suits.

From black to white.

"You have two sets of legal rules that treat two different classifications of people differently, and it's unjustified," Amy McCormick says. "I would never say college sports are as bad as a system where people are jailed and killed, but it's an Apartheid system."

In 2010, Amy and Robert co-authored a law journal article titled "Major College Sports: A Modern Apartheid," arguing that revenue-producing campus football and men's basketball hold black athletes in "legal servitude for the profit and entertainment" of whites. "These are sharp words," they wrote, "but the facts are indisputable."

Others agree. Sports agent Don Yee, whose firm represents NFL players including New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and retired linebacker Dhani Jones, calls the NCAA's refusal to pay athletes a racial injustice. Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker described campus amateurism as a regressive wealth transfer from mostly poor African-American athletes and their families to mostly well-off white managers, non-revenue sport athletes and their families. Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian Taylor Branch has written that Division I revenue sports exude "an unmistakable whiff of the plantation," while former NCAA executive director Walter Byers—a man who ran the organization for decades and essentially built modern college sports as we know them—wrote in his Road to Damascus memoir that his creation was suffused with a "neo-plantation mentality" in which the economic rewards "belong to the overseers," with "what trickles down after that" going to young men such as Rogers.

It's not hard to see what's happening, the McCormicks say. You just have to look.

"One group is predominantly white, the other is predominantly black, and only one has the power and writes the rules for its benefit," Robert says. "I was a big Michigan State fan for a long time before we wrote our first article, and it's kind of embarrassing it came so late in my life. But once you see it, you can't unsee it."

From right to left: Kansas State president Kirk Schultz, NCAA president Mark Emmert and South Carolina president Harris Pastides speak during a 2015 Final Four press conference. Photo by Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Understand this: there's nothing inherently racist about amateurism itself. And there's no reason to believe that its defenders and proponents—including current NCAA president Mark Emmert—are motivated by racial animus. When amateurism was fashioned out of whole cloth by Victorian-era English aristocrats, its ethos was strictly classist: snobby upper-class rowers didn't want to compete against unwashed bricklayers and factory workers, and concocting an ersatz Greek athletic ideal of no-pay-for-play provided convenient justification. Likewise, the American colleges that copied their English counterparts at the dawn of the 20th century weren't looking to plunder African-American athletic labor—not when their sports and campuses, like society at large, were still segregated.

Today, the economic exploitation within college sports remains race-neutral on its face. The association's strict prohibition on campus athletes receiving any compensation beyond the price-fixed value of their athletic scholarships applies equally to players of every color. White former Texas A&M University quarterback Johnny Manziel couldn't cash in on his market value any more than black former Auburn University quarterback Cam Newton could. When black former Vanderbilt University center Festus Ezeli was suspended in 2011 for accepting a meal and a hotel room from a school alumnus, it wasn't any different than when white former University of Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch was suspended eleven years earlier for accepting a plane ride and a ham sandwich from a candidate for the school's board of regents.

And yet, while the NCAA's intent is color-blind, the impact of amateurism is anything but. In American law, there is a concept called adverse impact, in which, essentially, some facially neutral rules that have an unjustified adverse impact on a particular group can be challenged as discriminatory. For instance, the Supreme Court ruled in a landmark 1971 case that a North Carolina power company could no longer require prospective employees to have a high school diploma and pass two intelligence tests—a screening process that didn't relate to job performance but did have the effect of excluding high numbers of African-American applicants at a workplace that already was highly segregated. Similarly, sociologists speak of structural racism when analyzing public policies that have a disproportionately negative impact on minority individuals, families, and communities. State lottery systems that essentially move money from predominantly lower-class African-American ticket buyers to predominantly middle-and-upper-class white school districts fit the bill; so does a War on Drugs that disproportionately incarcerates young black men; so does a recent decision by officials in Maricopa County, Arizona, to drastically cut the number of presidential primary polling stations in and around Phoenix, which unnecessarily made voting far more difficult for the residents of a non-white majority city.

Big-time college sports fall under the same conceptual umbrella. Amateurism rules restrain campus athletes—and only campus athletes, not campus musicians or campus writers—from earning a free-market income, accepting whatever money, goods, or services someone else wants to give them. And guess what? In the revenue sports of Division I football and men's basketball, where most of the fan interest and television dollars are, the athletes are disproportionately black.

According to the NCAA, 58.3 percent of Division I basketball players and 47.1 percent of Division I football players in 2014-15 were black, making them the largest racial group in both sports. Focus on the Power Five conferences that gobble up most of Division I's broadcast revenues, and the picture largely looks the same—black participation percentages are a bit lower in the Big Ten and Pac-12, and the same or higher in the others: