Op-Ed: Take it from a former Division I athlete: College sports are like Jim Crow
Now that the bowl season and College Football Playoff have concluded, college sports fans are shifting their attention from football to basketball in anticipation of March Madness.
Although I’m a huge sports fan and ran track at school, I won’t be watching any men’s college basketball this spring. Not because I don’t support the athletes. Rather, I can’t endorse a system that exploits football and basketball players so that “nonrevenue” athletes like me — runners, tennis players, golfers, gymnasts, swimmers — can both play and study.
Unlike college athletes who bring in revenue, nonrevenue athletes get to earn quality degrees. We are the beneficiaries of college athletics. Meanwhile, the professionalism required of big-time college football and basketball athletes leaves no time for the “student” part of the student-athlete equation.
As an undergraduate student and track and field athlete at University of North Carolina, I was the prototypical athlete you learn about in NCAA messaging: Elite athletics enhanced my education as I earned my degree to “go pro” in something other than sports. (Although I did also go pro in my sport.)
This college sports system contributes to the undervaluing of black lives in American society and our institutions.
I never spent more than 20 hours per week in practice and competition, my coaches always prioritized academics over athletics, and my experiences launched me on a path to earning my Ph.D. As a graduate student at Arizona State University, I was an NCAA national champion in the 10,000-meter run.
This is not the trajectory for many revenue-generating college athletes. They spend upwards of 50 or 60 hours per week on sports. They frequently are enrolled in easy, sometimes fraudulent courses to maintain their eligibility and often don’t graduate.
NCAA rules stipulate that they cannot not be paid, despite the massive amounts of money their athletic performances generate. Instead, some of those dollars subsidize idyllic student-athlete experiences like mine.
I embraced the weekly grind of the college athlete lifestyle, much like they did. I hit hard workouts, lifted weights and completed my prehab and rehab in the training room. But, unlike them, my sport responsibilities ended there. While they memorized playbooks, studied films and fulfilled media obligations, I escaped to the library in what became a love affair with history.
Thanks to the labor of football and basketball players, I did not pay for college, took full advantage of attending one of the top public universities in the nation, and traveled to cool places on the school’s dime.
It may be difficult to view revenue-generating players as exploited. They are celebrated with grandiose pageants on ESPN and CBS. And we are all familiar with the stereotype of college football and basketball stars — entitled jocks who benefit from world-class athletic facilities, gourmet training tables, academic support centers, game rooms with all the bells and whistles, and travel on chartered airplanes.
But for those who don’t go on to make millions as pros after graduation — and the vast majority of Division I football players don’t — the NCAA narrative simply doesn’t apply.
This divide correlates with race. Nonrevenue athletes are mostly white, while revenue-sport athletes are disproportionately black. This is especially true at the most elite sports schools, the Power Five conferences.
According to a study by Dr. Shaun R. Harper, black men represent 2.8% of undergraduate students at UNC, but 62% of the school’s basketball and football players. These athletes graduate at a rate of 45%, compared with 72% for all athletes, 74% for black males, and 90% for all students.
If you are black and male and you do not play sports — well, good luck gaining admission to schools like UNC. If you are admitted, be prepared to field regular inquiries about which sport you play.
Why have we allowed college sports and institutions of higher education to develop and maintain this divide? To paraphrase Nikole Hannah-Jones on school segregation in this country, white people want it this way.
White Americans tend to pat ourselves on the back for providing some disadvantaged minorities a lottery ticket out of an otherwise bleak future, instead of acknowledging that it amounts to just that — a lottery ticket.
Let’s be real. In big-time college sports, majority-black teams entertain majority-white crowds. Mostly white head coaches make millions, and the mostly black players don’t make any money beyond their scholarships. These students have little time for academics and therefore don’t graduate at the same rates as the general student body or the nonrevenue athlete peers.
This college sports system contributes to the undervaluing of black lives in American society and our institutions. The predominantly white privilege of playing college sports while earning a quality degree comes at the expense of — is literally paid for by — the educationally unequal experiences of mostly black football and basketball players.
Let’s call this system what it is: 21st century Jim Crow.
Victoria L. Jackson is a sports historian at Arizona State University and former collegiate track star.
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