If American universities really are sincere about being part of the solution to ending racism in our country, they should call off the fall football season. As colleges release statements expressing their commitment to developing anti-racism initiatives and curriculums addressing institutional racism and police and criminal justice reform, they should take a break this fall and turn inward to conduct an honest appraisal of the role their football programs play in perpetuating injustice and inequality.
The system of intercollegiate athletics isn’t working. Schools need to stop fighting to preserve a rotten model that takes advantage of young Black men and their talents.
Black athletes provide the entertainment, marketing, and diversity functions of American higher education. The myth is that college sports represent the American Dream. But the reality is that college sports are part of the American tragedy being protested in our streets.
University presidents have long felt trapped, knowing the dysfunction of intercollegiate athletics but with no real way to address it. They also like to find opportunity in a crisis. Well, here it is. The coronavirus pandemic and related challenges provide the cover schools need to call a timeout and take a year off to fix college sports.
Football in the Power 5 conferences — the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, and SEC — in particular has become a ticking time bomb. Schools need to decide if they should continue to host a student activity that can cause brain injury and contribute to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative and incurable disease linked to repeated hits to the head. They should listen to players’ grievances and criticisms of an amateur model that no longer fits the reality of Power 5 football. They should question if American universities should continue to serve as the sole pathway to, and minor league system for, the NFL. (Every pick in the 2020 NFL draft came from an NCAA school. Of those 255 college players, 191 — 75 percent — came from Power 5 schools.) And they need to take seriously the legitimate antitrust challenge, and, rather than fight it, come up with an innovative reimagining of college sports.
It’s understandable to want to protect a multibillion-dollar business and tinker with it here and there. But this is no longer sustainable (or ethical) as state legislatures, federal courts, and the Justice Department have become involved, addressing the lack of progress universities have made in correcting racially disparate experiences and the business model as a whole.
Eight months have passed since California passed the Fair Pay to Play Act — which allows athletes to monetize their name, image, and likeness (NIL) from third parties, beginning in 2023. Other state legislatures immediately got to work (approximately 25 in total), proposing similar legislation. In response, the NCAA formed a working group to explore adopting new NIL rules, and NCAA and Power 5 leaders acknowledged the necessity to modernize amateur intercollegiate athletics.
Already athletic directors are walking this back entirely. Bubba Cunningham, director of athletics at the University of North Carolina, has written to the Uniform Law Commission, seeking assistance to kill the state-by-state approach. But it appears this effort could go as far as quashing NIL rules entirely. Cunningham stated he “could not support any of the proposed NIL changes.” A second strategy being deployed is to enlist the help of Congress to preserve amateur intercollegiate athletics in their current form.
But schools should halt their quest for an antitrust exemption from Congress. This would entrench business as usual. Instead, they should own up to the fact that they have allowed college sports to creep too far away from the academic mission and should take on the responsibility to fix it.
While athletics brings great marketing, donor, and alumni affinity, athletics does not subsidize other academic departments. The money made in athletics stays in athletics. And since the money in athletics has increased dramatically (from $4 billion a year to at least $14 billion a year) over the last couple decades, thanks to conference TV networks, licensing agreements, and the advent of the College Football Playoff, the money spent in this system has risen in tandem, from coaching salary escalation, to the bloating of athletics administration, to a facilities arms race. To make sense of all the spending is to see that the labor costs for the players on the field — the majority of whom are Black — have remained artificially low, capped at scholarships.
But star football players bring in millions of dollars for their universities and are worth on average $650,000 annually. The scholarship is supposed to be the fair trade-off and a great deal, but football players aren’t enjoying the world-class educational experiences of other students or of their white, nonrevenue-athlete peers, such as rowers. At Louisiana State University, the reigning national champions, Black men make up 4.6 percent of the undergraduate population, yet 77.6 percent of football and basketball teams. Only a third of these Black athletes are graduating.
In reality, the college sports enterprise involves schools making and spending lots of money, claiming an athletic scholarship is priceless, and athletic departments fielding disproportionately Black football teams with low graduation rates to entertain white students (who do graduate) and fans. This is the true definition of amateur college sports as it exists now.
College sports means calling something educational — when often it is not — in order not to classify athletes as employees so that their compensation can be artificially restricted. This is what is amateur about college sports. What really makes it an American tragedy is that most of the people enjoying the escalating paychecks and fighting to preserve this system are white.
One solution might be to spin it off. Power 5 football is categorically different from the rest of college sports, both within Power 5 athletic departments and especially without, across the three divisions and the more than 1,200 schools of the NCAA. Privatization would still keep teams within arm’s reach, so schools can continue to enjoy all the marketing and community benefits they have come to depend on. And football players in a dangerous sport might finally get paid compensation and unionized labor rights — and, by including lifetime scholarships in compensation packages, the quality educational experiences they truly deserve.
Higher education must do its job: Innovate in your own house. For too long, instead of facilitating the intellectual advancement and economic empowerment of young Black men, college sports have helped make American universities another institution perpetuating the undervaluing of Black lives. If colleges really believe #BlackLivesMatter, they’ll figure out how to do better by their Black football players. Canceling the fall football season is the first step.
Victoria L. Jackson is a sports historian and clinical assistant professor at the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University.