Black Athletes Matter, but Who Profits?

By Donald H. Yee:

On Monday night, college football will crown a new champion. In the process, a lot of money will be made.

No matter who wins, the University of Alabama’s Southeastern Conference and Clemson University’s Atlantic Coast Conference will be paid $6 million each. So will the conferences of the schools those teams beat to make it to the final. The organization that runs the playoff, a Delaware-headquartered corporation that’s separate from the NCAA, takes in about $470 million each year from ESPN. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney made $3.3 million last year and, as The Washington Post recently reported, his chief of staff makes $252,000; Alabama’s Nick Saban, the highest-paid coach in college football, made slightly more than $7 million, and the team’s strength and conditioning coach makes $600,000.

Some of the players are future NFL stars who will probably be rich one day, too: Alabama is led by Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry, who set a SEC record for rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in a season. Clemson features gifted quarterback Deshaun Watson, also a Heisman finalist, and running back sensation Wayne Gallman.

The NCAA, though, insists that all of its players are student-athletes motivated only by love of the game and of their alma maters. So on Monday, they’ll be working for free. Most fans of college football and basketball go along with the pretense, looking past the fact that the NCAA makes nearly $1 billion a year from unpaid labor.

But after a year when Black Lives Matter protests spread across the country, and at the end of a season when the football team at the University of Missouri helped force the resignation of the school’s top two administrators over how the campus handled race-related incidents, we need to stop ignoring the racial implications of the NCAA’s hypocrisy.

After all, who is actually earning the billions of dollars flooding universities, athletic conferences, TV networks and their sponsors? To a large extent, it’s young black men, who are heavily overrepresented in football and men’s basketball, the two sports that bring in virtually all the revenue in college athletics. A 2013 study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education found that 57 percent of the football players and 64 percent of the men’s basketball players in the six biggest conferences were black; at the same schools, black men made up less than 3 percent of the overall student population. (In recent NFL drafts, five times as many black players were taken in the first two rounds, where the perceived best players are picked, as white players.) Athletics administrators and coaches, meanwhile, are overwhelmingly white.

So by refusing to pay athletes, the NCAA isn’t just perpetuating a financial injustice. It’s also committing a racial one.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.