Workers Vanguard No. 1054
17 October 2014
Pay College Athletes! For Unionization!
College Sports Plantation
(Young Spartacus pages)
Roughly $12 billion is generated—tax free—each year by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and its associated athletic conferences and member schools. Far more profit is raked in on college sports by major corporations, such as television broadcasters and game manufacturers. Football and basketball coaches are paid, on average, between $2.5-3.5 million a year. In 40 states, the highest-paid public employee is such a coach. Meanwhile, the typical Division I athlete lives $3,500 to $5,000 below the poverty line and is prohibited by contract from receiving a single cent of those billions generated off their sweat, discipline, endurance and talent.
College athletics is a concentrated expression of capitalist greed and exploitation, bolstered by flag-waving religiosity and underpinned by the ludicrous legal concoction that defines players as “student-athletes” and the associated myth of amateurism. The fiction is that wholesome, all-American students play purely for love of the game. But for the black students who make up nearly 60 percent of college players in men’s basketball and football in the six major college conferences and at the same time make up less than 3 percent of full-time undergraduates overall, reality is better captured by what many have dubbed the NCAA system: the “plantation.”
Stories abound of athletes starving and homeless, often having suffered debilitating or life-threatening injuries without medical coverage. Between the racist war on drugs and the gutting of public education, sports are seen as one of the only escape routes from the hellish conditions of ghetto life. As The Notorious B.I.G. famously rapped, “Either you’re slingin’ crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.” And a very small, talented few may make it to school on athletic scholarships.
The students aiming at these scholarships are often “in the pipeline” by the time they hit high school, spending countless hours practicing and preparing for their shot at a different life. A large percentage of these athletes will experience some form of serious injury. Even most of the uninjured will be used up and tossed aside in a matter of years. Ultimately less than 2 percent of NCAA football and basketball players ever make it to the pros.
In the face of such a rigged game, several players have chosen not to accept the racist status quo. In March, the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that scholarship football players at Northwestern University are employees and therefore eligible to form a labor union. While this case may be tied up in the courts for some time, it demonstrates a growing consciousness on the part of players that they can and should fight back. Additionally, over a dozen lawsuits have been launched against the NCAA and its partners. On August 8, in an antitrust lawsuit whose lead plaintiff was former All-America basketball star Ed O’Bannon, who led University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to a championship in 1995, the judge issued an injunction against the NCAA, allowing players to receive compensation for the use of their names, images and likenesses. This ruling puts a modest dent in the millions the campuses generate from selling merchandise emblazoned with players’ names and deals with TV broadcasters and video-game manufacturers. Another antitrust suit, led by Jeffrey Kessler, seeks to do away with compensation caps for college football and basketball players altogether. Kessler is the sports attorney who helped bring free agency into the National Football League (NFL) in 1992.
Up through the mid 1970s, most professional athletes were mercilessly exploited in a somewhat similar fashion to the way college players are today. Major league baseball’s reserve clause made players effectively the property of their teams. In 1969, black All-Star Curt Flood refused to be traded from the St. Louis Cardinals and demanded his right to negotiate as a free agent, writing to the baseball commissioner, “I do not, however, consider myself to be a piece of property to be sold regardless of my desire.” Known as “Baseball’s Bolshevik,” Flood was subsequently driven from the sport, but players won the right to free agency in 1975. In 1976, a lawsuit by black basketball legend Oscar Robertson was settled, paving the way for free agency in the National Basketball Association (NBA).
The college players’ challenges to the NCAA have wrung some concessions thus far. The NCAA has decided to stop forcing players to sign over the rights to their names and likenesses. Indiana University has announced an athletes’ bill of rights that promises free tuition guaranteed until a degree has been earned instead of the typical renewable one-year scholarships (often performance-based). Others are considering covering the full cost of attending college as well as increased health coverage for players. This is key—football especially has been shown to be a lethal game. In 2011, college football player Derek Sheely suffered a head injury during practice. After he had begun to bleed profusely from his head, his coach at Frostburg State told Sheely to “stop your bitching and moaning and quit acting like a pussy and get back out there!” Soon after, Sheely died from his head injury. From 2004 to 2009, there were 30,000 concussions sustained by college athletes. On average, 12 high school and college football players die each year as a result of playing their sport. Three high school players died in a single week this fall.
We in the Spartacus Youth Clubs believe college athletes should be paid and receive compensation for the images used by the media. They should have the right to unionize, strike and collectively bargain. As for the fiction that universities are providing free “education” to these exploited athletes, the following provides a glimpse: in the 1980s, Jan Kemp, an English instructor at the University of Georgia, was fired because she refused to inflate grades for athletes. Defending the university from a lawsuit, a lawyer explained just what they really thought of “student-athletes”: “We may not make a university student out of him, but if we can teach him to read and write, maybe he can work at the post office rather than as a garbage man when he gets through with his athletic career.”
We fight for everyone to receive the benefits of a quality education, up to and including the university. We are for open admissions, no tuition and a state-paid living stipend for all who need it. Cancel the student debt! As for the elite private campuses, bastions of race and class privilege, we call for their nationalization. While colleges and universities purport to embody higher ideals, under capitalism higher education is run as a business. The capitalist ruling class maintains elite schools as preserves for their offspring, training a new generation of politicians, judges, academics, scientists, military brass, managers and technicians. But for the education of those they exploit and oppress, they spend only what they can realize back in profit and what they have conceded as a result of social struggle. The rulers add insult to injury by brutally exploiting those few who find an athletic scholarship and escape the projects and prisons.
The Superexploited Athlete
In March, soon before leading the University of Connecticut (UConn) Huskies to a college basketball championship, point guard Shabazz Napier said on national television, “There are hungry nights that I go to bed and I’m starving.” His experience is not unique. In the documentary Schooled: The Price of College Sports, Arian Foster, who is now a running back with the NFL’s Houston Texans, summed up the bitter experience of getting by as a college football player:
“There was a point when we had no food, no money, and so I called my coach. And I said, coach, we don’t have no food, man and we don’t have no money and I’m hungry. Either you give us some food or like I’m going to go do something stupid. And he came down, he brought like 50 tacos for like four or five of us—which is an NCAA violation! But then the next day I walk up to the facility; I see my coach pull up in a brand new Lexus. Beautiful.”
Schooled features a speech by civil rights historian Taylor Branch calling for increased rights for student-athletes. In response, former Navy Athletics Director Jack Lengyel tells him, “The student does not have consent. You can’t have the animals running the zoo in a college education.” Such grotesque statements reveal the bigotry and backwardness that mark much of the upper echelons of sports—college and professional—in this country.
Branch’s muckraking book The Cartel argues that the NCAA’s maze of bureaucracy and bylaws is reminiscent of the logic behind the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision of 1857, that black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” College athletes indeed give up control of nearly every aspect of their lives. The Northwestern NLRB ruling recounted the regimented and grueling daily routine of these football players. Training begins in August, plunging them into a 60-hour workweek in which entire days are mapped out by the coaching staff, from 6:30 a.m. training room sessions to 10:30 p.m. mandatory “lights out.” When the school year starts, this schedule is “merely” 40 to 50 hours per week for the three- to four-month season—on top of classes.
Kain Colter, the ex-Northwestern quarterback who is leading the players’ unionization drive, testified to the NLRB that he was encouraged by his advisers and coaches to give up his pre-med major because his football schedule was too demanding. He eventually fell behind and had to switch to psychology.
Players also testified to the Orwellian extent of control that their employers exercise over their personal lives. They are not allowed to swear in public. In order to monitor their every waking minute, players are not allowed to deny a coach’s friend request on Facebook and are restricted in what they may post. Players also must submit detailed information to the school on the vehicles they drive, presumably so the university can make sure no boosters are bumping them above the poverty line. Scholarship players must live on campus for their first two years at school, and upperclassmen who live off campus must submit their leases to the coach for approval before signing.
No less than the flag-waving extravaganzas that mark major sport events, religion also teaches obedience to authority and conservative social values and has served many coaches well in disciplining players. At Clemson University, where the football team is saturated with religiosity, recruits have been told by Coach Dabo Swinney, “I’m a Christian. If you have a problem with that, you don’t have to be here.” In 2012, Swinney had player DeAndre Hopkins baptized on the team’s 50-yard line.
As greater sums of money have poured into college sports over the years, the NCAA has sought more and more to crack down on “scandals” involving players breaking the NCAA’s amateurism rules. Some students sold autographs and memorabilia or traded them for minor favors such as tattoos. Branch describes the case of A.J. Green, a wide receiver at Georgia who confessed to selling his jersey to pay for a spring-break vacation:
“The NCAA sentenced Green to a four-game suspension for violating his amateur status with the illicit profit generated by selling the shirt off his own back. While he served the suspension, the Georgia Bulldogs store continued legally selling replicas of Green’s No. 8 jersey for $39.95 and up.”
In 1995, UCLA linebacker Donnie Edwards, who went on to the NFL, said on the radio that he was having trouble paying his bills and did not know where his next meal would come from. An anonymous donor then left some groceries on his doorstep. The NCAA suspended him for a game for accepting a gift from a supposed sports agent! These regulations extend down through the entire high school-to-college pipeline. In 2010, after high school football coach Bill Buldini allowed a homeless athlete to move in with him, he was suspended, the school was fined and the next year, Buldini resigned his post. Similarly, in 2011, UConn basketball player Ryan Boatright was suspended because a family friend paid for his mother to accompany him on a recruiting trip—while he was still in high school.
The Amateur “Ideal”
Sports have always supplied the ruling class with an ideological lightning rod to drain off the energies of radicalized and working-class youth into harmless pursuits. Karl Liebknecht, founding leader of the German Socialist Youth leagues, noted in 1911 that, at the German Kaiser’s initiative, “the tomfoolery of sport is being used among the young in order to produce a mood which will estrange them from the great proletarian struggle” (Speeches of Karl Liebknecht, 1927). In the U.S., the cult and business of spectator sports has become another “opium of the people.”
In late 19th-century America, as universities expanded across the country, sports programs were seen as a vital means to build student enrollment and loyalty to their institutions. While many players were in fact compensated under the table, amateurism appeared in U.S. universities as a guiding moral principle and ideological training mechanism. Walter Camp, the “Father of American Football” and coach of the Yale and Stanford football teams disingenuously claimed, “A gentleman never competes for money, directly or indirectly.” In the 1912 Olympics, Native American Jim Thorpe, considered by many to be one of the greatest athletes in history, won the first ever ten-event decathlon. It was later revealed that he had played minor league baseball in violation of the Olympics’ amateurism rules. He was promptly stripped of his medals and having lost his foothold in the sports world, he died penniless. Long after his death, the rules were changed and Thorpe’s medals were posthumously returned to him.
Black track star Jesse Owens, whose record-setting four gold medals smashed Hitler’s parade of the “Aryan master race” at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, was greeted with a reception at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria…which he was allowed to enter only through a freight elevator. Exhausted after his Olympic performance, Owens was ordered to compete in a number of exhibitions, one of which he refused. He was suspended by the Amateur Athletic Union and blacklisted from amateur sports for life. Famed actor and musician Paul Robeson was stripped of his All-America award as star running back for Rutgers, due to his affiliation with the Communist Party.
So much for the lofty mythology of amateurism. As Branch recounts, the NCAA was formed in the early 20th century, effectively as a shrewd maneuver to offset outrage against the mounting body count of college football, with 25 deaths in the 1905 season alone. He writes: “For nearly 50 years, the NCAA, with no real authority and no staff to speak of, enshrined amateur ideals that it was helpless to enforce.” In fact, not only were college football players often paid, but in 1939, freshman players at the University of Pittsburgh went on strike against the wage gap with upperclassman players.
But in 1951, then-NCAA head Walter Byers seized on a series of scandals involving grade inflation and gambling to suspend the University of Kentucky basketball team for a full season. With the momentum from this, the NCAA took control of licensing for all televised games, thus securing enough money and power to win the NCAA full control over the regulation of all college sports. Branch documents how the “student-athlete” arose not from “the nobility of amateurism and the precedence of scholarship over athletic endeavor” but as a tool for the NCAA to fight workmen’s compensation claims for injured players.
During the 1950s, the NCAA carved its definition of amateurism out of the death of football player Ray Dennison, who played for the Fort Lewis A&M Aggies. After he died from a head injury received during a game, his widow filed for workmen’s-compensation death benefits; the school refused to pay. In the ensuing legal battle, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that she was not eligible for benefits because the college was “not in the football business,” and that Dennison was therefore not an employee but a student. The designation of “amateur” also serves as a pretext to deny players the right to bargain to receive even a fraction of the massive profits that they generate.
Down With Plantation Rule!
The limited victories won for college athletes thus far reflect an important social fact. While students in general have virtually no social power, if college athletes were to withdraw their labor and go on strike, it could have a significant impact on this multibillion-dollar industry. William Friday, former president of the University of North Carolina, was sworn to secrecy by a colleague who told him that in the lead-up to a championship basketball game one year a team had planned to go on strike if they made the finals. The prospect that such an action could have cost the colleges hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue struck fear into Friday and his colleagues. (To their relief, this team did not make the finals.)
We recognize the athletes’ status as employees who, as such, should have the basic right to workmen’s compensation. Moreover, we support their struggle to unionize and get paid for their labor. The treatment of college athletes reflects the basic appetites and interests of capitalist profiteers—to extract as much labor as possible, as brutally as need be, from those with no better option. Because class exploitation and the special oppression of black people as a race-color caste are inextricably linked to the workings of American capitalism, the struggle to unionize college players must include a fight for black rights and against the racism that pervades organized sports.
NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar put it succinctly:
“Yes, I was just like the rest of those black athletes you’ve read about, the ones that put all their waking energies into learning the moves. That might be a sad commentary on America in general, but that’s the way it’s going to be until black people can flow without prejudice into any occupation they can master. For now it’s still pretty much music and sports for us.”
In racist America, even as some black athletes are revered by black and white fans alike, others remain hostile to the fact that there are black sports stars who make big money. Hank Aaron, writing of his stature as baseball’s highest-paid player in the early 1970s, recalled, “The Atlanta fans weren’t shy about letting me know what they thought of a $200,000 n----r striking out with men on base.”
In the context of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War struggles, black athletes like Flood, Muhammed Ali and others challenged the racist owners—at great personal sacrifice. 1968 Olympic gold and bronze medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos were banished from the U.S. Olympic team and given 48 hours to get out of Mexico after raising the clenched-fist “black power” salute during the awards ceremony. But their silent act of defiance spoke loudly to a generation of angry, politicized youth of all races.
The injustices and deprivations of this society may be temporarily ameliorated through hard class and social struggle. But only when the entire capitalist system is swept away by victorious workers revolution can we begin to speak of genuine equality. What is required is the expropriation of the exploiters, the smashing of their state and the construction of a society in which those who labor rule. Stripped of capitalist profiteering and exploitation in such a society, sports will provide simple human enjoyment. Education will be organized, as will everything else, not on the basis of individual profit and exploitation, but for collective social gain. We seek to win young people to act as partisans of the working class—the only class with the social power to and interest in smashing once and for all this vile system of racism and war, poverty and disease. There is a future—it lies in the fight for socialist revolution.