Commentary: It’s Time For The NCAA To Stop Its Greedy Exploitation Of Black Student-Athletes

By Donal Brown
Updated: October 10, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO, CA— With the 2005 collegiate football season underway, African-American athletes are exciting the crowds, drawing in thousands of fans, and driving up revenues from TV and radio coverage. And they’re being exploited.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) pretends that elite African-American athletes filling the stadiums and arenas are student-athletes. In reality the majority of top players, like quarterback Vince Young of the University of Texas and running back Adrian Peterson of Oklahoma University, are first and foremost athletes.

Their lives center on practice fields, not classrooms. Coaches dictate their schedules, which are packed with meetings, practices, lifting weights, rehabbing injuries and travel.

Economists Todd Jewell and Robert W. Brown in the late 1990s calculated that athletes of the caliber of Young and Peterson generate $500,000 per year for their universities. It’s even more today, considering revenues from college basketball’s March Madness, a six-year, $11 billion contract with CBS, and the Bowl Championship Series on ABC, at $500 million over eight years.

Premier basketball players generate over $1 million a year.

These players are being exploited, receiving only a few thousands in scholarship money while earning enough cash for their universities to provide substantial salaries to a cast of coaches, trainers, administrators and support personnel for non-revenue-generating sports such as golf, soccer, lacrosse, swimming and tennis.

Those opposed to paying student-athletes argue that a college education is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Indeed, according to Census Bureau 2002 figures, those with B.A. degrees earn an average of $2.1 million over their lifetime, compared to high-school graduates’ $1.2 million.

Unfortunately, not enough of these “student” athletes earn degrees of any kind. Despite efforts to improve graduation rates, the latest stats from the NCAA show that for black football players who entered college from 1997 to 1998, the graduation rates were 49 percent for each of the two years. In basketball the rates were 41 and 42 percent. Some elite universities have far lower rates.

There are also serious doubts about the quality of these athletes’ educations. It is true that they have tutors and compulsory study halls not available to most students. They have the security of scholarships, so there are no financial pressures that force other students to drop out. But even if the black athlete graduates, his degree may not be worth much if he has filled his schedule with less than challenging courses.

Elite athletes can make millions in their professional careers.

But too few make the big time. In football, fewer than 1 percent of the Division I football players will make the roster of a pro team. Injuries take a huge toll. But out of 3,900 Division I basketball players, only 1 percent are even in the running to go pro. Running back Maurice Clarett, who led Ohio State to a national title in 2002, was recently cut by the Denver Broncos in his first effort to make a pro team.

No matter how you look at it, amateur athletes are used to market teams. Money is flowing all around the players, money generated by their talents and labors, but they aren’t seeing much of it.

The NCAA and its member educational institutions ironically help perpetuate a culture that runs counter to the values they claim to hold dear: expanding knowledge and pursuing truth. The huge TV contracts benefiting the networks, advertisers and countless other entrepreneurs reflect another set of values in American society: success measured in dollars earned.

A University of Central Florida study of the teams in the 2005 NCAA basketball tournament show that African-American female athletes graduate at much higher rates than their male counterparts. Most of the women’s teams graduated at least 70 percent of their black players.

These black women come from similar families and backgrounds. There is no excuse for the poor performance of the males. It’s a matter of attitude, expectations and effort, as influenced by the big money swirling around men’s NCAA sports.

Over the long term, there must be a shift in culture, to grant as much honor to those who do well in school and value learning, and to demand that black athletes from an early age develop study habits and a desire to pursue knowledge that guarantees college graduation.

In the meantime, something has to be done to mitigate the exploitation. Realize that colleges provide de facto farm systems for the pros.

Let the NBA and NFL pay a fee to a school for every player who makes their roster. That money should be used to support the academic efforts of athletes.

Student-athletes should be able to earn money from endorsements.

That money could be put into a trust fund accessible after the athlete’s playing career at the school ends.

All athletes should have insurance against the risk of injury. And athletes should also be given scholarships and tutoring help after their college eligibility ends and until they graduate.

It will not be easy to change such an entrenched, money-driven system. But at its core the system is unjust, and that must be addressed. Copyright PNS Editor’s note: PNS contributor Donal Brown taught in California’s public schools for 35 years.