Black Gold and College Basketball

By Emmett L. Gill, Jr.
Updated: November 18, 2005

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In 1619, when a Dutch ship dropped anchor in Jamestown, Virginia the twenty “negars” aboard became the first black slaves in English America. Although slavery was officially abolished in 1865 when the 13th amendment passed the House of Representatives, slavery is alive and well in the US. However, indentured servants are not referred to as slaves anymore. They are referred to as student-athletes.

White America has issues with terms like indentured servants, slavery, and reparations. Therefore, before we go any further, let me provide two classic definitions of bondage. A slave refers to “one bound to servitude as an instrument of labor” and slavery refers to “a mode of production in which slaves constitute the principal workforce.” As Shane Battier, the Naismith Player of the Year once expressed,” collegiate basketball players may be the most visible, unpaid work force in America.” In the 1600’s, dealers made so much money from slaves that they began to refer to them as “black gold”. In a nutshell, collegiate basketball players are like gold — and since 60 percent are black, for all intensive purposes, they are “black gold.”

College basketball is synonymous with slavery because it was built on the work and production of African-American athletes. Athletes in revenue-generating sports spend approximately forty hours per week in preparation for their respective sports. This is a tremendous amount of work considering that this does not include attending class, class preparation, travel, or off-season conditioning.

What is generated by the work of student-athletes?

The NCAA basketball tournament alone provides the nonprofit organization with $274 million, or 85 percent of its entire operating budget. NCAA president Cedric Dempsey earned $624,429 during the 98-99 academic year, as indicated by IRS documents. Las Vegas casinos, according to Sports Business Daily, will create $60 million in legalized betting, which is second only to the wagering revenue generated by the Super Bowl. Last week, former Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino agreed to coach at the University of Louisville for $2 million per year. Last, but not least, Division I schools generated a total of $462 million during the 98-99 season. Black gold is valuable!

In return, athletes receive room, board and tuition (does this arrangement sound familiar?). Athletes cannot receive a cash stipend above room and board, they cannot be compensated for speaking-only appearances, and the NCAA has capped the amount indentured servants can earn per school year at $2,000. Athletes cannot transfer from one plantation to another without losing a year of eligibility or damaging their reputation as a slave with “first-rate character.” Furthermore, millions of young males lose their freedom upon entering the 9th grade because they are labeled as student-athletes.

Advocates of enslaving college basketball players have long argued that athletes receive a valuable education. However, only 40 percent of all Division I male basketball players graduate and just 33 percent of African-American male basketball players graduate. The reality is that the NCAA has not completed its enslavement of young basketball players. Last year, NCAA President Cedric Dempsey vowed to change the culture of summer basketball by enhancing the role of the NCAA and decreasing the role of Amateur Athletic Union coaches. If the NCAA is successful in governing summer basketball, they will have the ability to regulate the life of potential athletes from their 14th to, potentially, their 22nd birthdays. There is not a synonymous example of modern slavery anywhere in America.

Tom Farrey of suggested that if the NCAA operated under the NBA revenue-sharing plan (which returns 61 percent of revenues to players), then a school that generated $9.6 million would have to pay its twelve scholarship players $488,000 per year. The probability of a black president is higher than the likelihood that the NCAA would adopt such a plan.

However, there are several incremental steps institutions and coaches can make to improve the liberties of indentured servants. Basketball players should receive a yearly stipend of $35K and the stipend should be tied to academic performance. Critics of pay- for-play say all athletes should be paid, but non-revenue- generating sports are financed by the basketball team. It’s similar to saying a paralegal should be paid the same salary as an attorney. Secondly, athletes should not have a cap on the amount of money they can earn during the school year, and athletes should be able to sign endorsement contracts. The freedom to sign endorsements would allow the best basketball players to capitalize on their earning potential.

Coaches are the key to freedom, even though they allow the exploitation of their players to continue. Such exploitation not only stifles young men financially, but socially, and academically. For some athletes, when their eligibilities expire, they are like freed slaves, uneducated and unaware of how to become productive citizens.

The media’s role in the slave trade has experienced a significant reversal. For example, journalists were instrumental in the advent of Proposition 48 (NCAA rules, in place since 1986, which tie college freshman athletics eligibility to high school senior SAT and ACT scores, rather than course grades only-rules seen by some as discriminatory against blacks and by others as contributing to an increased percentage of black student-athlete graduating from university).

Presently, because of the relatively light, non-probing journalistic coverage of the realities within college basketball, the real issues have been virtually normalized, rather than the inequities underscored. But, rest assured, the media – if we are vigilant and vocal – can become pivotal to the improved financial rights of college basketball players.

From a sociological standpoint, we may never be fully capable of estimating the impact of slavery in college athletics — that is to say — the way the NCAA has stripped communities of their natural resources. The point is that college presidents and coaches realize the value of black gold. Hopefully, one day the players, themselves, will realize their own value.

Treasure the thought!