RIDGELAND — Jemele Hill, formerly with ESPN, published an article in the October edition of The Atlantic calling for African American athletes to “collectively” leave the larger and mostly white universities to return to HBCUs. Hill argues that such a dramatic return to black colleges and universities will increase endowments at those institutions and reinvigorate the surrounding communities. She also argues that the “elite” institutions are exploiting their athletic teams to enrich themselves while leaving the players uncompensated.
Hill is not alone in drawing attention to the exploitation of athletes, most of them African American. Nathan Kalman-Lamb, writing in the Sept. 6 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education Review, charges that the profit-making scheme of the NCAA is built upon the claim that players are students and thus not eligible for a share of the money their physical labor helps to create. He also points to the discontent of faculty in those larger universities with the money spent on sports to the exclusion of academics.
Both are correct in their charges that athletes are being used. The outstanding players in football and men’s basketball contribute disproportionately to the increasing wealth and power of their respective institutions and the NCAA. Ostensibly their compensation is the education they receive. The value of a college education, however, may prove inadequate for students who receive their degrees in areas with minimal market demands. For the very best athletes, the compensation they could receive in one year playing professional sports exceeds the cost of most undergraduate degree programs.
Lamb keenly perceives the economic sleight of hand used by the guardians of college athletics so as to consolidate their own power and accumulate more wealth. He presents the issue as one of the NCAA pretending that collegiate sports is not a conventional business because member institutions have nonprofit status. Actually, when one considers the huge profits that accrue to the NCAA and its more powerful member institutions, what is taking place on the fields and courts of college athletics looks like nothing so much as a business.
Neither Hill nor Lamb presents any plausible solutions to the problems they cite. Hill may want black athletes to return to HBCUs, but anyone who has seen photos of the $28 million locker room at LSU knows that this is not going to happen. Lamb wants faculty members, particularly those with tenure, to speak on behalf of athletes. Really? Members of the faculty are the ones who are complaining over the money spent on athletic facilities while the neglect of academic programs continues. Can we honestly expect them to argue that players deserve more?
The fairest and most realistic remedy for the inadequate compensation given to athletes is about to become law in California. Ignoring threats from the NCAA, the state is about to require its schools that make more than $10 million in revenue from media rights for athletic contests to allow student athletes to profit from their own images. In short, the three-point shooter who carries his team to the championship at the end of March Madness can sign a contract to endorse products.
I hope that this law takes effect and is copied by other states. It is time that the NCAA and member institutions face legislative challenges to their monopoly. While California’s solution is not without flaws, it at least confronts the plantation mentality of collegiate sports.
• Vincent J. Venturini teaches social work at Mississippi Valley State University. He lives in Ridgeland.