The Student-Athlete System and the Exploitation Lens

NCAA logo, September 4, 2014. (Getty Images/SportingNews.com).

In July, US District Judge Claudia Wilken gave final approval to a combined $60 million in settlements of former and current college athletes’ claims against the NCAA and EA Sports. The deal granted as many as 93,000 claims of up to $7,000 for the use of college athletes’ images and likenesses in video games between 2003 and 2014. The groundbreaking decision provides student-athletes payments for the fruits of their labor for the first time. But these combined settlements are separate from the O’Bannon v. NCAA case. This main lawsuit against the NCAA’s use of unpaid college athletes remains in limbo. The NCAA asked for and the courts granted a stay, delaying a process that would make every college athlete eligible for some compensation in exchange for universities using their labor.

Beyond the response that often compares the NCAA student-athlete labor system to slavery, few have discussed the ways in which the NCAA’s defenders construct their arguments for the status quo. In many ways, the NCAA system isn’t much different from sharecropping. It was an agricultural economic system mostly located in the American South that took advantage of impoverished Whites and Blacks between 1870 and 1980. Both provided meager benefits like room, board, and clothing at an exorbitant cost while reaping huge profits from its workers. One system kept sharecroppers deeply in debt while the other has kept college athletes from profiting off of their work. The carrot in sharecropping was access to land to grow cotton and other crops for a profit at the end of a harvest season, minus landownership and all the necessary tools, seeds, and other necessities for producing those crops. The incentive in the NCAA’s system has been a year-to-year scholarship to cover the cost of a four-year degree, with the remote possibility in a handful of sports to earn enough recognition to become a professional athlete. Minus, until last fall, coverage for books, clothing, food outside of sporting events and practices, and the hours necessary to take advantage of an athletic scholarship. Defenders of both systems fought tooth-and-nail to keep sharecroppers and college athletes from organizing themselves into unions.

Unlike in slavery, the majority of sharecroppers were White, although more than a third were African American. All entered into sharecropping under contract, though the poor economic conditions of the South after the Civil War and the terror of White supremacist groups left poor Whites and Blacks few options. Likewise, NCAA’s college athletes also sign contracts and waivers that left them with few options in pursuing their athletic craft or in completing a college degree a year earlier than the average college student. And at least three different ways, the people defending the NCAA’s student-athlete system match sharecropping’s defenders with the language of exploitation.

1. The circular reasoning argument. This one is where defenders use the very label of their system — whether “sharecroppers” or “student-athletes” — to justify the existence and need for their system. Historian Chris Myers Asch documented numerous examples of this in his 2008 book The Senator and the Sharecropper. Asch included in his book a 1936 interview with psychologist John Dollard, one in which Mississippi planter William Alexander Percy said, “To live among a people whom, because of their needs, one must in common decency protect and defend is a sore burden in a world where one’s own troubles are about all any life can shoulder” (p. 70). Especially since many elites like Edward Everett Davis — dean of North Texas Agricultural College (now University of Texas at Arlington) from 1925 to 1946 — saw sharecroppers as “the most serious rural problem in the South.” In his The White Scourge (1940), Davis wrote that sharecroppers were “those biologically impoverished tribes of marginal humanity — black, white, and Mexican — subsisting on cotton” (p. ix).

Compare this line of reasoning with NCAA President Mark Emmert’s on why universities should not pay college athletes. On the 2011 Frontline episode “Money and March Madness,” Emmert said, “fact is, they’re not employees, they’re student-athletes.” In another interview, for the upcoming documentary The Business of Amateurs (release date TBD), Emmert said, “there’s not even a salary to debate. They’re not employees, they’re students.” For Emmert and the portions of the public who support his stance, the label “student-athlete” by itself justifies not paying college athletes, just like the label “sharecropper” did for planters who frequently cheated their workers out of profits. The idea for both has been they are but children that institutions need to care for, albeit under contract.

Black and White sharecroppers in Randolph County, Georgia, 1910. (Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection)

2. The low or no profit-margin argument. This has been a popular idea, to claim that despite the wealth generated under sharecropping, landowners made few, if any, profits. As shown by historian Lawrence J. Nelson in his 1999 book King Cotton’s Advocate, Oscar G. Johnston, head of the financial division of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (a New Deal program), wrote in a 1937 memo, “any person familiar with the operation realizes that the sharecropper system is more favorable to the tenant than the cash wage system [paying hourly wages].” According to Johnston, any “criticisms” of sharecropping as an exploitative economic system came “from persons wholly ignorant of the system or the economic situation” (p. 88).

Syracuse University men’s basketball coach Jim Boeheim claimed that there are few to no profits in college athletics in his 2013 New York State Associated Press symposium speech. “I’m not against kids getting money. But the problem is, you give the 12 basketball players $150, now you gotta give the field hockey players. So now you’re talking 150 athletes. One-hundred fifty times $150 times eight. That’s a lot of money,” Boeheim said. In pleading for a stay in the O’Bannon case last year, the NCAA’s lawyers said that it and “many schools and students” would be “irreparably harmed” if the court allowed the injunction to go into effect. Yet the NCAA’s $11-billion contract with CBS and Turner Broadcasting for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and $500-million-per-year contract with ESPN for the college football playoffs contradicts the notion of irreparable harm.

3. The fringe-benefits argument. This is the assertion that a person’s status in this system produces material and intangible benefits, even despite the potential pitfalls and vulnerabilities. Asch wrote of another 1936 interview John Dollard conducted, in which one farmer said, “when times are bad he has to take care of the Negroes first, whether they make anything or not.” Another farmer said that sharecroppers only worked about three months out of the year, and used the rest of their time to “fish, fool around, attend revivals, and follow other trivial pursuits” (p. 71). Despite the evidence of poverty for the vast majority, planters consistently painted sharecroppers’ lives as ones with benefits than ones full of rampant exploitation.

The common refrain in college athletics is likewise about benefits that outweigh injuries, long-term disabilities, the pressures of athletic and academic performance, and the loss of material benefits. University of Oklahoma head football coach Bob Stoops put it this way in a 2013 Sporting News interview: “I don’t see why people say these guys don’t get paid. It’s simple, they are paid quite often, quite a bit and quite handsomely.” They also “get room and board…the best nutritionist, the best strength coach to develop you, the best tutors to help you academically, and coaches to teach you and help you develop. How much do you think it would cost to hire a personal trainer and tutor for four to five years?,” Stoops said. The athletic scholarship, a non-guaranteed, year-by-year deal, is the only fringe benefit that matters in the case of college athletes.

Like Oscar Johnston’s defense of the sharecropping system in the 1930s, the NCAA’s defense fits the pattern of “it’s a terrible system, but it could be much worse.” During his Real Sports conversation last March, Kansas State University president and NCAA Board of Governors member Kirk Schulz said, “Well, a scholarship at Kansas State, a four-year scholarship, is about $180,000, and our average debt load of all of our students is about $26, $27,000.”

Apparently, the system is fair precisely because naked exploitation is better than the illusion of choices given to the typical college student. These arguments in support of student-athlete system dovetail almost perfectly with the arguments that supported sharecropping as a necessary evil in the 1930s. The justifications are paternalistic and elitist, with a mix of class and racial imagery to boot. To the point where any NCAA executive, college or university coach or athletic director, university president or journalist in support of not paying these athletes should be beyond embarrassed.