Charlie Scott and Paying Athletes: It’s All About a Change in Culture

Banks Avram
Nov 19, 2019 · 7 min read
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The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has long been a basketball powerhouse. Since the team began a little over a century ago, the Tar Heels have won seven national championships, 26 conference tournament championships, 41 conference regular season championships, and gone to a record twenty final fours. However, for nearly the first half of the program’s existence, segregation meant that black athletes were forbidden from competing. This changed in 1967, when the late Coach Dean Smith recruited the program’s first African American player: Charlie Scott. While Scott opened the door for over a hundred African American players since, these athletes are still having to fight for greater rights within the sport, specifically the right to profit off their likeness. The struggles of early black athletes such as Scott can inform the modern-day arguments about making college sports more inclusive for all.

While black athletes are now very common in collegiate and professional basketball, even outnumbering their white counterparts, this was not always the case. In the pro-segregation south, not many colleges accepted black students, let alone athletes. This was true for the University of North Carolina as well, which did not admit black students until 1955. UNC’s first two national championships, in 1924 and 1957, were won by all-white teams. This seemed destined to remain the same until Dean Smith was hired as coach in 1961, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement.

Coach Dean Smith is regarded by many as the best coach in North Carolina basketball history, as well as one of the greatest coaches in the history of college basketball. Smith was vehemently against segregation, and in 1967 he recruited UNC’s first black basketball player: Charlie Scott. Scott was one of the best players to ever wear a UNC uniform. In only three seasons with the Tar Heels, Scott scored over 2,000 points (one of only two players to do so in three seasons), and did so before the three-point line was implemented. He won first-team all ACC honors all three years, and as a senior averaged 27.1 points per game and 8.6 rebounds per game. Scott was also a three-time NBA all star and was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018 (“Charlie Scott Elected to Naismith Hall of Fame”).

However, with Scott’s success came much hardship. As one of the first black basketball players in all of the south, Scott was ridiculed and berated by opposing fans on a regular basis. This was demonstrated in a January 10th, 1968 matchup with North Carolina State in Raleigh. North Carolina won 68–66 thanks to a strong Charlie Scott performance, however the game was not without its controversies. NC State fans were booing and jeering at Scott for the majority of the game, chanting racial slurs. The Wolfpack players got in on the action too, repeatedly fouling Scott rather aggressively, however the officials did nothing to stop this and did not even call the NC State players for fouls (Brewer 5).

Scott also faced hardships at home games. Most UNC students took a liking to Scott, likely due to his success on the court. However, at the time Dixie was often played by UNC’s marching band during basketball games. Coach Smith allowed Scott to go to the locker room briefly during these times. Coach Smith later met with the head of the Marching Tar Heels and convinced him to stop playing the song, and the practice ended before Scott’s second year (Chansky 108–109).

In the ensuing years, many more African American athletes played for UNC basketball. Two of the best UNC basketball players of the 1970’s were black, including 1975 NBA MVP Bob McAdoo and 1978 Collegiate National Player of the Year Phil Ford. When Michael Jordan, possibly the most successful athlete of the 20th century and one of, if not the best, basketball player of all time, joined the Tar Heels in 1981, it had been only 13 years since Scott had played his first game for UNC. The 1982 national championship team, of which Jordan was a part of, had four black starters. By then, while racist sentiments persisted outside of basketball, black athletes were no longer persecuted against simply because of their race.

While modern basketball players are no longer discriminated against due to their race, there are many other ways that they are oppressed. The first and foremost is through their inability to profit off the usage of their image and likeness. Take, for example, Cole Anthony. He is already a star: the son of a former NBA player, the first ranked point guard in the nation coming out of high school, a pre-season all-American, and likely a top three pick in the NBA draft next year. Almost all college basketball fans, and NBA fans for that matter, know his name. With fame and notoriety like this, one would think that he is at least making some money. However, he is banned from making anything. Non-athletes can make money while in college due to skills that they excel at, so why should athletes be banned from doing the same thing? It is a major hypocrisy.

One year of lost revenue probably will not hurt Cole Anthony in the long run. He, in all likelihood, has a long and successful NBA career ahead of him. However, the vast majority of college basketball players will not have the same career path. Only a select few players each year will go on to make a fortune in the NBA. Most of the rest will bounce around the G-League (the NBA’s much lower paying developmental league) or try to make it overseas. A good example of this is Jimmer Fredette. Fredette was a celebrity while he played for Brigham Young University; his electric playing style made him wildly popular. However, he never was able to make it in the NBA and now plays in China, the peak of his fame well behind him. If he had been able to profit off his success in college, he could have made hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. Instead, due to the NCAA rules he lost out on all of that potential revenue and was never able to make it back through professional success.

The issue of making money from playing in college is not just so that the best players can become rich. Many of the players, especially African-Americans, come from impoverished backgrounds. Basketball players are essentially forced through NCAA and NBA rules to go to college and play for at least one year. For these less well off athletes, playing college basketball represents years where they are unable to make money to support their families. Many of these athletes will also never make millions in the NBA. These athletes also play under coaches and athletic directors that have enormous salaries- Duke’s Michael Krzyzewski, for example, makes around 9.7 million dollars per year- all while the payers make nothing (Sanderson and Siegfried 115). If this were the case in any other industry, it would be considered slavery. These come away from their college careers with nothing to show for it- except, if they end up graduating, a degree.

Those opposed to paying college athletes have long used scholarships as a defense. Student athletes, they say, benefit because they have access to a free education. This is true to an extent, however there are problems with this stance. College athletes, especially African Americans, tend to have a considerably lower level of academic achievement compared to non-athletes. This is likely due to a combination of factors, however the most prominent factor is mindset: black athletes are often pressured by their parents and coaches to focus on sports over academics (Beamon 352). This circles back to how many black athletes come from impoverished backgrounds: sports are the only way for them to lift them and their family out of poverty. Would paying athletes therefore reduce this mindset and lead to greater academic success, or would it do the opposite and make players focus even less on school? Both are tangible possibilities.

The opposition and support for paying athletes is also present along racial lines. The majority of white people- 57.7%- do not support the idea of the NCAA paying college athletes. Meanwhile, the majority of black people do support paying college athletes (Wallsten et al. 215). These findings are hardly surprising. The black population is likely more aware of the socioeconomic problems of many college athletes, especially African Americans, and are therefore more likely to support paying players.

The NCAA finally passed a resolution allowing athletes to profit off their likeness barely over two weeks ago. This marked a considerable reversal of their previous stance. This is how Charlie Scott and paying college athletes are connected: both required a fundamental change in the culture of collegiate athletics. The University of North Carolina did not go from not allowing black athletes to play to winning a national championship with a nearly all-black starting five overnight, it happened gradually as the culture changed. Charlie Scott and his success caused a change in the program’s culture because it proved that black players could match, and exceed, the success of white players. Likewise, the advocacy of modern-day athletes resulted in a culture change that made the idea of allowing college athletes to profit off of their play, something which was rarely, if ever, talked about until relatively recently (Kussoy). With Scott, the change in culture made UNC’s basketball program immensely more successful. The benefits of the new NCAA ruling are yet to be seen, however there is no reason to think that it will turn out poorly.

Works Cited:

Brewer, Rick. “Scott’s Special Incentive.” The Daily Tar Heel [Chapel Hill], 11 Feb. 1968, p. 5.

“Charlie Scott Elected to Naismith Hall of Fame.” University of North Carolina Athletics, University of North Carolina Athletics, 31 Mar. 2018, goheels.com/news/2018/3/31/mens-basketball-charlie-scott-elected-to-naismith-hall-of-fame.aspx.

Wallsten, Kevin, et al. “Prejudice Or Principled Conservatism? Racial Resentment and White Opinion Toward Paying College Athletes.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 70, no. 1, 2017, pp. 209–222.

Kussoy, Howie. “2018 NCAA TOURNAMENT Emmert: NCAA has no Interest in Paying Players.” New York Post, Mar 30, 2018, pp. 60.

Sanderson, Allen R., and John J. Siegfried. “The Case for Paying College Athletes.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 29, no. 1, 2015, pp. 115–138.

Beamon, Krystal K. “‘Used Goods’: Former African American College Student-Athletes’ Perception of Exploitation by Division I Universities.” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 77, no. 4, 2008, pp. 352–364

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