How racism impacts the NCAA cases of James Wiseman and Chase Young
College athletes won’t be compensated until fans decide they should be treated fairly
Every summer since his freshman season, Georgia junior quarterback Jake Fromm has traveled to the same farm located a half-hour away from the Athens campus. Fromm, according to a Sports Illustrated report from September, uses the trips as an “escape” ahead of the season, an opportunity to “just relax.” The farm sits on 182 acres of land, where estates in Athens-Clarke County half that size can go for $1.2 million.
The farm doesn’t belong to the Fromm family, who are from Warner Robins, Georgia, some two hours away from the University of Georgia. According to the report, it belongs to a nameless family of a friend of Fromm’s, who has allowed the 2017 SEC freshman of the year and 2018 Rose Bowl winner to use the property whenever he pleases.
Despite what is clearly an “extra benefit” for Fromm solely for being the starting quarterback for the No. 4 team in the country, there has been no (publicly announced, at least) investigation of Fromm’s use of the farm or a self-imposed suspension of him by the university. If that same benefit were not “generally available” to regular students, NCAA bylaws forbid it being available to athletes like Fromm.
It must be pointed out, for reasons that will make sense in a bit, that Fromm is white.
Which brings us to the cases of Ohio State football player Chase Young and Memphis basketball player James Wiseman. On Nov. 9, after Young sat out Ohio State’s game against Maryland, ESPN reported that Young could be suspended up to four games by the NCAA for accepting a small loan from a family friend to help fly his girlfriend to last season’s Rose Bowl. (On Wednesday, Ohio State announced Young, a defensive end, would have to miss two games, including the Maryland game.)
On Thursday, Memphis declared Wiseman, a freshman center, ineligible and will be held out while it awaits reinstatement from the NCAA. On Nov. 8, Memphis announced he had been ruled ineligible by the NCAA because his family accepted $11,500 from then-high school basketball coach Penny Hardaway in 2017. Hardaway is now Wiseman’s coach at Memphis.
Young and Wiseman, who are both black, could be the No. 1 overall picks in their respective drafts next spring but will likely miss a large portion of their seasons. The two, along with Fromm, clearly received benefits non-athletes at their schools would not have available to them, yet the role of race caused Young and Wiseman to be punished while Fromm hasn’t missed a start the past two seasons.
The NCAA has always used the excuse of competitive balance, fairness or amateurism to prevent athletes from being compensated for making the NCAA a multibillion-dollar corporation. And while there could be some merits in wanting to prevent dynasties in college sports (though the NCAA has failed in that regard; see: Alabama and Clemson football), what’s actually driven the organization’s continued policing of these improper benefits is the racism of the college sports fan base.
(Here’s where I have to say that white athletes have also been ruled ineligible due to violating NCAA rules, including former BYU basketball player Nick Emery and former Baylor football player Silas Nacita. Those infractions are few and far between.)
Paying college athletes or allowing them to be compensated for their highly valuable likenesses could mean two things for the NCAA: 1) less money for coaches, administrators, universities and; 2) the risk of offending their majority-white fan base.
Despite, according to the NCAA, black athletes making up a majority or plurality of Division I college football (49%) and men’s (57%) and women’s (52%) basketball rosters, a 2013 Nielsen report found that 82% and 80% of its audience for football and men’s basketball bowl and tournament games that year, respectively, were white, compared with black fans at 13% and 14%.
With that in mind, a 2017 Washington Post and University of Massachusetts Lowell national poll found that 54% of black Americans supported players being paid by schools while 59% of white Americans were opposed. When it comes to image and likeness — which is in the news due to California recently signing into law the Fair Pay to Play Act and the NCAA subsequently voting to pave the way toward compensation — 89% of black Americans support pay compared with just 60% of white Americans.
Critics of paying players — such as Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney, who has a 10-year, $93 million contract and said in May he would consider quitting his job if players were paid — point to the “professionalization” of college sports as the reason for their reservations. The thinking goes that if players were paid for their labor, they would lose their supposed “love of the game” and begin behaving like the so-called divas in professional sports who coincidentally are predominantly black (the NFL is 58.9% black and the NBA is 74.8% black, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida).
There’s also the argument that if players in basketball and football, colleges’ lone revenue-generating sports, were paid, it would negatively impact the standing of non-revenue sports such as track and field, golf, hockey and wrestling. And what do those sort of sports all have in common? They’re all predominantly composed of whites. In the Big Ten and American Athletic Conference, the two conferences Young and Wiseman play in, black athletes make up 58% of basketball players and 48% of football players but only 1% of golfers, 1% of hockey players and 7% of wrestlers.
In layman’s terms: Black athletes subsidize the scholarships of white athletes.
Wiseman and Young weren’t ruled ineligible specifically because of the color of their skin. But the system that ruled them ineligible was built on catering to the racist ideologies of the system’s customers. Fromm wasn’t not punished because he is white, but because handouts for white people are perceived wholly differently than they are for black people.
It’s commendable that the NCAA is taking steps toward allowing players to be paid, but until its fan base decides it no longer opposes black athletes being treated fairly, the NCAA will have no obligation to actually do the right thing.