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NCAA’s amateurism rule exploits black athletes as slave labor

Scholarships aren’t enough for the hours of work they put in, so pay them

Like many of you, I love the frenzied pace of the NCAA men’s Final Four: the desperate shots, the euphoria when the underdog comes out on top. Student-athletes will take to the court, and some will become legends while others taste defeat. But sadly, they all must play under the specter of exploitation that pervades college sports. Thanks to the NCAA’s unfair “amateurism” policy, black student-athletes are essentially unpaid laborers supporting the billion-dollar behemoth that is the NCAA organization.

My father, Jimmy Collins, was once one of those young athletes. He grew up in poverty in Syracuse, New York. Every night, my grandmother, a single parent with barely a grade school education, prayed her children would beat the odds and find success, or at least make it out of Syracuse alive. Dad’s way out was basketball. Awarded a scholarship in 1966, he went on to lead New Mexico State University to the Final Four in 1970. He earned national accolades and even a Sports Illustrated cover.

While his image was used to sell magazines across the country, he lived in relative poverty and had to scramble to make ends meet. He worked a series of increasingly dangerous jobs — including a short-lived stint as a rodeo clown! My family laughs about it now, but at the time he could have easily destroyed his body, let alone his career, in the blink of an eye.

Today, the student-athletes who generate the most revenue for universities, brands and TV networks are in the football and basketball programs. The vast majority are black. To maintain “amateur status” and thus be eligible to play, athletes cannot accept any money or gifts off their image or likeness. Because of rigorous practice and game schedules, most cannot work while under scholarship and some may go hungry or have difficulty paying rent. Some, like my father, come from impoverished backgrounds and need income to support their families.

Meanwhile, like modern-day overseers, predominantly white coaches, administrators and white schools reap the rewards of this black labor. More than 82 percent of college basketball coaches are white, more than 92 percent of FBS head coaches are white, and more than 86 percent of conference commissioners are white. Not a single person of color has served as commissioner for one of the Power Five conferences. In 2015 alone, the top programs made a combined $9.1 billion. The NCAA itself just signed an $8.8 billion TV deal with CBS Sports and Turner to air its March Madness tournament.

Players do not see much of this money. Some receive a monthly stipend of a few hundred dollars, but many have reported that a lot of it ends up going to support their parents and siblings still living in poverty. Instead, they are criminalized for accepting a fancy dinner or in any way attempting to profit from their skills and labor. Offenders are punished by the NCAA and often lampooned in the media for daring to seek compensation for their work.

Stunningly, the NCAA defends this inequitable system by asserting that the 13th Amendment allows them to treat student-athletes as slave labor. This is not hyperbole. Last year, former student-athlete Lawrence “Poppy” Livers filed a class-action suit against the NCAA, arguing student-athletes are essentially employees of their schools and should receive compensation. In response, the NCAA pointed to a loophole in the 13th Amendment that has long been a tool of the prison-industrial complex to justify the extraction of free labor from incarcerated black people. The NCAA audaciously claims this applies to its relationship with student-athletes as well. It should be ashamed of itself.

Schools, boosters and shoe companies will tell you the educational opportunities some student-athletes enjoy and the prospect of going pro are payment for their services. In reality, black football and basketball student-athletes are significantly less likely to graduate with a degree than their white teammates. Furthermore, only 2 percent of all student-athletes go pro. If this is the NCAA’s rationale, it should support the NBA in getting rid of the “one-and-done” rule that allows athletes to leave college early, and instead encourage athletes to finish school with the financial and professional safety net a college degree can provide.

My father was among the lucky ones. After graduation, he made it to the NBA, joining the Chicago Bulls and earning enough to buy his mom a new house. He went on to become a successful college basketball coach, mentoring countless young black men in Chicago, Syracuse and beyond. He is proud to be a part of a legacy of black athletes who defy the odds and inspire our young people to dream big, work hard and, from Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick, stand up for what is right. Black student-athletes deserve better than to be regarded as slave laborers who should be grateful for the opportunity to toil on the college sports plantation. By forcing the NCAA to drop the “amateurism” policy, we can teach young people another valuable lesson: Never settle for anything less than what you deserve, including the dignity of a fair wage.

Brandi Collins-Dexter serves as Senior Campaign Director for Color Of Change and oversees the Media, Democracy and Economic Justice department. Previously, she’s worked with The Center for Media Justice and at the Safer Foundation in Illinois. She holds a B.A. in History from Agnes Scott College, and a J.D. from University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School.