Last week, Florida defensive back Jalen Tabor added his voice to the growing number of critics who see parallels between college sports and slavery.
After the Southeastern Conference (SEC) released information on its finances showing that the 14-member association generated $527.4 million in 2014-15, Tabor lamented in a since-deleted Twitter post that “Players Ain’t Get a Penny. Modern Form of Slavery”.
While the slavery-intercollegiate athletics analogy is far from perfect — indentured servitude is a more fitting analogue — one can hardly blame Tabor for his comparison of the two. For the select group of college players whose contributions to the athletic department outweigh the value of their scholarship and the other benefits provided to them, the relationship between school and athlete is indeed an exploitative one (similar to but not nearly approaching the level of chattel slavery).
Furthermore, institutions deny athletes basic economic rights, including the right to freely contract for their labor, just as governments and slaveholders did for centuries. But perhaps the most compelling parallel between college sports and plantation-style slavery is the demographic disparities between the workers and the owners.
In 2014-15, 48 percent (3675 of 7695) of all power conference (ACC, Big Ten, Big-12, Pac-12 and SEC) football players were black, but just nearly 90 percent (57 of 64) power conference coaches were white. And of the 67 directors of athletics at those schools (some institutions have a men’s and women’s AD), 56 (83.4 percent) were white. Meanwhile, in all of Division I, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), 47 percent of all football players were African American, while 82.8 percent of their coaches were white.
If HBCU’s are excluded, the percentage of black players drops to 43.6 percent — nearly equal with whites — and the number of black coaches falls to just over 10 percent. On the administrator side, 288 of the 353 (81.6 percent) Division I directors of athletics were white in 2014-15, 263 of which were males. Simply put, there is a large demographic gap between the employees (players) and the employers (coaches/administrators) in major college football.
And there’s even a sharper distinction in men’s basketball. In 2014-15, over 59 percent of Division I basketball athletes were black, yet under 30 percent of their coaches were of the same race. These percentages drop to 55.5 and 22.2, respectively, when HBCUs are excluded. In the power conferences (ACC, Big-12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC), 57 percent of the players were African American, but nearly 8 out of every 10 coaches were white. At the NCAA level, 12 of the association’s 16 “officers, directors, trustees, key employees and highest compensated employees” in the 2013 fiscal year were white. (Of note here is Stanford’s athletics department, which has done an admirable job of diversifying its leadership: The AD, one of the two Deputy ADs and head football and basketball coaches are all African American.)
Strengthening the college sports-slavery analogy — again, which is imperfect in many ways — is that this class of mostly-white administrators and coaches are reaping a large percentage of the economic gains created by the majority black athletes. Since players themselves cannot collect the full value of their athletic skills and names, images and likenesses (i.e. be directly compensated), athletic departments appropriate the remainder and funnel the money to a variety of expenses, including coach and administrator pay.
From 2004-14, coaching salaries and benefits at 48 power conference schools have jumped from around $400 million to around $770 million. Over 70 college football coaches now make over $1,000,000, 39 basketball coaches made seven figures and administrator and other support staff salaries in the aforementioned 48 schools surged from $454 million in 2004 to $767 million in 2014.
The commissioners in the power conferences — all of whom are white males — have seen their compensation explode by 376 percent in the last decade. And while expenditures on secondary benefits for athletes — facilities, nutrition, academic centers — have grown as well, players are still limited to receiving a scholarship that covers only their expenses.
As you can plainly see, the NCAA has a diversity and revenue distribution problem that doesn’t allow comparisons like the one Jalen Tabor made to be summarily dismissed. No, intercollegiate athletics certainly aren’t slavery, but athletes are restricted and controlled in similar ways to those historically subject to involuntary servitude.
Moreover, a significant share of the money generated by Division I men’s basketball and football — sports whose players are mostly African American — is captured by majority-white coaches and administrators. And, seeing as though it would difficult to institute a collegiate version of the Rooney Rule, the most effective way to fix this perception is to allow payers to earn their rightful share of the college sports bounty.
Contact Cameron Miller at cmiller6 ‘at’ stanford.edu.