The NCAA is quietly building a reputation for being anti-Black, and pro-establishment.
On the surface, this statement may come across as “ignorant” or “disingenuous.”
After all, over the years, legions of young Black athletes have gained a free education and maximum public exposure on the NCAA’s dime.
These advantages have merit, especially if you consider the astronomical cost of college tuition, along with the historical challenge of poverty that plagues urban communities.
‘Pay to play’
Yet it is hard to ignore the NCAA’s oligarchic “chokehold” on athletes who aren’t paid to play, but risk being punished if they sneak cash into their pockets from outside sources.
This narrative has a unique impact on young Black men, whose efforts and natural abilities make basketball and football the most popular and profitable sports in college.
These gifted athletes earn millions for their respective programs and the NCAA through TV contracts, plus ticket and jersey sales.
‘Free labor’ in college athletics
But during the off-season, most return home to their loved ones without a paycheck, or even a stipend.
It’s virtually “free” labor.
“Black student-athletes are essentially unpaid laborers supporting the billion-dollar behemoth that is the NCAA organization,” explains sociologist and sportswriter Brandi Collins-Dexter. “My father, Jimmy Collins, was once one of those young athletes. He was awarded a scholarship in 1966, and 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.”
She added, “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.”
The NCAA has recently considered implementing a policy that would’ve required sports agents to have a college degree and pass an in-person exam before they could legally represent players declaring for the NBA draft.
Meet Rich Paul
These regulations don’t seem calculated or biased at first glance, but if you stay current with the new trends in sports, you’re probably familiar with Rich Paul, a young, Black sports agent who’s making waves and breaking barriers at the college and professional levels.
As CEO of Klutch Sports, Paul has guided several Black athletes to financial freedom—and he’s doing it without the prestige of a bachelor’s or master’s degree. If he continues down this righteous path, it may soon be approporiate to call him the “Harriet Tubman” of pro sports.
In an op-ed piece for The Athletic on Aug. 12, Paul wrote: “Requiring a four-year degree accomplishes only one thing: Systematically excluding those who come from a world where college is unrealistic. Does anyone really believe a four-year degree is what separates an ethical person from a con artist?”
“Let’s also be clear that once the NCAA requires a four-year degree for athletes ‘testing the waters,’ it’s only a matter of time until this idea is socialized, no longer questioned, and then more broadly applied. We all know how this works. Unfair policy is introduced incrementally so people accept it because it only affects a small group. Then the unfair policy quietly evolves into institutional policy. I’m not sure what the technical term is for that because I didn’t finish college but I know it when I see it.”
NCAA backs off rule change
After considerable opposition, the NCAA retreated from its plan to enforce stricter guidelines on agents. Instead, those who don’t have a bachelor’s degree will have to be in “good standing” with the National Basketball Players Association.
Despite this new decision, the NCAA’s original idea points to a much larger issue of widespread discrimination against minorities. In a system largely governed and perpetuated by “gluttonous White overlords,” Paul is clearing pathways for his clients to cultivate their individual brands and accumulate generational wealth. For instance, he recently got involved in trade negotiations that resulted in all-star forward Anthony Davis leaving the New Orleans Pelicans to join the Los Angeles Lakers. It was a difficult decision for both the Davis and the Pelicans, but it may illustrate Paul’s commitment to empowering players, and limiting the control that owners have freely exerted since the NBA’s inception.
With some of the biggest names in basketball under his advisement, Paul’s legend is growing in step with his childhood pal and personal client, LeBron James. Both deserve credit for having the courage to stand up against corporate greed and the “good ol’ boy” traditions of the NCAA and NBA respectively.
This factor is what makes the James-Paul partnership so compelling. It’s a saga of two Black “alpha males” standing toe-to-toe with various groups of high-powered executives.
LeBron James offers opinion
The duo will likely take additional steps to push their cause forward, but there’s opposition growing in high places to slow them down.
Those closely attuned to the sports world attest that both Paul and James appear to be targets of a very powerful institution. There is growing suspicion among Black sports agents—and their clients—that Paul’s lack of a formal degree may underscore the NCAA’s sudden inclination to increase its academic standards for sports agents. In fact, James is calling it the “Rich Paul Rule” that may unfairly target Black men and women in Paul’s profession.
Throughout history, barriers have been created and reinforced to prevent minorities from climbing the proverbial “ladder of success.” It’s a narrative that’s rooted in fear, envy and greed.
Few Black Division 1 coaches
Is the NCAA partaking in a long-held tradition of stifling the potential of Black men? While that question is debatable, there is no monetary compensation for athletes who play college football and basketball—by far the biggest money-makers in NCAA Division 1 sports. Also, Black men only represent 11 percent of all head coaches in Division 1 football at a time when Black players comprise up to 56 percent of college football rosters. The landscape is similar in college basketball.
“These young men are being programmed to obey the commands of White men,” says former athletic conditioning coach John Sayers. “How many Black men do you see coaching football or basketball at the college level? They can go get a job coaching for an HBCU down south, but how many of these kids have the foresight to play for coaches who look like they do and can relate to their struggles? No, the top prospects go to the schools that get national exposure and media coverage. That’s how you make the NFL and the NBA.”
Sayers added, “Many of these boys come from fatherless homes. They’re starving for positive role models. So when they’re given support and encouragement by their coaches, it means everything.”
Despite the recent controversy, Paul is discovering unconventional ways to serve his clients’ interests-and himself. Last year he negotiated a $1 million internship with New Balance for one of his teenage clients. The deal garnered praise from every corner of the sports world, and it catapulted him to “boss” status.
Old traditions are changing
Paul’s exploits also highlight a changing of the guard in sports. Old traditions and practices are being discarded and replaced by new ones enjoyed by both genders at the professional level. Paul’s current woes may stem from the age-old “plantation mentality” deeply embedded in sports culture as related to poor Black stellar athletes and White billionaire team owners.
Two years ago, talent scouts and coaches witnessed the 6-foot-8, 250-pound frame of a high school prodigy named Zion Williamson. He was a “can’t miss” prospect. The 19-year-old small forward was drafted earlier this year by the Pelicans and even has a shoe deal with Nike supposedly surpassing an $87 million endorsement package with LeBron James.
Williamson was among the many financially-strapped college players who received no monetary compensation for bringing in millions for his school, in his case Duke University. Considering how much revenue he and others brought to the North Carolina campus each year from ticket sales, parking and concessions—not to mention lucrative cable TV contracts—one would expect a portion of this largess would be provided to the players.
NCAA guidelines impractical?
Some players have taken it on themselves to augment their financial status with outside money, often from potential agents or athletic boosters. Breaking this rule typically ends with a player losing his or her scholarship. Others have watched helplessly while their NBA or NFL draft stock plummeted because of earlier NCAA infractions (i.e. Reggie Bush relinquishing his Heisman Trophy). In 2010, the brass at USC decided to completely delete from record the accomplishments of the former college running back after he was caught receiving bundles of cash and the keys to a new home from an outside source.
And while student-athletes like Bush are portrayed as “dishonorable” for accepting payoffs under the table, dictators of the NCAA rest tranquilly in their comfy offices, and plush living rooms. It’s a dichotomy that’s been nitpicked and dissected by critics for decades.
Does racial discrimination play a role in the “selective outrage,” often leveled at the budding superstar Black college athlete? The question is also worthy of debate. At the professional level, you can search through any decade over the last century to find examples of color bias aimed at Black athletes exclusively. On a smaller scale, it seems fair to point out (again) that of all the sports programs available at each university, basketball and football reign supreme.