Although ESPN sports writer Jason Whitlock is not a personal favorite, there’s something compelling about his look-at-me writing approach to all things in the sports world. In the same way that motorists feel forced to rubberneck at calamity along the highway, Whitlock drives people to notice his antics, which often result in controversy over the point he’s trying to make. But last week, Whitlock’s showboating actually managed to draw attention to important issues: the corporate exploitation of young black men in sports and an ignorance of the historical importance of black athletes.
After he got into hot water last week with a radio diatribe against a Sports Illustrated writer, Whitlock returned to the larger topic of allegations of corruption in big-time college athletics with something of a mea culpa column posted on ESPN.com over the weekend. In the latter, he explains apologetically that he gets “angry and emotional and convulse[s] childishly” when he reads about abuses in college sports. To Whitlock, it’s an attack on black opportunity: “Here’s what it sounds like to me: The problem with college athletics is these poor, unprepared black kids. Less of them, less problems. Headache over.”
As inelegant as his argument might be, Whitlock is right on the money. Indeed, he doesn’t follow the cash trail far enough, stopping short to defend the athletes who are, in effect, the victims of a corporate hustle. And to his credit, he notes accurately that, “Big-time college football and basketball have been profe$$ionalized.”
College athletics are in big trouble. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch, an erstwhile high school football star, has become so alarmed by the abuse of college athletes that he’s veered off the path of writing about the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to take on the NCAA cabal that controls college-aged athletes’ fate with an iron fist. In an articulate and well-researched argument for The Atlantic, Branch makes the persuasive case that college athletes are no longer amateurs but professionals-in-waiting who should be paid for their services:
For all the outrage, the real scandal is not that students are getting illegally paid or recruited, it’s that two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence—“amateurism” and the “student-athlete”—are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes. The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not.
Actually, I’m convinced that if college athletes were paid, it would hasten to destroy the entire mythology of amateur athletics on college campuses. Separate the young men who are biding their time for professional contracts from those who enroll to study. Maybe then, colleges might allow students to be the only ones playing the games. I’d bet you that few alumni would sneak money to the gym rats tossing a ball around just for the hell of it—and I’m convinced that would be a good thing.
I guess I’m old enough to remember when it was uncommon to see a black athlete on the gridiron or hardwood at a big, majority-white state university. But back in the day, those black guys were studs and scholars. Perhaps because they were rare and carefully chosen to favorably represent the school and themselves, the early black college athletes let all who watched them on and off the court know that they belonged on campus. I’m thinking of folks such as Charlie Scott at North Carolina, Mike Maloy at Davidson, Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) at UCLA, Bill Russell at San Francisco, Jim Brown at Syracuse, Jesse Owens at Ohio State, and, of course, Paul Robeson, an All-American football player and valedictorian at Rutgers.
Two factors make this history little known and less appreciated—factors that go to the heart of what Whitlock hints at in his article.
The first factor: Absent blanket television coverage of the role black athletes played in changing American society, few of us appreciate the fact that they were agents of social change. Through the sweat of their bodies and the exercise of their intellect, they exhibited a form of exemplary achievement that pointed the way toward racial progress. Sadly, I suspect today’s athletes don’t know this. Otherwise, how could they behave as if they’re simply entertainers or shoe pitchmen without a cause beyond their temporary celebrity?
The second factor: Prior to the dawn of ESPN, corporations—such as the advertising firms, product manufacturers, college presidents and universities, and the NCAA itself—hadn’t devolved to the point that they could profitably exploit the games won or lost by the black athletes in their midst. ESPN didn’t even exist to showcase how great Elgin Baylor or Oscar Robertson were as players in college or the pros. Michael Jordan was the first ESPN-boosted athlete, and that’s primarily why people think he’s the “Greatest of All Time.”
But they’re arguing from a position of ignorance, because they never so much as saw a highlight reel of Earl Monroe at Winston-Salem State in North Carolina or Willis Reed at Grambling State in Louisiana. What’s more, how can we adjust for a legacy of racial discrimination to debate that they didn’t belong on their campuses—or at some other, better-known white university?
The whole issue of corruption in college sports suddenly becomes moot if big-business entertainment stops being the driving force for the games. Let the professionals get paid what the market will bear, and let the kids on campus play for the sheer fun of it.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.