If you want to see the makings of economic exploitation, follow the career of Louisiana State University’s sophomore star running back, Leonard Fournette, who, because of collusion between the NCAA and the NFL, cannot play professional football in America until after his junior season. This means that for the next year, unless Fournette boycotts college ball, LSU, the SEC, and the NCAA will makes millions off of his talent without Fournette receiving a dime. He doesn’t even own his own game-worn jersey.
This economic injustice was demonstrated this past Saturday, October 10, when Fournette’s LSU Tigers hosted South Carolina in Baton Rouge, LA. The game was originally scheduled for Columbia, SC, but moved to Louisiana due to the South Carolina floods. Fournette, touched by the destruction of the floods, and wanting to help the victims, announced that he would auction off his game jersey to give the proceeds to the flood victims. After all, the teams pledged to give part of the game’s proceeds to flood victims. Why not the star player?
But when the NCAA got word that Fournette felt free to auction his own jersey, the master pushed back. The organization initially ruled that Fournette did not have the right to auction off his jersey, his property. They limited his assertion of freedom. This prompted a Twitter outcry over the NCAA restricting a Heisman hopeful from helping the flood victims. Quickly, the NCAA, trying to avoid being seen as an overbearing master, changed course and tweeted “Leonard Fournette can auction his jersey for SC flood victims.” People celebrated this turnaround. After all, it was the right thing to do.
But even in their benevolence, they exposed their exploitation. Despite the fact the NCAA acknowledged in their tweet that the jersey was Fournette’s, they still sought control over what Fournette could do with his property. They wouldn’t, for example, allow Fournette to sell his jersey to help feed his family. That would be giving the player too much control over his own product. The NCAA, in other words, has plantation power.
In 1946, in order to justify why his school abolished football, American University President Paul F. Douglass, argued “A human slave market extends from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from Canada to Alabama. Day by day young men come to the auction block for sale to the highest bidder. The bidding is bitter, determined and unscrupulous. The country is ridden by agents and scouts directed by coaches who receive salaries higher than university presidents.” The players, according to Douglass, “surrendered their complete freedom to coaches—today’s slave drivers.”
For Douglass, the unscrupulous exploitation was in the recruitment of players and the verbal and physical abuse from coaches. But he did not go far enough. He did not chide college coaches for economic exploitation. Like most men of his time, he was more concerned with the farce amateurism, or the fact that players received “benefits sometimes reaching $200 a month” when they should have been playing for the love of the sport. “These payments,” he argued, were “sometimes made in cash, sometimes by book entries and sometimes by fictions of work jobs.” Two years later, however, to control the college coaches, and cede power from coaches and colleges, the NCAA created the “Sanity Code,” which allowed schools to give sports-based scholarships.
While seemingly cleaning up the sport, this act changed the economic landscape of college football in two important ways. First, with schools offering athletic scholarships—these scholarships went from 4-year guaranteed scholarships to 1-year renewables—this supposedly leveled the value for what a school had to “pay” a player, a scholarship. This was meant to end the so-called “human slave market” in recruitment, but as we know, it never did. The same recruitment problems Douglass highlighted in 1946 exist today. Louisville basketball, for example, is presently under fire for paying for potential players to have sex with prostitutes.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the NCAA used the Sanity Code to take control of defining amateurism. In other words, once they had the power to enforce scholarships, they had the power to determine player eligibility for those scholarships. But with that newfound power, big time college sports started to mirror the economics of slavery even more than it had in the past.
Since the 1950s, the control of TV contracts by the NCAA and conferences and the sale of memorabilia and tickets have generated billions of dollars for the NCAA and universities. The players, however, get nothing. The NCAA doesn’t allow players to make money. The NCAA even goes as far as preventing a player from selling his property. A football player, for example, cannot sell his jersey, his rings from the lucrative bowl game, or any other gear he receives. This is all stuff the public would deem the player’s personal property. But not the NCAA. The control of one’s personal property is one of the most basic definitions of American citizenship. To be free, is to own property, even oneself. To be a slave, is to be property. Today, big time college athletes are the property of the NCAA. The unpaid labor has no power to control their property.
The organization wants to project the image that the NCAA and big time college sports is a positive good, while simultaneously demanding absolute control over their exploited labor. If the NCAA truly wants to be benevolent, however, they must put in place programs that allow the athletes to sell property, and not be property. And they must pay these kids for their labor. Anything less, big time college sports will continue to resemble the slave market that Paul Douglass described nearly 70 years ago.