Written by Ann Brown Sep 14, 2020
A new study of the economics of college sports shows that affluent white students are profiting from the labor of poor Black students. The study from the National Bureau of Economic Research looked at revenue data from 2006 to 2019 for all 65 athletic departments in the Power Five conferences, home to the NCAA’s top Division I men’s football and basketball program.
The research found that the money generated by football and basketball programs dominated by Black players pays for the salaries of coaches and administrators. It is also used to upgrade facilities the teams use, and finances non-revenue sports played mostly by affluent white student-athletes, CNN reported.
“In any other setting, your key input as a business would receive wages that look like the benefit that they provide to the business,” said Craig Garthwaite, lead author of the study. “But here the players are artificially constrained from being able to do that.”
Key findings from the study included disparities between Black and white student-athletes, socioeconomic status, spending on coaches’ salaries, and spending on collegiate facilities.
“We took every player, in every sport, not just the revenue sports, and tracked them back to their high school and calculated the average family income for students that went to that high school,” Garthwaite said. “So we can actually show that it’s not just the sports that lose money and that survive because football and basketball provide them with extra funds. It’s not just that the students are more likely to be white, but they tend to come from richer families. They’ve gone to high schools where the average family income is higher.”
The average salaries of Power 5 football coaching staffs at public schools increased from $4.8 to $9.8 million from 2008 to 2018, according to the data. Coaches for all other sports at Power 5 schools have also seen average salaries boosted from $7.3 to $12.5 million.
So while it seems colleges are earning millions from student-athletes, the athletes themselves have not been allowed to profit from their collegiate career. In October 2019 the NCAA reversed its stance following a California law set to take effect in 2023 that allows college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness. This, however, is being challenged in court.
Besides the discrepancies between the athletes, in 2020 the five North America major leagues will have 150 teams but only one Black majority owner. Robert Johnson was the majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats (now known as the Charlotte Hornets), making him the first Black majority team owner in the NBA in 2004–05. He sold his shares to Michael Jordan.
While the NFL has sought to improve diversity in coaching and front office roles, the league has never had a Black-owned franchise in its 100 seasons, The Athletic reported.
It’s no wonder some critics of professional sports call the industry a slave system — 80 percent of NBA players are Black.
“The vast majority of head coaches are white, as are most general managers and other league executives. Of the men and women with controlling interests in NBA teams, only one, Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Hornets, looks like most of the players on his team,” New York Times reported.
The dynamic of the NBA, some experts say, is similar to slavery. “One way to think about slavery is as a history of confinement and the struggle of movement — being moved against your will or seeking to break free of those chains,” said David J. Leonard, a professor at Washington State University who has written about race, culture, and sports. “A connection can be made to what we’re seeing in the league today, to the drive among Black players to freely move and control one’s future, control one’s life, and likeness, story, and voice. All of this is part of a larger history in Black America.”