College athletics provide an outlet for students of color to continue their educational journey while also playing the sport that they love.
Or so they are told.
Behind the mask of education and athletic paradise is a dark history of using Black athletes for monetary gain. Black students from different backgrounds are lured into a system that seldom looks different than the slavery that existed in this country hundreds of years ago. American universities and colleges preach about being diverse, equitable and inclusive. Yet their words don’t match their actions.
Their money is not put where their mouth is, either.
For far too long, Black athletes have been used for revenue at the expense of their body, mind and soul. The issues that they face are not cared for like their nonminority counterparts, and Black dominated sports are often the first to be defunded if the river of revenue is not flowing.
Athletes are now speaking out.
From creating social media movements to protesting at their respective schools, these athletes are pushing their grievances to the forefront. With this, they have challenged their respective institutions to face a past of exploitation and work to a future of support.
A Dark Past
The recent demonstrations of Black athletes from the University of Alabama to UCLA reflect a history of struggle dating back to the 1960s. Since the integration of Black athletes into previously all-white collegiate sports, Black students have pushed back against the exploitative system they were in.
The first known instance of this was in the late 1960s. Black athletes were used for their athletic talent, but were still excluded on campus and no faculty within the athletic departments looked like them. These athletes began airing grievances about the hostile environment they were put in. Simply put, Black athletes did not want to be regarded as token symbols. They were people that were dealing with real issues.
The landscape of collegiate sports has changed dramatically since the 1960s. Yet, the problems still remain.
Nevertheless, Black athletes are poised to shift the culture around college athletics. With the power of social media, athletes across the globe can connect and fight together with a simple hashtag. Black athletes are understanding the depth of their power and are using it to push back. With the complexities around college sports expanding to TV deals and sponsorships, it is now more critical than ever for athletes to fight for their true worth. They must establish themselves as students at a university, as the title “student-athlete” suggests. Their worth is not just reduced to their athletic abilities and labor.
The question is are colleges and universities willing to see their true worth?
Recent actions suggest otherwise.
We Want To Play
The statement “We Want To Play” gained notoriety leading up to the 2020 NCAA Football season. Several athletes— including former Alabama quarterback Mac Jones— pushed NCAA officials to let the season happen.
This statement can hold a different weight when it comes to Black athletes.
A few hours north in Clemson, South Carolina, Athletic Director Dan Radakovich announced the removal of Clemson University’s Men’s Track and Field Program after the 2020-2021 season. The sport produced several Olympic athletes and medalists.
The sport also consisted of predominantly Black athletes.
In an open letter, Radakovich discussed the reasoning behind the decision.
“After a long period of deliberative discussion and analysis, we concluded that discontinuing our men’s track and field program is in the best long-term interests of Clemson Athletics,” Radakovich said. “While this decision comes during the significant financial challenges due to the ongoing pandemic, those challenges are just one of many factors that led to this decision. We will continue to honor all student-athlete scholarships and provide them with support as they work towards earning their degrees.”
Radakovich also stated that the $2,000,000 saved from cutting this program will help the university financially for the future and will be invested in other athletic programs.
During a global pandemic, Clemson University decided that saving money was more important than fostering the goals of their Black athletes in the men’s track and field program. Clemson also limited the outlets to create diversity within their athletic program by cutting a diverse program that did not generate enough revenue to please the athletic department.
In order to promote a diverse environment, a University should create avenues for students from different backgrounds to do what they love. Getting rid of this program signaled to Black athletes that they were expendable at Clemson. They were only seen as tokens to cash in more money for the university.
The athletes did not appreciate that.
Shortly after, athlete turned activist Russell Dinkins started a movement called #SaveClemsonXCTF. The movement included a core team of 11 people and several others around the country working to garner support for the cause. The unionized feel of this movement is something the sports world rarely saw. Typically, the difficulty to come together under one cause in NCAA sports squandered any hopes of bonding together.
This time was different.
After Radavokich’s announcement, Dinkins stated how this move shows how Clemson feels about Black athletes.
“You’re taking away admissions opportunities you’re taking away admissions slots, and those opportunities can be life-changing especially from those who come from backgrounds where they otherwise may not have that opportunity,” Dinkins said.
Dinkins, along with his band of supporters, filed a complaint against Clemson, citing racial bias.
A movement like this was prevalent across the country. Athletes everywhere were fighting for not only the privilege to compete, but also for their values as students on campus to not be reduced to what they contribute through athletic labor. The foundation laid by Black athletes in the 1960s is now being used to build pillars for the future.
A Local Battle
Last August, athletes at the University joined together to protest against racial injustice issues in America. Former Alabama running back Najee Harris stated the purpose of this march on his Twitter account days before the event.
“We want our voices to be heard as we strive to enact social change and rid our world of social injustices,” Harris said.
The march happened. Students and residents came out to show their support for these athletes. Tears were shed.
But what happened after that day?
Some student athletes appreciated that the athletic department was showing support for Black issues. One student athlete said that they liked how the march created conversations.
“I liked that it opened a conversation on social media,” one student athlete said. “It’s actually more than just sports. You can’t just sit here and shout ‘Roll Tide’ but then go be a racist. That’s not how it works.”
The struggle of Black athletes to be seen as more than just objects for entertainment has existed for years. The march at first seemed to be a turning point at the University to create lasting change for Black athletes.
Then, nothing else happened.
The Alabama football team completed a historic season in 2020. Soon, other athletic programs got their season underway. The conversation that started in August seemed to end just as it began and the excitement around the conversations quickly dissipated.
There lies the issues.
In order for change to happen, pressure must be consistently applied. Black issues do not go away with a simple march to Foster Auditorium. There must be transparency and authenticity to the movements on campus.
Otherwise, the cycle just continues.