OPINION: Just a Reminder: The NCAA Is a Plantation, and the Players Are the Sharecroppers

Michael Harriot, The Root | 4/1/2017, 11:58 a.m.
The NCAA makes around $1 billion a year on college athletics. If you add in the $3.4 billion for college ...

One of the biggest bait and switches ever pulled on American citizens was the ruse of collectively shared farming. It was a simple but effective long con. Farmers and plantation owners convinced newly freed slaves and poor people to work a portion of their land in exchange for a share of the harvest.

In theory, this plan incentivized the workers to produce the biggest crop possible, and the landowners could maximize the use of their land, sharing the profits with labor. This system of “sharecropping” seemed like a perfect plan.

But this farm-tenancy system eventually went south. Landowners found ways to bilk the sharecroppers out of their portion of the profits by charging them for food, housing, the use of equipment, interest on loans and anything else they could conjure up. The workers eventually ended up as indentured servants—in debt to the landlords, giving their blood, sweat and tears for a payday they never received.

Incredibly, sharecropping was never outlawed. The mechanization of farming made it impractical, and the people who had been tied to the land eventually realized the nature of the con. But to this very day, if you could convince people to give their blood, sweat and tears for no pay except the promise of fortune and success down the road, you could start your own sharecropping system. Fortunately, no company is arrogantly evil enough to convince poor people to work for free while the business rakes in billions in profit, refusing to compensate the workers who sacrifice their bodies and minds ...

... except for college athletics.

Funded by the federal government (that means us), the National Collegiate Athletic Association is nominally a nonprofit organization. Technically, however, the NFL (which made about $13.3 billion in 2016) is also a nonprofit because it distributes all the money it makes to its individual franchises. Calling them “not-for-profit” organizations is like saying Beyoncé and Jay Z are poor because Blue Ivy is going to end up with all the money anyway.

The NCAA makes around $1 billion a year (figures for 2016 haven’t been released yet; it presumably takes quite a while to count the piles of money) on college athletics. Eighty percent of the NCAA’s revenue comes from the media rights to the NCAA tournament. If you add in the $3.4 billion for college football (the playoff championship is owned by the 125 Football Subdivision, or FBS, schools), the total revenue for college sports tops $4 billion—almost all of it from football and basketball. Four billion. Now guess how much players get.

They get food, of course. They get to live in college dorms, so there’s free housing. Depending on which school you attend, there’s a $2,000-$5,000 stipend for the year (which amounts to $1-$2.50 per hour). There’s the free athletic gear. But the real allure of college athletics is the opportunity for fame, athletic glory, free education and more money than they could ever count.

Welcome to the new sharecropping.

Just as in sharecropping, when you talk about the student-athletes in money-earning sports, you’re really talking about black people. In 2012, the latest year for which figures are available (pdf), black players made up 51.6 percent of FBS football players (far more than their 13 percent of the American population) and 57.2 percent of Division I basketball players. For years, colleges have made hundreds of millions of dollars on the backs of these athletes with no regard for their future, and no one cares—simply because they’re black.