For years activists and athletes have demanded that college athletes be allowed to make money off of their labor. College sports generate billions of dollars every year and yet the labor force that makes the cash — overwhelmingly Black athletes — are unpaid. At the same time there are coaches who make in excess of $9 million a year. This inequity, for many, has the appearance of a modern day plantation. Today the NCAA, the governing body for college sports, just voted to allow college athletes to be paid for their image, name and likeness. This could be the start of a new spring of Black wealth but only if Black athletes are intentional about making the system work for them.
Historically, Black people have never “won” because the rules changed. The 13th Amendment was a rule change but it didn’t necessarily translate into freedom. The 1968 Housing Act didn’t put and end to housing discrimination. The Community Reinvestment Act, passed in 1977 to encourage lending in low-and-moderate-income neighborhoods, is in fact today being used by gentrifiers to access loans so they can buy in Black neighborhoods. In other words, rules that seem to be in favor of Black people can achieve nothing or actually work against them. The new rules are to be implemented by January 2021 and to date, much is still unclear as to how the process will unfold. Two things are certain, however — without Black athletes schools, the television networks and the NCAA have no product and the NCAA couldn’t continue on its existing course.
In 2009 Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball player, filed an antitrust class action lawsuit against the NCAA after seeing his likeness on an NCAA video game, for which he was not compensated. California recently passed a bill which allows players to make money from endorsement deals, without fear of retribution from the NCAA or their schools. Several other states are currently considering similar legislation. A few years back athletes at Northwestern University attempted to organize their own union. The landscape has been changing and fast — the NCAA has no choice but to adapt or die. Still, Black athletes will have to actively participate in that adaptation and force the issue or passively accept victimization. Based on the historical record, there is no reason to believe that the powerful will first think of the interests of young, mostly poor or working class, Black athletes first.
Ohio State University, University of Texas, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and USC represent a handful of big schools that make millions of dollars annually off of their sports teams. For the most part they make their money from television and licensing. Black college athletes can’t necessarily negotiate their own television contracts but they can strategically brainstorm, strategize and organize around strategies that will convert their names, images and likenesses into cash. This will not happen organically or naturally. Further, those who are already in power and have capital will naturally seek to think for the athletes and present opportunities that will benefit them first, the athlete secondarily. Black athletes can’t afford to think that this new ruling will automatically translate into a win for them, they must make it that.