Arizona State University Historian Compares College Athletics to Jim Crow

Victoria L. Jackson, a lecturer in history at the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University, recently wrote a commentary in the Los Angeles Times comparing intercollegiate athletics to Jim Crow. Dr. Jackson is a former track and cross country star for Arizona State University. She says the current system “exploits football and basketball players so that nonrevenue athletes like me – runners, tennis players, golfers, gymnasts, swimmer – can both play and study.”

Dr. Jackson maintains that football and basketball college athletes, a large percentage of whom are African Americans, spend 50 to 60 hours a week on athletics and don’t get paid despite generating millions of dollars in revenue for their colleges and universities. Yet many of these athletes never graduate and only a small percentage of them go on to play professionally.

Dr. Jackson cites a study by Shaun Harper, now the Clifford and Betty Allen Professor in Urban Leadership at the University of Southern California, that found that Black men make up 2.8 percent of all undergraduates at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill but 62 percent of all football and basketball players. Their graduation rate is 45 percent compared to 90 percent for the student body as a whole.

The revenue produced by football and basketball programs provides money for scholarships for athletes in other sports who are predominantly White. The large majority of these student athletes go on to earn their degrees.

Dr. Jackson concludes: “The predominantly White privilege of playing college sports while earning a quality degree comes at the expense of — is literally paid for by — the educationally unequal experiences of mostly Black football and basketball players. Let’s call this system what it is: 21st century Jim Crow.”

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  1. “Jim Crow” is too soft, more like a modern day plantation. If only Black men could just wake-up to how this system is using them, then they could use the opportunity to flip it to their advantage. Use the system that is in turn using you.

    • I certainly can find total agreement in the exploitation of many Black athletes, but a piece that must be said is that if given the opportunity of full collegiate scholarships, then the athlete himself must also see the value in seeking to obtain the degree which may become the safety net if professional careers do not arise.

      • Prof. Burney, I totally agree with the ideal and theory of your assertion. The applied practice is another matter for a number of reasons…. As the story mentions, the revenue sports REQUIRE an extraordinary amount of the student athlete’s time, as a matter of normal course…Further, as identified in the op-ed I read, many if not most of these kids are “guided” into non-rigorous courses and concentrations. (And they still don’t graduate at normal rates). Which probably has as much to do with the academic deficits they entered college with in the first place as anything else. (Not the college’s fault. What’s a college to do?) Well, the big $$$ program and the NCAA have seen and known this for decades…They all know it! And so does the U.S. congress. But there isn’t the political will to do anything because the victims are expendable and not important to any of the permanent stakeholders in the situation. Thus the law suits we’ve begun to see in the last 20 years…Networking:: these kids typically come from unconnected families, that often have not actively, behaviorally valued education. Then they’re herded into time intensive athletic endeavors which literally prevent them from taking part in or pursuing normal campus lives or extracurricular, or super curricular (study abroad, etc.) activities…The staffing and leadership of most college athletic departments vs. the D1 football/basketball teams is a visual study in black and white. If you accept the premise that human beings are instinctively tribal first – well, in the discretionary game of networking and influencing…So what’s the NCAA and it’s big colleges to do? First, start with the truth, the whole truth – then approach the problem honestly and with the best long term interests of their human laborers. Solutions will fall from there….I am not holding my breath.

        • Mark Jackson and L Lee Burney, Associate Professor-CCBC,

          These athletes are being groomed to be pro-athletes from a young age and virtually shun academic and degree pathways. Some will make it to the pros; some will end-up playing overseas, but most will be left with nothing and no other financial prospects. These black male athletes need to have better mentors who emphasize education early-on to complement their growing athletic talents.

  2. Equality ? What about all the other sports and students ? It was never the intention for college sports to be the primary focus of any student. Higher Learning is the mission of a school. The problem is that , for a very few, we become a training camp for the NFL or NBA. Yes, the money brought in is disproportionate , so what. Sports sanctioned by the NCAA include the following: basketball, baseball (men), beach volleyball (women), softball (women), football (men), cross country, field hockey (women), bowling (women), golf, fencing (coeducational), lacrosse, soccer, gymnastics, rowing (women only), volleyball, ice hockey, water polo, rifle (coeducational), tennis, skiing (coeducational), track and field, swimming and diving, and wrestling (men). Money, not race, is the problem .

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