NCAA Rules Are Not Racist, Just Greedy and Self-Serving

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, or the NCAA as it is commonly referred to, is a monopoly. It is a monopoly that has protected its right to be a monopoly in court. Judges have accepted the NCAA’s argument that it is ok to maintain an illegal monopoly (under the Sherman Antitrust Act and related laws), because of something vague and amorphous called the “historical and sacred tradition of the amateur scholarship athlete”. Because the courts have allowed the NCAA to continue operating as a monopoly, the association engages in monopolistic behavior. It arbitrarily and capriciously fines and punishes member institutions. It bars athletes from transferring between member institutions without a crippling loss of 25% of their eligibility. It reserves the most lucrative television compensation for the most powerful and wealthy member institutions. It exploits the member institutions’ athletes for financial gain far in excess of the value of a room and board scholarship, but bars athletes from being paid anything other than that scholarship. And despite waxing poetic in court about the sacred institution of the scholarship athlete, it limits the number of scholarships that a member institution can grant.

The monopoly that the NCAA represents is so egregious, that if you substituted any other occupation for the terms “student athlete” or “scholarship athlete”, the outrage would be so loud that Congress would be forced into action. And in spite of its noble mission to organize competition in dozens of money-losing sports not called football and basketball, the dominating conversation at the NCAA is always about football and basketball. One could rename the NCAA the National Collegiate Football, Basketball, and Other Miscellaneous Sports Association and no one would consider anything to be amiss.

Super agent Donald H. Yee (of NFL quarterback Tom Brady fame) thinks that the NCAA’s practices veer beyond greedy self interest. Because the majority of football and basketball student-athletes are minorities (or largely African American), the NCAA is practicing racism. And not just ordinary racism, but a form of plantation racism where the white people who run the NCAA, and the majority white coaches and athletic directors who run the member institution’s sports programs, make big money while oppressing and limiting the opportunities of minorities.

Specious arguments like the above unnecessarily distract from the core issue of the labor and institutional unfairness of the NCAA. It also makes little sense. Ruthless and selfish behavior doesn’t suddenly become racist because the percentage of minorities among the victims achieves plurality. Or in other words, since the motivation was not originally racial superiority, it doesn’t suddenly become so after minorities exceed 50.0% of the victims.

This sort of racism logic is often played for advantage in a number of political venues. For example, consider the racial and citizen representational history of the District of Columbia.

The District of Columbia was created by fiat in a passage of the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17), enacted in 1789. In a act of prescience not typically displayed by politicians before or since, the Constitutional Convention convinced the states of Maryland and Virginia to cede territory to create a new federal district that would be nominally independent from the politics of states. As James Madison, later the fourth president of the United States, explained in the independent journal The Federalist  one year earlier in 1788, the reasons behind the creation of such a district:

“The indispensable necessity of [complete] authority at the seat of Government car­ries its own evidence with it. It is a power exercised by every Legislature of the Union, I might say of the world, by virtue of its general supremacy. Without it, not only the public authority might be insult­ed and its proceedings be interrupted, with impunity; but a dependence of the members of the general Government, on the State comprehending the seat of the Government for protection in the exercise of their duty, might bring on the national councils an imputation of awe or influence, equally dishonorable to the Government, and dissatisfactory to the other members of the confederacy”.

It probably helped convince the former crown colonies of Maryland and Virginia that the area that was to become the city of Washington was mostly useless mosquito-infested swamp, bracketed by two relatively unimportant small towns (Georgetown and Alexandria). But as Madison pointed out, the magnanimity of the two future states originated in the desire to prevent giving any of the thirteen colonies any undue influence over the new federal capitol, such as New York in the case of New York City, and Pennsylvania in the case of Philadelphia, both of which served as temporary capitols during the Revolutionary War.

The Constitution granted Congress supremacy over the federally created District of Columbia and for over one hundred and seventy years, this arrangement passed without comment. But in the 1960s the demographics of the District transformed from majority white to majority black (53.9% in 1960 and 71.4% in 1970). Accusations of plantation racism were leveled at the city government and at Congress, and the cause of minority voter empowerment overwhelmed the long held understanding of the reasons behind the federal control of the city. By 1973, Congress acquiesced and home rule was granted to the city. Emboldened by its success in gaining home rule, residents subsequently clamored loudly for statehood, even going as far as electing “shadow senators” to lobby the District’s interests in Congress (the District has an official non-voting member of the House of Representatives, but not the Senate). This reached a crescendo in 1993, when a measure to grant statehood was finally put before Congress. It was soundly rejected.

There may have been valid arguments for granting home rule to a city of 800,000 residents, but certainly the charge of racism or the fostering of plantation attitudes are not among them. Unsurprisingly, any perceived legitimacy of that argument quickly unraveled after the 1993 statehood vote, partially due to changing demographics. The city’s population began to shrink (reaching a low of 580,000 residents at one point), and African American representation fell year after year, eventually dipping under plurality (49.5%) in 2013. The original logic behind the framing of the Constitution reasserted itself, and other than as a perverse litmus test for city politicians and a defiant slogan adorning license plates, the statehood issue has largely died away.

Is the NCAA racist for failing to grant more rights to a student-athlete population dominated by minorities in its two most lucrative sports? Greedy, yes; self-serving, yes; power mongering, yes. But racist?

Sorry, Mr. Yee.


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