By Debra Gore-Mann and De’Zhon Grace
San Francisco Chronicle
The college football championship game will be played Monday in New Orleans. Millions of dollars will go to the conferences and participating universities, trickling down to their coaching staffs, athletic administrators and everyone in between — except the student-athletes playing in the game, who won’t earn a penny.
As controversy continues over the NCAA’s recent decision — spurred by a new California law — to take a step toward allowing student-athletes to profit from the use of their name and likeness via endorsement and marketing deals, we need to remember the real issue at play here: race.
America since its founding has profited from the labor of black and brown bodies while excluding them from the wealth they generated. This was true for enslaved families on southern plantations in the 1800s, for servicemen of color who were denied G.I. benefits in the 1940s, and it’s true today for student-athletes.
The authors of this piece have seen this issue close up through their own experiences in college athletics: Debra Gore-Mann played basketball on scholarship at Stanford and went on to serve as athletic director at the University of San Francisco. De’Zhon Grace is a first-generation intercollegiate student-athlete from Oakland who played on the UC Berkeley football team.
The CFP National Championship reminds us that college athletics is a billion dollar business — with the NCAA reaching a milestone of $1.1 billion in revenue in 2017 while some coaches, such as Dabo Swinney, have landed contracts north of $90 million over 10 years. And coaching is white-dominated. Per the NCAA’s database, 80% of men’s basketball coaches and 86% of head football coaches are white, wildly out of proportion to the percentage of black student-athletes they coach.
It’s also not just the NCAA and coaches who profit. ESPN committed $5.64 billion to the owners of the Rose, Sugar, Fiesta, Orange, Cotton, and Peach Bowls for 12 years worth of broadcast rights. That’s equivalent to ESPN giving the 42,000 students at UC Berkeley more than $130,000 each. These “bowl game owners” are in effect a cartel. But that’s another story for another time.
These profits have not flowed — or even trickled down — to the student-athletes who make these teams and universities so profitable. In fact, coaches like Swinney threaten to quit rather than allow student-athletes to make a few thousand dollars. That’s right: A coach with a $93 million contract complained that “there’s enough entitlement in this world”— while some student-athletes literally went to bed hungry.
Unfortunately, this unfair system falls primarily on the shoulders of young people of color. According to the NCAA’s Demographic Database, 47% of Division I college football players and 55% of basketball players are black. While we don’t begrudge the $90-plus million paid to a head coach, we do take issue with the exclusion of the 85 scholarship student-athletes who make up his team — the people whose work, sweat and sacrifice create the value that everyone else gets to cash in on.
Let’s just leave it all on the field. While the NCAA has reluctantly opened the door a crack for this discussion around compensating student-athletes for their effort and labor, the NCAA and bowl games cartel must do more. We can’t help but wonder if the hesitation is because the largest grossing sports have the largest percentages of black athletes. We cannot have an honest conversation on compensation until we have an honest conversation about the role of race.
The NCAA has a unique and groundbreaking opportunity to provide an appropriate form of reparations and reduce the wealth inequality gap. The ball is in their court.
Debra Gore-Mann is president and CEO and De’Zhon Grace is economic equity fellow at The Greenlining Institute.