- A Knight Commission study found racial inequity in the NCAA, especially football and basketball
- Standardized tests and coaching diversity can contribute to Black athletes being isolated.
- Critics of the NCAA say pandemic conditions are perfect to push for long-debated reforms.
College sports generates billions of dollars a year. However, a fraction of this money, and the resources and support that it could afford, is actually seen by the student athletes that power one of the largest staples of American culture.
A new report by the Knight Commission On Intercollegiate Athletics found that social and economic inequities between Black and white student athletes are worsened by intercollegiate sports.
Researchers found Division I football and basketball have the highest disparities between financial and academic support and diverse representation in team administration.
“The Commission’s report comes in the midst of a historic reckoning on race and a rise in Black student activism on college campuses,” Len Elmore, chair of the Knight Commission said in a press release.
“This moment demands transformational actions that specifically improve the college experience for Black athletes, coaches, and athletics personnel throughout all competitive divisions of college sports.”
The big business of the NCAA
Critics of the NCAA believe the giant surges in its yearly revenue, and by extension the salaries of conference commissioners and the head coaches of member schools, has further commodified intercollegiate sports, making the system ripe for exploitation.
The NCAA raised $18.9 billion in 2019. And while student athletes dedicate anywhere from 28-40 hours a week to athletics on top of full time study, the NCAA prohibits the players from making money for their efforts and are not allowed to profit from their name, image or likeness.
There is no better example of NCAA sports’ racial exploitation than colleges marching their football players into the COVID-19 pandemic without the enforcement of any health and safety standards in pursuit of football revenue that players themselves will never see. Ramogi Huma
While these rules were originally established to prioritize education and emphasize amateurism in college sports, they force student athletes to rely almost totally on the generosity of the schools they attend.
“Imagine a scenario where 100% of these athletes have a clear path to homeownership, retirement, and degree completion by the time they’re done with their college eligibility,”executive director Ramogi Huma said following the release of a 2020 study by the National College Players Association exploring the earning potential of college players.
“Instead, NCAA amateurism imposes a serious shift in wealth – from predominantly Black football and basketball players suffering the lowest graduation rates to predominantly White coaches, ADs, and commissioners,” he said.
The researchers noted this disparity in who profits from the multi-billion dollar business is often accompanied by weak academic performance and a high opportunity gap for Black students after they graduate, for those who aren’t drafted into professional sports.
“For a guy like me who had other SEC offers but took the academic pathway, I wasn’t really prepared for the fact that it would be all straightforward football,” Chidi Okonya, a former defensive end who played for Duke University for two years, told Insider.
“Summer, spring, fall, you’re only home for a week or two in winter time if your team doesn’t make a Bowl game. It’s a mental tax.”
Okonya added that players have lobbied for compensation because “those are real hours, real physical time taking away from the academic progress [athletes] could be making.”
While the Knight Commission does not support pay for play, Keys said recognizing players’ rights will create more opportunities that benefit Black student athletes.
“Particularly, it will provide unique opportunities for students at HBCUs where they are already poised to be leaders and influencers, as well as students in Division II and III,” she told Insider.
Some states have already flouted NCAA restrictions on NIL rights.
In March, Maryland governor Larry Hogan signed into law the Jordan McNair Safe and Fair Play Act, a bill that requires athletics departments to implement more safety measures and also enables student-athletes to engage in endorsement deals.
Georgia, Florida and California have passed similar legislation in the past year.
Closing the educational opportunity gap
Academics debate whether standardized testing, a long-standing tradition among NCAA schools to determine first-year eligibility for student athletes, democratizes access to education or whether they simply reflect socioeconomic privilege.
In the past decade tests like the SATs and ACTs have been scrutinized and labeled an unfair and insufficient metric for college readiness.
“We’ve seen that a lot of these tests are based on eugenics and fundamentally racist practices,” Shanteona Keys, manager of education at the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association and one of the primary researchers of the study, told Insider.
The Knight Commission recommends permanently eliminating standardized testing as an eligibility requirement in all athletics departments and reforming the way student athletes are academically assessed.
This disparity can be exacerbated when limited to the competitive full-ride scholarships. Offered by Division I schools, they’re often reserved for top-recruited athletes – even those whose grades wouldn’t otherwise qualify for admission.
More than 22 percent of the teams in the 2021 NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament had a 30-percentage point or greater gap between the graduation rates of their white and Black players.
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports reported that the graduation success rate for Black football student-athletes at bowl-bound college teams was at 73.4% in 2020, while white student athletes had a graduation success rate of 89.7%, putting the gap between the graduation rates for white and Black student-athletes increased at 16.3%, a slight increase from 2019.
“Students are being allowed into institutions where they’re already being set up for failure, not being properly supported and being clustered into certain classes and majors as a remedy,” Keys told Insider.
“Meanwhile they are doing this while overcoming a lack of belonging at a PWI [predominantly white institution] where most athletic departments aren’t equipped with cultural competence to assist their transition and development.”
Since the pandemic prompted almost a complete halt to college sports in March of 2020, standardized testing for admission of student athletes has been suspended until 2023 for Division I and II schools, with many junior colleges following suit.
Representation matters in athletics departments
The Knight Commission’s report also points to lack of diversity in the administration of college athletics departments.
While the basketball and football teams at Division I and II schools have a majority of Black players, most often coaches, assistants, and administrators are predominantly white.
Coaching positions at Division I schools are notoriously lucrative, with head coaching salaries reaching millions of dollars. This imbalance in leadership has drawn concerns from students, parents and faculty alike who worry that the lack of representation has led to more exploitation of Black student athletes.
“There is no better example of NCAA sports’ racial exploitation than colleges marching their football players into the COVID-19 pandemic without the enforcement of any health and safety standards in pursuit of football revenue that players themselves will never see,” Huma told Insider.
The Knight Commission reported that while college basketball has shown some improvement in hiring Black head coaches and executives in the past few years, football has made little to no progress.
“In the last eight years, the FBS has failed to make any progress in hiring Black head football coaches; today, FBS football teams collectively have one less Black head coach than they did in 2012,” the report stated.
For a guy like me who had other SEC offers but took the academic pathway, I wasn’t really prepared for the fact that it would be all straightforward football. Chidi Okonya
Okonya now plays at North Carolina Central University and is pursuing his master’s degree. He noted that while he considered his former coaches at Duke to be great role models, he felt a noticeable difference in how he was able to relate to the more diverse staff at an HBCU.
“Being at North Carolina Central I’m able to focus a little bit more on football and worry less about the politics of football and get back to just playing the sport.”
The Knight Commission and other research groups are pressuring the NCAA to invest more in programs that support the college experience of Black athletes, particularly at predominantly white institutions (PWIs).
As racial incidents at campuses across the country in the past year highlight how Black students at PWIs can feel alienated, the NCAA and DI schools are under mounting pressure to show progress on their pledges to improve diversity and equity.
“Progress and reform is typically slow in college sports, so it’s important that we don’t allow recommendations like this to get caught in processes,” Keys told Insider.
In the past year players and coaches have used their platforms to speak out on social justice issues after the killing of George Floyd sparked national protests and conversations about race.
As most NCAA schools prepare for the 2021 football season, players will have to contend with high expectations and even higher competition after a year-long hiatus.
Several decisions on NIL rights and the scope of the NCAA’s power will be debated in courts around the country and at the federal level which may help college athletes gain more agency in their careers.
“With all the events going on in the past year, now is the time for change,” Keys said. “It’s not enough for people to pledge. We need pledges to turn to policy because institutions have shown that pledge does not always beget change.”