By Ken Reed

Brando Simeo Starkey has penned a very insightful piece for New Republic magazine about the state of college sports in America.

In recent years, many NCAA critics have used slavery-related language when describing how the organization treats athletes. Even the NCAA’s first executive director, Walter Byers, has used this analogy.

Writing in his memoir, Byers said the NCAA is “firmly committed to the neoplantation belief that the enormous proceeds from games belong to the overseers (the administrators) and supervisors (coaches). The plantation workers performing in the arena may receive only those benefits authorized by the overseers.”

However, Starkey, who is the author of the upcoming book Like Blacks After Slavery: The Economic Exploitation of College Athletes, believes slavery isn’t the best analogy. “The slavery analogy, however, is wrong: It overstates and misdiagnoses the problem,” writes Starkey in the New Republic.

“The NCAA’s rules don’t mirror slavery but rather the Jim Crow South’s legal restrictions on black laborers. In other words, college athletes are exploited like blacks after slavery.

“In the decades following emancipation, blacks were denied the whole value of their labor and the opportunity to fully compete in the economic marketplace. Southern legislatures enacted laws that allowed former slave owners to limit the economic opportunities available to black workers and increase their own profits. This exploitation was allowed to continue because it harmed blacks, a politically and socially disfavored people. Racism, that is, allowed this labor-market cartel to remain.

“That bears a striking resemblance to college athletics today. So-called ‘student athletes’ are likewise denied the whole value of their labor and the opportunity to fully compete in the economic marketplace. The NCAA enacted rules that allowed its member institutions to limit the economic opportunities available to college athletes and increase their own profits.”

Starkey goes on to build a well-supported case for his position. It’s definitely worth the read (as I’m sure Starkey’s book will be too.).

“Some will scoff at this comparison between the NCAA and Jim Crow South,” concludes Starkey.

“Yet the NCAA, through its methods of exploitation, is actually far more effective at snatching money out of its subjects’ pockets than even the former Confederacy. Indeed, when courts tossed out the most egregious disenfranchisement laws in the middle of the twentieth century, the NCAA took the Jim Crow South’s recipe and spent decades perfecting it. Now, college athletics need its own Civil Rights movement. Schools, coaches, television networks, and corporate sponsors have made a fortune off of college athletes’ hard work.”

With the Northwestern football players union initiative, the Ed O’Bannon case, and many more positive developments in the last couple years, we’re at least on the path toward economic justice for college athletes. It will take the work of a lot of civil rights activists, social change agents and sports reformers to keep the momentum going and increase it.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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