The NCAA is worried about the potential Northwestern University football union, and they want you to be worried too. In early July, college sports' organizing body filed an amicus brief in support of Northwestern's appeal of the National Labor Review Board's ruling that the university's football players are employees. The brief contains all the typical NCAA claims about amateurism, with professionalism as a slippery slope to destroying college athletics right out in front. However, the NCAA also makes clear that their retrograde workplace ideology extends far beyond the playing field and right into the classroom.
The brief even goes so far as to claim that the fallout from allowing college athletes to unionize would be detrimental to diversity on college campuses.
"University leaders use scholarships to provide an education to students who simply would not be able to afford an education without them. They use scholarships to bring a richness and vibrancy to university life that is critical to the educational development of all students. They do so to promote diversity. Indeed, studies have shown that the NCAA athletic scholarship program is one of the greatest providers of access to minority and low income students."
Despite what the NCAA's studies might say, a look at the present and past of the organization reveals this statement for what it is: A blatant attempt to spin exploitation of young black labor as a service furthering diversity in education. The NCAA's claim rests on the large number of black college athletes, specifically in the revenue sports of football and men's basketball. According to a University of Pennsylvania study, "between 2007 and 2010, Black men were 2.8 percent of full-time, degree-seeking undergraduate students, but 57.1 percent of football teams and 64.3 percent of basketball teams." However, the same study also found:
• "50.2 percent of Black male student athletes graduated within six years, compared to 66.9 percent of student athletes overall, 72.8 percent of undergraduate students overall, and 55.5 percent of Black undergraduate men overall."
• "96.1% of these NCAA Division I colleges and universities graduated Black male student-athletes at rates lower than student-athletes overall."
• "97.4% of institutions graduated Black male student-athletes at rates lower than undergraduate students overall. On no campus were rates exactly comparable for these two comparison groups."
The numbers do say that black athletes are getting into college, but are also significantly less likely to graduate than their peers. Given that, the only classroom diversity the NCAA can be said to support is diversity that translates to profit. This is nothing new.
The NCAA and its member institutions have exploited the desire for diversity on college campuses and the high proportion of minorities in college athletics for years. The treatment of black athletes at San Jose State in the late 1960s and early 1970s is one particularly egregious example of athletic officials twisting diversity and using it for their own purposes.
Harry Edwards, the professor emeritus of sociology at UC Berkely, details what should have been a national scandal at San Jose State in his 1973 work Sociology of Sport. At the time, the state of California employed a provision called the "California State College Two-Percent Plan," under which any state college could admit a number of unqualified students not to exceed two percent of the school's total enrollment. Edwards writes:
"Originally the two-percent plan was aimed at insuring that minorities and other underprivileged categories of students would not be denied access to better schools. However, through a "gentlemen's agreement" with local state college administrations, athletic staffs have been allowed to use the two-percent plan to bring highly talented athletes into California's state colleges when such athletes were for academic reasons ineligible for admission to other colleges or universities."
By September 1967, only 72 of San Jose State's 24,000 students were black, and over 50 were athletes or former athletes. Eight of the university's black students were women. When black students eventually demanded the university stop using the two-percent rule to bring in athletes and use it for its intended purpose instead, the athletic department claimed doing so would lead to financial ruin and the end of athletics at the school.
In the 1969-1970 academic year, things came to a head. A black track athlete (unnamed by Edwards) was ruled academically ineligible due to skipping classes in order to train. The athlete was not meeting the standards of the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), which provided Educational Opportunity Grants (EOG) to underprivileged students on the basis of financial need.
When the captain of the San Jose State track team, and 1968 Olympic bronze medalist John Carlos, learned of the suspension, he attempted to fight it. When he did, Carlos found out that he too was receiving benefits from the EOP despite having signed a contract stating his support was entirely from athletic department funds.
Edwards details the university's system. The athletic department would first target black athletes with poor grades, test scores or other factors keeping them out of four-year colleges. Coaches would offer them a full athletic scholarship and direct their applications to the EOP departments.. The athlete, under the impression he was under a full athletic scholarship, would actually be half-funded by EOP grants. From Edwards:
"Through an athletic department liaison person in the college's financial aids department, all EOG checks for the athlete would be held rather than given to the athlete. When the athlete arrived on campus, he would be sent to the financial-aids department where he would be required to endorse the check face down and give it back to the athletic department liaison or a secretary operating on his behalf. The individual presenting the check always kept a hand on it to prevent the unsuspecting athlete from turning the check over and thus discovering its origin. Several black athletes were tersely reprimanded for attempting to view the face of the check that they were signing. They either endorsed it face down or not at all. Refusal to sign would mean, of course, that they would receive no support. The athletes therefore signed."
Once the check was signed, the athletic department would cash and deposit the check. The athlete would then get a check made out by the athletic department to cash for himself. This new check was funded from a combination of athletic department funds, donations from boosters, and the EOG checks blindly endorsed by the athlete.
In Carlos's case, his grant-in-aid contract was worth $1,200, and the university covered $600 of it with EOGs. Edwards quotes SJSU's then-athletic director Bob Bronson, who said "Using the EOG program, we can get two athletes for the price of one," and that "The use of these funds allows the black athlete to provide support for one of his black brothers." It's a sham rationalization: Edwards points out the percentage of black athletes at SJSU barely budged after the institution of the EOG program.
The administration at the university managed to bury the scandal. Administrators who attempted to solve the problem were relegated to powerless roles. Edwards reported as of June 1972, two years after the incident, that San Jose State was still funding athletic grants-in-aid through the EOP, with the only difference being that they weren't forcing athletes to sign the checks face down.
This is not the only case of such misuse of funds, as the University of Montana was found to have misused $227,000 worth of scholarship money in 1972 in a similar scam. And given the way San Jose State managed to keep their scandal under wraps, it wouldn't surprise if other institutions managed to do the same.
Cynical use of federal funds and shady face down checks are not the NCAA's only attack on diversity. In 2003, the NCAA instituted a statistic called "Academic Progress Rate," which the NCAA's website calls "a group of measures aimed at improving academic success." The website describes the calculation process:
"It's a term-by-term calculation of the eligibility and retention of all student-athletes. A score of a thousand means every student-athlete on that team stayed eligible and returned to school. You begin losing points for students who are not eligible and/or are not retained."
And if you think that's vague, try this:
"What practically does it mean for a team to earn a 930 APR? ... That means a team is at a minimum academic threshold where they can be eligible for the postseason."
Since the 2010-2011 academic year, the first in which APR penalties resulted in postseason ineligibility, 85 programs have been barred from postseason play for failing to reach APR standards, according data pulled from the NCAA's APR database for seasons through 2012-2013 and Inside Higher Ed's article for the 2013-2014 academic year. Of those 85 programs, 50 (58 percent) were Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), a group of institutions established with the intention of serving the black community. Those 50 postseason bans cover just 16 universities of the over 300 participating in Division I athletics. Note also that the HBCU designation only includes institutions established before 1964; 68 of the 85 programs to receive bans come from southern states.
As the Inside Higher Ed article states, the NCAA voted in 2012 to "allow HBCUs and other 'low-resource institutions' more flexibility in meeting the newly raised APR minimum and an extra year to do so," but the initiative failed miserably: 15 of 18 of the programs to receive bans in 2013-2014 were HBCUs and all 18 were from southern schools. The NCAA dedicated $6 million in funding to the problem in 2012, but as University of Hartford president Walt Harrison put it, that funding is "certainly not adequate given the task at hand."
It is unclear how the NCAA expects HBCUs to fix this problem. Graduation and retention rates can be improved with tutoring and other aid to athletes, but those things cost money. And athletic programs at HBCUs have nowhere near the cash flow of the major Division I programs the APR rules are ostensibly designed to police. Recall the Grambling State University football team strike from last season. The Tigers football team wrote an open letter to the university's administration in which they detailed run down athletic facilities decaying from mildew and mold, multiple cases of staph infection, bus trips exceeding 14 hours long, and a lack of funds necessary to even buy Gatorade.
For athletic departments already short on the money necessary to fix such basic issues, a postseason ban only adds to the struggle to stay afloat. Many sports distribute revenue based on postseason success, and NCAA president Mark Emmert admitted one of the purposes of the APR bans was to keep money from flowing to teams that fail to meet APR standards. "It does indeed direct money toward those schools that are achieving academic expectations," Emmert said in 2012.
The major athletic programs are also able to use their bigger coffers to support tutoring and other academic assistance systems for athletes. These systems, however, are often more devoted to keeping athletes eligible than ensuring they are prepared for and succeeding in their academic pursuits. And when a student-athlete becomes just a student -- because their scholarship wasn't renewed, or they simply exhaust their NCAA eligibility -- the help from the athletic department ends.
Kevin Ross was a reserve basketball player for Creighton from 1978 through 1982. In 2002, Ross told his story to ESPN's Outside the Lines. He revealed he was unable to read when he entered Creighton. Somehow, the athletic department convinced the school to allow him in despite a score of nine out of 36 on the ACT, 14 points below the average Creighton student's score. Ross explains how he got through his first seven semesters:
"See, my test papers, when I go in, they would be turned over on the desk and the teacher would say -- well, Kevin, that's your desk. And I'll go there and it's already done and all I had to do was fill my name -- put my name where they say your name and he said -- don't rush, be cool; just think about basketball, think about the big game this weekend."
However, once Ross' eligibility was exhausted, so was the steady stream of easy classes and test answers from Creighton. Ross ended up without a degree, and was only able to attend a private elementary school in Chicago once a Creighton basketball booster learned of his situation.
More recently, the NCAA reopened an investigation of the University of North Carolina's athletic department and alleged grade changes and puppet classes within the university's African and Afro-American Studies department. According to the New York Times, academic advisers steered players towards these puppet classes.
"Law enforcement and university officials contend that Julius Nyang'oro, a former professor, had taught classes that rarely met and, as chairman, had presided over a department in which classes frequently populated by athletes experienced illicit grade changes, sometimes over professors' forged signatures."
Rashad McCants, a UNC guard who played three years for the Tarheels, including the club's 2004-2005 championship campaign, contends academics were hardly a concern for him in his years on campus. He told ESPN's Outside The Lines it was "to be expected" for tutors to write papers for athletes. He tells a nearly identical story to Ross's from three decades prior:
"I thought it was a part of the college experience, just like watching it on a movie from 'He Got Game' or 'Blue Chips," McCants said. "... When you get to college, you don't go to class, you don't do nothing, you just show up and play. That's exactly how it was, you know, and I think that was the tradition of college basketball, or college, period, any sport. You're not there to get an education, though they tell you that … You're there to make revenue for the college. You're there to put fans in the seats. You're there to bring prestige to the university by winning games."
The NCAA expects the public to see the black athletes on display in high-level football and basketball and credit the organization for its commitment to diversity, but the NCAA's record on diversity is clear. It is clear in the stories of John Carlos and the athletes exploited at San Jose State, the athletes constantly neglected at HBCUs, and men like Kevin Ross and Rashad McCants who are year after year chewed up and spat out by a system with no regard for their life before, during and after college sports.