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Why Efforts to Ban Student-Athlete Protests Would Backfire

Five days after proposing legislation last month, House Bill 1753, which aimed to stymie the activism of student-athletes by terminating the scholarships of student-athletes who refused to play for any other reason than injury and fining coaches that support activist-athletes, Republican and Missouri State Rep. Rick Brattin pulled the legislation from consideration. The bill was initially prompted by the threat of Black football players at the University of Missouri in November to boycott the remainder of the school’s football contests if the school’s administration did not begin to immediately address Black students’ longstanding grievances concerning discrimination on campus.

Within days, the university’s president and the state system’s university chancellor, both of whom were accused of being racially insensitive, were pressured into resigning. The activist-athletes’ leverage hinged upon the fact that their participation in football garnered the university millions of dollars in revenue and free national publicity and that a boycott would result in the university owing millions of dollars to its athletic partners, create a deficit in funding for its other athletic teams, and generate a greater spotlight on the discrimination that Black students at the school are currently challenging. Brattin and the bill’s co-sponsor, Kurt Bahr, also a Republican, sought to curb the power of Black activist-athletes.

Dr. Dexter BlackmanDr. Dexter BlackmanAlthough the bill was likely a ploy by Brattin and Bahr to stir conservative bases offended by liberal Black and athletes’ activism, Bahr justified the bill by arguing that the athletes were breaking their contract with the university. Bahr argued that, in exchange for a scholarship, athletes were obligated to participate in sports. He made the argument despite the fact that, for decades, the NCAA and most universities have steadfastly refused to acknowledge that student-athletes are employed by universities to play sports. If considered workers or employees, student-athletes could make an effective argument to obtain as compensation a portion of the millions of dollars in revenue that many universities earn each year. That threat is likely why Brattin pulled the bill so swiftly after introducing it December 12.

In the age of #BlackLivesMatter, if the bill succeeded, it would likely spark Black student-athletes at other schools to protest in solidarity with the athletes at Mizzou or to take action against the discrimination they endure at the universities they attend, thus threatening to disrupt the revenue produced by sports at those schools.

The NCAA and athletic departments across the country are fearful of such a scenario unfolding. Last month, CBS Sports reported that more than 25 universities earned more than $100 million in sports revenues in 2015. Black student-athletes are responsible directly and indirectly for the vast majority of that revenue.

Blacks, despite being only approximately 13 percent of the nation’s population, compose more than 50 percent of the student-athletes on football and basketball scholarships at Division I schools. Those two sports, through TV broadcasting revenue, attendance, and jersey and apparel sales, produce the bulk of sports revenue for most universities. Those sources of revenue usually pay the bills for universities’ other intercollegiate sports, which historically have lagged in popularity and rarely generate enough revenue to remain self-supporting. A boycott by Black student-athletes could financially cripple all of intercollegiate sports.

Most athletic departments and administrations understand as much and it is influencing their stance on activist-athletes. At the annual IMG Intercollegiate Athletic Forum last month, several athletic directors suggested that they welcomed the activism of student-athletes because it moved both their campuses and society forward. Their position is a far cry from athletic administers who, until a decade ago, often suspended and condemned athletes whose protests disrupted sports or seemed to contradict general patriotic public opinion. They could generally count on receiving support from mainstream sports reporters who traditionally argued that politics had no place in sport and that sports, especially the integration of team sports, had helped moved the nation toward racial equality.

Activist black athletes from Muhammad Ali and Tommie Smith in the 1960s to Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in the 1980s and 1990s were branded deviant troublemakers by the mainstream media. Current activist-athletes, however, have the support of Black youth and student movements that through Twitter and other social media can organize in a matter of hours and have disrupted events as sacrosanct as political rallies and church services. Black student-athletes at Mizzou, for instance, announced their support of the Black students’ movement on campus and their threat to boycott via Twitter and received tremendous media coverage and activist support from across the nation. Consequently, within 24 hours, the school promised reforms.

Athletic directors are fearful of Black youth activism descending on their fields or courts during a primetime televised contest or activists and students aiming their attention at their athletic departments, which have plenty of racial ills for the movement to concern itself.

The ending of another college football regular season in 2015 brings with it the firing of coaches whose squads have underperformed and several coaches who have retired. Approximately 15 head coaching jobs opened by early December. Few of these schools’ athletic directors, if any, will seriously consider hiring an African-American as head coach despite the fact that Blacks compose more than 50 percent of the players on their team.

At the beginning of the 2015 season, only 13 of the 128 head coaches leading Division I football programs were Black or Latino. Blacks have represented less than 10 percent of head coaches in the division since the early 2000s. For decades, activists like Richard Lapchick, a professor at the University of Central Florida and a sports enthusiast, have called for college sports to adopt legislation similar to the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which mandates that franchises have to interview minorities among the candidates for their head coaching position. Adopted in 2003 by the NFL, by 2006, the percentage of lack head coaches increased from 6 percent to 22 percent; although it has since fallen to 12.5 percent in 2015.

Unlike the corporate structure of the NFL that is often motivated to legislate social change by the criticism it receives from the public, intercollegiate athletics, as critics like Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch note, continues to be run by good ol’ boy White male networks that operate college athletics as an arms race for revenue to field the best football team.

These insular networks of wealthy boosters and alumni often lack diversity, which explains the lack of opportunities for Blacks in coaching and athletic departments. Their successful efforts in resisting academics’ participation in the regulation of sports and providing greater compensation for student-athletes demonstrate that it will likely take protests that the NCAA can’t ignore to legislate equality in its coaching ranks. By pulling the bill, Brattin and Bahr likely temporarily averted such protests.

Dr. Dexter L. Blackman is a historian and African-American studies scholar completing a book on Black power and the activism of Black student-athletes.

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