Why Black Athletes Should Leave White Colleges
September 16, 2019 8:14 AM   Subscribe

The two marquee college sports - football and men's basketball - see major revenues created on the labor of a significant population of black athletes - revenue that then goes to colleges that are predominantly white. Jemele Hill, writing in The Atlantic, argues that black athletes should be making the decision to play for historically black colleges and universities, bringing that money and exposure back to the black community. (SLAtlantic)

Hill's argument is simple - HBCUs provide the majority of the black professional class, yet have less funding to work with than major schools in the Power 5, thanks to reduced visibility from sports. By having elite black athletes intentionally go to HBCUs, this would pull eyes and money to these schools because of their skill, helping to reinforce the black community as a whole.
posted by NoxAeternum (38 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
Does this idea stand in conjunction with, or in opposition to the idea that they should be compensated?
posted by Selena777 at 8:21 AM on September 16, 2019 [4 favorites]


Or, the universities could just pay the players.
posted by Bee'sWing at 8:21 AM on September 16, 2019


Or, the universities could just pay the players.

There is no amount they could be paid that would make up for the value they provide the universities. Look at some of the owners of NFL and NBA teams and tell me that professional players (and society) wouldn’t be better off if they could choose to go to teams and communities and institutions that consider them more than numbers.
posted by Etrigan at 8:32 AM on September 16, 2019 [4 favorites]


Selena777: Does this idea stand in conjunction with, or in opposition to the idea that they should be compensated?

The article focuses on the effect on the aschool, not on the players. Here's a paragraph late in the piece:
Bringing elite athletic talent back to black colleges would have potent downstream effects. It would boost HBCU revenues and endowments; stimulate the economy of the black communities in which many of these schools are embedded; amplify the power of black coaches, who are often excluded from prominent positions at predominantly white institutions; and bring the benefits of black labor back to black people.
Actually, I don't believe I saw the notion mentioned even once.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:34 AM on September 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


There is no amount they could be paid that would make up for the value they provide the universities.
How about $1000 a month for life and free health insurance?
posted by Bee'sWing at 8:39 AM on September 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


If athletes did go this path I can virtually guarantee that the NCAA would all of a sudden find a way to pay athletes to keep going to the big name white majority schools instead.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:43 AM on September 16, 2019 [32 favorites]


If it happens, it'll almost have to be basketball. Not only would you need way fewer people to make the plan viable, college basketball offers much, much more exposure to successful teams outside of the major conferences via the tournament. Grambling State football wins 10 or 11 games most years and no one on the national stage cares, but if you get a team into the tournament and make a serious run, everyone notices. It's hard to keep something like that around because the pro leagues and big-money schools will immediately descend and try to lure away the coaching and on-court talent, but if you had a small group of dedicated people, I can see it happening, whereas with football there's just no way because of how strongly tiered college football is.
posted by Copronymus at 8:44 AM on September 16, 2019 [7 favorites]


My sense is that if this happened the pre-segregation rules would apply. College sports fans — especially in football — would follow the historically white schools like they always have and the HBCU athletes would continue to be ignored, suffering lower public profiles and diminished professional opportunities.
posted by chrchr at 8:45 AM on September 16, 2019 [7 favorites]


The university's grift is basically come play for us and maybe you will win the lotto and play for the pro teams. So why not make the payoff like winning the lotto?
posted by Bee'sWing at 8:45 AM on September 16, 2019


I wonder if some colleges could get first pick of the best players with the obvious act of paying them for their valuable labor. Sooner or later colleges will be forced to do the halfway decent thing and pay, at which point it'll be back to rich white schools picking and choosing. Right now is the time for underdogs to make a name by doing right.
posted by GoblinHoney at 8:49 AM on September 16, 2019 [1 favorite]


Lot more chances to play basketball pro than football. Basketball is huge in many other countries. And less brain damage. Or body damage for that matter.
posted by affectionateborg at 8:51 AM on September 16, 2019 [3 favorites]


Basketball is just better. There, I said it.
posted by jquinby at 9:12 AM on September 16, 2019 [24 favorites]


Lot more chances to play basketball pro than football. Basketball is huge in many other countries. And less brain damage. Or body damage for that matter.

This is true but compared to football basketball teams are tiny numbers wise. There is a reason almost every large american I know has a college football injury. It's because the teams have what seems like 500 players.
posted by srboisvert at 9:17 AM on September 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


Or, the universities could just pay the players.

I understand the argument - but the other argument is that universities have no place in what is, essentially, professional sports. Thousands of universities all over the planet have sports only as a sideline to their essential missions: research and teaching. (Apparently my undergraduate university had an inter-university football team. I couldn't have told you where they played. In graduate school, I heard a great deal about the inter-departmental soccer (i.e. real football) league, and how the chemists were doing well because of the high numbers of Europeans ... but this was all a sideline compared to lab work.)

I've heard the argument that high-level sports funds universities, but do they really? It seems that the costs outweigh the revenues and - at best - any benefit is indirect (exposure, reputation). But we could solve that problem by just funding tertiary education.

As for the specific subject of the FPP: I absolutely agree with the author. But I do wonder if her call to action is reaching the right audience (i.e. not me or people like me, who neither play nor watch/pay attention to university-level sports. Maybe I'm an outlier, but then I'm surrounded by outliers which stops feeling so ... outliery).
posted by jb at 9:24 AM on September 16, 2019 [8 favorites]


I know this is at a further remove from the status quo than the article is operating with, but, given that pro football seems to largely involve the brutal chewing up of black (along with some other POC) bodies and minds for the entertainment of extremely ungrateful white people, maybe it would be a better stance for HBCUs not to have football programs at all.
posted by praemunire at 9:25 AM on September 16, 2019 [26 favorites]


Even with the best players, how long is going to take for a HBCU to have a basketball program with the history/prestige of Duke, or of The™ Ohio State with football, or of Vanderbilt with baseball, etc.? 50 years, 100 years?

Lot more chances to play basketball pro than football. Basketball is huge in many other countries

If the goal is to "be a professional athlete in other countries" the answer is soccer, and all the rest of the sports aren't even close.
posted by sideshow at 9:26 AM on September 16, 2019 [9 favorites]


This is true but compared to football basketball teams are tiny numbers wise. There is a reason almost every large american I know has a college football injury. It's because the teams have what seems like 500 players.

Given that Hill's plan requires convincing a critical mass of players to deliberately choose HBCUs over the better-funded, more-prominent power schools, that sounds like a plus for focusing on basketball.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 9:26 AM on September 16, 2019


Also, sideshow: maybe not Duke level, but there's already a case study for bootstrapping a college basketall program out of obscurity and becoming a respected presence in Division I play: Gonzaga.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 9:29 AM on September 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


In the aggregate this sounds like a wonderful idea. In the individual, I don't think any player should be shamed for making their independent decision of how best to pursue their opportunity. I'm not sure how to square those two thoughts.
posted by meinvt at 9:30 AM on September 16, 2019 [10 favorites]


I don't at all disagree with Jemele Hill or the idea, but there is truly a significant misperception about higher ed sports programs. This report, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, is from 2011, but the same basic conditions still obtain:

"Twenty-two elite athletics departments made money in 2010, up from 14 the previous year, according to an annual spending report released on Wednesday by the NCAA. The median surplus at those programs was $7.4-million last year, up from $4.4-million in 2009. ... At the 98 other programs in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A), the median deficit in 2010 was $11.6-million, barely changing from the previous year, while no programs in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) or at Division I programs without football operated in the black. At those programs, losses continue to grow each year."

From later in the report:

"Among Football Championship Subdivision programs—which, unlike athletics departments in the bowl grouping, rely heavily on institutional support and student fees and generate only a fraction of their own revenue—significant gaps remain."

A significant number of college sports programs, more than you might think by far, actually are significantly subsidized by student fees. In other words, students add to their student debt so that they can have a football team.

Essentially there are about 30 programs that have 'name brand' athletics departments such that it enhances the financial profile of the institution (and even then, that enhancement is likely quite indirect). For the vast majority of colleges, sports programs are 'keeping up with the Joneses.'
posted by Slothrop at 9:34 AM on September 16, 2019 [16 favorites]


Another layer of white privilege is that I don't think anyone ever asks a white kid to choose his college or athletic program to counterbalance racial inequity. Whether you come down for or against the proposal in the article, it's literally not something a white athlete would ever be asked.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:42 AM on September 16, 2019 [10 favorites]


This is an OK proposal but how about: universities should not run profit-making sports programs and no one should play football because no amount of money can cure concussive brain trauma.
posted by GuyZero at 10:12 AM on September 16, 2019 [21 favorites]


Even with the best players, how long is going to take for a HBCU to have a basketball program with the history/prestige of Duke, or of The™ Ohio State with football, or of Vanderbilt with baseball, etc.? 50 years, 100 years?

History? That's one thing. Prestige? That's just marketing. The Ohio State is a thing literally only Ohio fans care about. The HBCUs are quite old and have legions of alumni who can become fans, and especially if the teams do well, they'll gather plenty of bandwagon fans too.

The programs can also be instituted with additional respect, dignity, and care because they're built up whole-cloth instead of laden with a toxic history. People can talk about the prestige of some of these schools, but in my mind, places like Penn State and U of MD have permanent asterisks because of the scandals that run to the core of their programs.
posted by explosion at 10:16 AM on September 16, 2019 [6 favorites]


I'll just note that even if your athletics program is netting 7 million dollars per year, that is a drop in the bucket.

The University of Minnesota's operating budget is almost 4 billion dollars per year.

In their own words.
posted by dbx at 10:18 AM on September 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


My alma mater is one of the schools whose athletics department operates in the black, and they kick a few million a year back into the general fund for PR purposes. Of course, the football team just got a $38 million locker room renovation (Paid for by boosters! We have to keep with Alabama!) while the library floods when it's humid and the adjuncts are paid starvation wages. It also has a very, um...troubled...history of racial inequity. I like watching college football much more than I like the NFL, but it's almost impossible to ignore the ways in which the sport is rotten to its core.
posted by wintermind at 10:25 AM on September 16, 2019 [6 favorites]


Came in to say essentially what Slothrop said, which is that precious few college football programs make money and most are significant money-losers. Even a money-losing football program can have the beneficial effects of increasing the institution's public profile and incentivizing alumni loyalty and donations. HBCUs would have to play a very long game to start reaping those rewards from football program, however, and there may be other factors limiting the extent to which they could benefit. I agree with others that it probably makes the most sense for basketball. The upside is that a successful basketball program can be built faster than a successful football program, and without asking as many players to effectively sacrifice their professional aspirations by choosing to help a lower-profile school when they could play for a higher-profile program. A downside is that there are far fewer spots for basketball scholarships compared to football scholarships. Regardless, it's an interesting idea.
posted by slkinsey at 10:26 AM on September 16, 2019


Is it just me, or did HBCU football used to be a bigger thing? I remember watching Grambling-Southern every year at my dad's house in the 80s, and he didn't get cable until after I graduated from college (Ohio State, since it's been mentioned by previous commenters) in 2002.

I'm all in favor of increasing the prominence of HBCU football, and of HBCUs in general.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:29 AM on September 16, 2019 [3 favorites]


I'm a higher ed professional-scholar, and a POC, and a relative of several HBCU alum (all with professional/graduate degrees), and yet I want to tear Jemele Hill's argument a new one so badly.

I'm sympathetic to the enrolment and revenue troubles at HBCUs. That said, I'm not sure this is a good solution to reviving HBCUs or supporting black student-athletes. There's a couple other lenses we can look at this through. First off, how many HBCUs are NCAA Division 1? There are 20 or so, and to the best of my knowledge none are currently Division 1-A for football, which is probably where most of the revenue and draft pick opportunities are.

Then there's the other part about supporting scholar-athletes. Maybe it's a bit of my Canadian bias with respect to large, comprehensive, doctoral-granting institutions showing, but there's something to be said for the advantages of attending a research-intensive university. Attending a research-intensive institution as an undergrad - especially if that institution has great student support mechanisms - can be an invaluable experience, especially for young people who haven't necessarily had a lot of previous exposure to the professional class.

When you think about HBCUs, there aren't a lot that fit that bill; I think there's currently 11 HBCUs that grant research-based doctoral degrees (I didn't want to be as restrictive as looking specifically at R1s or R2s), 9 of which are Division I schools. If you want to look more broadly at HBCUs, many more also confer undergrad and masters degrees in high-demand fields, but again, they're mostly all NCAA DII or DIII schools. Particularly for high-performing scholar-athletes for whom a Division I full-ride, an opportunity to play professional sports, and exposure to great educational opportunities, there aren't a ton of HBCU options that fit the bill the same way that Big 10 schools might. Paying student-athletes and the challenges of having a profitable athletics program aside, I just can't get comfortable with the idea of admitting student-athletes to college under circumstances that make them primarily revenue generation engines and implicitly limit their non-sports career options.

Also, when we talk about HBCUs' role in supporting the development of the black professional class in the US, we have to remember that not everyone who receives a professional degree from an HBCU went to one for their undergraduate degree. Yes, some HBCUs are incredibly successful at preparing their students for the professions, and in some cases moreso than PWIs. Even so, HBCU supporters need to be careful to not overstate their present role in graduate and professional education.This is a broader issue that I don't have a lot of recent statistics on hand for, but let's take med school as an example. Based on some recent AAMC data on schools that supplied 15 or more black applicants to North American MD programs in 2018-2019, only about 9% of black applicants from such schools went to an HBCU. Now, this data only represents 57% of black applicants to MD programs last year, which suggests that the rest went to schools that aren't significant pre-med feeders (either HBCUs or PWIs). It's not that long ago that a black pre-med's choices were mostly restricted to Meharry or Howard for their MD, but today HBCU med schools only enrol a minority of black medical students. That's only allopathic med schools I'm considering here, but the point still stands that today's black professional class receives their education at a wider variety of institutions.

But let's get back to the article's central argument. What if a group of elite athletes chose to attend HBCUs? Yes, they may attract more donor money to these institutions, but where will those investments go? To support athletics? Not to be a purist, but no one's really making a good case for supporting the academic mission of HBCUs (y'know, their reason for existing) through big-money athletics programs.
posted by blerghamot at 10:39 AM on September 16, 2019 [26 favorites]


Not sure how it'd fit into NCAA eligibility and whatnot, but if I were an administrator at a mid-tier D-1 program, I'd let 4- and 5- star recruits who happen to be black know that if they play football or basketball at my school (only two revenue generating sports), we'd permanently endow two full-ride scholarships in their name for each year of eligibility that they play that sport, to be given to a minority student in their name.

Yeah, it doesn't fix inequality but for the revenue they generate, it would be a nice gesture.
posted by splen at 10:46 AM on September 16, 2019 [1 favorite]


I'm with blerghamot on this.

College athletics at the level we're talking about.. I mean, it really is a deal with the devil at this point. Any short-term gains are eclipsed by the perversion and rot accompanying this hyper-competitive and monetized activity.
posted by elkevelvet at 11:02 AM on September 16, 2019 [3 favorites]


I don't know enough about the value of sport revenue to HBCUs to have an informed opinion about the primary thesis of the article, but I do know enough about the games schools play with creative accounting when they try to claim that sports actually don't make them money to say that I strongly believe that argument is bullshit. For example, the NCAA reports that Alabama raised $30 million in contributions to the athletic program in concluding that athletics only contributed $10 million in revenue to the school (source). However, the University also brags that the school raised $243 million in donations noting "The fundraising success of UA Athletics contributed greatly to the $224.3 million record" and naming a program that aims to raise $600 million in 10 years as just one example of sports fundraising. That one program alone raises $60 million a year, despite reporting $30 million in total contributions for 2018 (source). I know for a fact that fundraisers work with potential donors to earmark funds generated by the sports programs to academic programs and frequently negotiate the best seats and recognition in the "booster clubs" in exchange for large donations that don't get counted as athletic revenue.

The situation is the same on the expenditure side. The more prosperous the program, the more mysterious spending shows up. Somehow, the more money a school generates, the more expenditures scale up to show very small profits. Even at the same school, the expenses swing wildly to match incoming funds. Its magical how that works.
posted by Lame_username at 11:37 AM on September 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


I just can't get comfortable with the idea of admitting student-athletes to college under circumstances that make them primarily revenue generation engines and implicitly limit their non-sports career options.
I'm not either, which is why I believe the NCAA should simply be abolished. Athletes on top-tier sports teams - football for sure, but also in my experience hockey - just aren't in college for the education. They are football majors, or hockey majors, or (probably) basketball majors. That's because the minor leagues for those professions are the NCAA-competing teams.

Which is not to say that the education they do get is useless, far from it. But the college experience of an elite athlete in a top-tier program is very very different from that of the rest of the student body. It's not the same education, and frankly it's not the same students. I speak from experience here, being a faculty member at an institution with a national championship team. I've had athletes in my classes. I have never had athletes from that team in my classes, and I probably never will. They have their own classes, streamlined to make their real job of winning cable-broadcast games easier.

I have long been of the opinion that the culture around top-tier college sports is detrimental to the core missions of universities, and on those grounds I am in favor of complete reform, probably by establishing professional minor leagues and tightly regulating how an athlete's college experience is allowed to differ from that of a non-athlete. This proposal gave me more reason to reconsider than any other argument I've read on the topic; the idea of using that hyper-monetized culture to bring what are effectively reparations to HBCUs is a compelling one!

But I'm standing firm; I think this proposal is a modest one, whether intended to be or not -- the author bringing such a strong case only heightens the tension between what colleges and universities are doing and what they ought to be doing.
posted by dbx at 11:42 AM on September 16, 2019 [13 favorites]


I like watching college football much more than I like the NFL, but it's almost impossible to ignore the ways in which the sport is rotten to its core.

Watching Last Chance U over on Netflix provides some interesting insights into the whole college-football industry.
posted by nubs at 1:33 PM on September 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


If the goal is to "be a professional athlete in other countries" the answer is soccer, and all the rest of the sports aren't even close.

No, it's basketball.

It's basketball because while there may be more openings overall to play professional soccer than there are to play professional basketball worldwide, American basketball players playing at the collegiate level have an infrastructure and training advantage over literally any other basketball players anyway that gives them far more opportunity to play professionally in non-NBA-level leagues. A really good-but-not-great American collegiate basketball player - one who is definitely not quite NBA-level but who has at least one or two NBA-level elements to their game - can almost always find employment overseas in the Euroleagues or Australia's NBL or in China.

You simply cannot say the same for soccer, where American soccer players are competing against the products of professional Euro teams' youth academies, who both outnumber them and have far better and more comprehensive soccer education. MLS is only starting now, more than two decades into its existence, to try and respond to this competitive imbalance.

An American collegiate soccer player will simply have less overall opportunity to play professionally than an American collegiate basketball player will. Just about any American player who is good enough to play professionally in European leagues will be playing there before they ever go to college in the USA.
posted by mightygodking at 3:05 PM on September 16, 2019 [10 favorites]


This is true, a relative of mine was a soccer prodigy. He was scouted internationally by one of the English leagues and moved there at 14 to be hothoused with all the other hopeful teens. Only a few years later he was playing for them professionally, a bit earlier than the age you’d probably be starting college in the States.
posted by Jubey at 3:51 PM on September 16, 2019 [1 favorite]


Would tend to concur with the comments suggesting scrapping the for-profit college sports or else the players getting some of the money
posted by theDillinger at 9:02 AM on September 17, 2019


Here's an idea:

Let's take all the money that everyone spends on college sports, and spend it on primary education instead.

Then, everyone in America benefits: better schools, better educated kids, no exploitation of athletes...
posted by The Blue Olly at 11:56 AM on September 18, 2019




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