As the UCLA Bruin football team gears up for the next football game against Nebraska on Dec. 26, I have some concerns as a newfound spectator of the sport.
For one, when Washington State snatched away a seemingly assured UCLA victory last month thanks to a last-second touchdown pass by their quarterback, Luke Falk, I wasn’t focused on the loss, but on what the highlight video doesn’t show you – that he was thrown, back-first, to the ground by 275-pound defensive tackle Jacob Tuioti-Mariner earlier in the game.
I didn’t care for football until this fall because of the chaotic appearance of the sport, but the array of numbers, statistics and rankings that attempt to quantify player talent and ability drew me in. Anyone who appreciates data – and I surely do – should find this absolutely enthralling, even if football is full of unpredictability. But it’s also downright chilling. One sports website even has an out-of-10 ranking for “intangibles” – literally measuring the immeasurable. In recruiting students, player “traits” are placed on five-star rating scales as they are essentially sold to the most attractive recruiter.
It doesn’t take long for me to realize that football is as disturbing for the players as it is intriguing for me. Most students who play for college football teams receive nothing more than the purported glory of representing their school. More than 98 percent of them won’t make it into the NFL. And regardless of going pro, the damage is already done, since a vast majority of them will suffer chronic brain damage that can have ruinous effects on their mental health. No wonder that some fans and sports journalists are telling the NCAA to at least “pay them their goddamn money.”
Among “them” are black male athletes, uniquely exploited for their talents by a collegiate sport-industrial complex that gives them next to nothing in return.
At Division 1 FBS, the highest level of NCAA football, 51.6 percent of players are black even as they are a mere 14 percent of the undergraduate student population. Only 4 percent of UCLA’s undergraduates are black.
This brings to mind the analogy of slavery and sharecropping, though it’s not completely accurate. We witnessed the difference last month when black players on University of Missouri’s football team boycotted both practice and play in solidarity with student protesters decrying poor campus climate there and calling for the president’s resignation. The players helped the protesters get what they wanted, mostly because it would have cost the university millions to cancel an upcoming game with Brigham Young University.
As noted by The Nation, this impromptu organized labor effort was a powerful demonstration of the influence in black labor on college campuses, a remarkable flipping of an American historical script that has consistently exploited and abused blacks for its economic development rather than acknowledged its importance.
Where the script hasn’t changed from the antebellum era, however, is how criminally undervalued black labor remains in multiple arenas of American life, and how football is a highly visible arena of this. Blacks have received little, if any, serious recognition for how their involuntary and unpaid labor contributed to the United States’ rise as a modern economic superpower. Similarly, they – along with their fellow athletes of all backgrounds – are not compensated for their labor on university campuses that entertain millions of Americans, most of them white and many of them privileged enough to have the leisure time to watch black men smack into each other in mega-sized, gladiator-esque arenas. To add insult to injury, black Americans are criticized for developing an interest in athletics that they are socialized to cultivate.
The labor involved in football isn’t easy either. Football is all about physical abuse – it’s inherent and apparent in the structure of the field, the formation of the teams and the glorification of psychological grit alike. Most fans acknowledge this. These players sustain physical horrors and permanent damage not seen in most other sports – and yet 98 percent won’t receive a dime for their efforts.
Discrimination occurs within the game too. As with other elements in American society, the racial segregation is multilayered. College teams at the NCAA’s top division are overwhelmingly led by white coaches, in schools overwhelmingly run by white presidents. In the NFL, 81 percent of quarterbacks, regarded as the ‘brains’ of the team, are white, while more than 90 percent of positions that require brute physical finesse – wide receivers and defensive backs, for example – are held by black players. Viewers surely notice this.
It reinforces falsehoods of the heightened physicality of blacks vis-à-vis people of other racial groups. A 2004 study of football commentary at the college and professional level revealed that black players continue to be described and praised in terms of their innate physical abilities, rather than, say, their upbringing or hundreds of hours of practice.
Big plays, big injuries, big money: This is football. The only thing that’s bigger is the exploitation and the injustices innate to its modern commercialization – perhaps that’s what makes football so American.