Friday, February 21

Arthur Wang: College football relies on unpaid labor of black athletes

(Kelly Brennan/Daily Bruin senior staff)

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.

Senior staff

Wang is an Opinion and Quad senior staffer, and a sociology graduate student. He was the Quad editor in the 2015-2016 academic year and an Opinion columnist in the 2014-2015 academic year.

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  • Teddy Edwards

    Why is the writer going to an American university if he sneers at the very values it teaches it’s students to master?

    No one twists an athlete’s arm to play at the college level. Athletes can try out at pro camps if they receive nothing from the colleges they seek out to attend (and for which they receive taxpayer subsidized scholarships and other assistance),

    Knock it off and grow up.

    • Mr.H


  • Literally

    This is trash. There are non-black players at just about every position in the game. “Exploitation”? No one is forcing anyone to play football… Your parallels to slavery and segregation are disgusting and not even coherent. Finally, are you really arguing that college football players receive nothing in exchange for playing? Nearly all of the players are on scholarships. And no one is forcing those that aren’t on scholarships to play. They do it because they love the game. Stop looking for things to complain about and focus on real issues.

  • kcat

    WTF Did I just read? This has got to be one of the worst daily bruin articles I’ve ever read.

    • Kiana

      says the one who wrote the most ignorant, racist article that garnered so many negative comments and complaints

      • kcat

        So fbi statistics are now racist?

      • kcat

        Comparing football or any NCAA sports team to a slave trade is a pretty outlandish claim, especially since individuals are not forced to join NCAA sports, most athletes have personal tutors, have their own academic counseling resource center, and they are usually on really hefty scholarships. They are under pressure but they get a plethora of extra resources that most students do not have access to. Comparing it to slavery is not only historically inaccurate, but it’s borderline slander to coaches, athletes, and the whole business of the NCAA. Understand why making this inaccurate assumption is dangerous, it will cause unnecessary ruckus if taken seriously. I wish I had all of the privileges that came along with being a college athlete.

      • James Porter

        Lets just skip the logical part of discussion and go right on ahead to ad hominem, why dont we.

  • James Porter

    Daily Bruin. WTF. If you are black and you play collegiate sports and get your education payed for, you are basically a slave. If you use that leverage you have as an athlete to effect campus issues, you are a collegiate athletics stooge. How is this literature NOT considered racist? Of course the level of non-compensation college athletes get for making millions for the university is ridiculous, but why is it any more ridiculous for African Americans than it is for Asians, Arabs, Latin Americans or Whites? What is the relevance of this racial divide? And why is this author seemingly punishing African Americans for being a dominant force in American Collegiate athletics??? This is hilariously bad.

  • Cause and effect

    The majority of football players, along with the majority of basketball players, are black. I say that’s racist and does not accurately represent the population of California. I say we implement affirmative action to help balance the scales and include more white people, a historically underrepresented majority in these two sports. Maybe the NBA and NFL can see the progressivism and follow suit.

  • Victor Wong

    No one is forcing these students to play football or attended UCLA. That was their choice.

  • Denmark Vesey

    Great article. Very accurate. As long as those black athletes can make the students and alumni cheer all while bringing in millions for the university they are welcome to attend the university. The minstrel show continues.

    • werockk

      I know right?! Because everyone else gets in free and they only get in free because they’re forced to play a sport. They then don’t have the opportunity to make millions playing professional footbal. Wait…

    • Paul Friedrich

      Aren’t there any white, asian, or pacific islanders playing for UCLA? Aren’t there blacks and other minorities paying to attend UCLA, or there on the merits of some other scholarship? What about volleyball players? They put in work on the court, but nobody cheers and their sport doesn’t costs the University money (money provided by the Football program)? You really need to stop and think this through…

      • Denmark Vesey

        Of course there are other people from various ethnicities playing football at UCLA but their numbers are lower than the African America student athletes. This is true of athletes on scholarship. We are focusing on the big money sports like football and basketball because these sports bring in multi-million dollars for the university and the NCAA every year. No other sport has the appeal or financial strength as these two sports. You mentioned volleyball, which is not a profit generating sport and does not have the same wide appeal as football or basketball, is not a good comparison. How about track and field? You have a lot of African American student athletes on the team but it too lacks the financial strength as football and basketball even though UCLA has produced several gold medal winning Olympians. Although some would argue that football and basketball plyers can potentially make millions of dollars as professional athletes, the percentage of players achieving this are extremely low. The metric should be graduation rates and to see how this compares to the money generating sports vs. the other sports.
        I find it interesting that people like you never question why universities like UCLA pay their football coach more than their best professors, some even winning the Nobel prize, especially when a university’s reputation is built on its academics not it’s athletic teams.

        • Paul Friedrich

          So, only the black football players should get paid? The white and asian football players aren’t “slaves”? Average annual tuition and fees at UCLA, I read, is almost $34,000. For a four year degree, that is $136,000. Add to that the increased earning potential throughout the lifetime of a graduate, and I’d say the football players are hugely compensated for their efforts playing a game they love.
          A good coach creates a winning team, which goes to bowl games and generates revenue for the school. Coach’s salaries are determined by the market.

          • Denmark Vesey

            Clearly all athletes who help the university and NCAA earn millions should be compensated but the original article focused on the disparity that African American athletes face. The percent of student athletes that go on to even become professional football players is 1.6%. With the percent being so low, it becomes important that colleges do a better job of ensuring their athletes graduate at a rate comparable to the student population as a whole. Remember colleges are institutions of higher learning not farm leagues for professional sports.

            If you are being honest, you’d have to concede that you often see black faces on the field and white faces in the audience cheering. You’d also have to concede that at predominantly white schools, many white students believe that the black students are “taking” positions from white students BUT as long as those black students can bring millions of dollars to the school and make the students and alumni cheer, then those black students can attend the university.
            Lastly, as I mentioned before, colleges and universities are institutions of higher learning and students select their schools based on the academic strength and reputation of the school, not the ranking of the football or basketball teams. Therefore the professors, especially exceptional professors, should earn a salary that is at least on par with the college football and/or basketball coach.

        • Paul Friedrich

          I bring up volleyball, and track, and soccer, and all the other sports, because without the revenue generated by football, there would be no funding to support those sports or offer scholarships to those athletes. You want to take away swimmers’ scholarships to pay football players?

          • Denmark Vesey

            Some athletic departments are being eliminated. Swimming and other sports have been eliminated at some universities. The focus of this discussion is the exploitation of college athletes and African American athletes in particular.
            Perhaps you should also familiarize yourself with the recent class action suit that was bought against the NCAA by a former UCLA basketball player, Ed O’Bannon.

  • Dan Wareham

    So let me see if I understand the premise of this Nonsensical article. The total tuition and fees for 2015 / 2016 is $33,898. A Football player on scholar ship pays none of that. In fact, they are given additional items which are not afforded the paying student. Over four years, that would be over $135,500 worth of education given to the student ball player. Seems to me that the student athlete is getting quite the deal. A chance to make millions if they are successful, a chance to get a great education at no monetary cost, and the fame and notoriety that goes with it. All they have to do take advantage of the chances they are being offered…. Yes, it is work.. Real work. And the rewards are very high if they succeed. This is anything but slavery. The kids can get out of their end of the deal if they want and not have to play any more. All they have to do is stop playing ball. Sure, they will lose their scholarship.. But that is the contract they signed .. Play ball and get a scholarship. Don’t play ball and lose it. The kids have the power to end it any time they want.

    • Keven Leith

      Agree in principal with Dan’s comment here. To be fair though – there is a serious issue with collegiate football (and maybe to a lesser extent men’s basketball). It’s not the issue the author raises here – and it’s not a racial thing as far as I am aware. But the difference in value the athletes (who presumably generate the interest and income for these sports) receive from the University, and the income the University, the NCAA, and peripheral support laborers receive is obscene. There is a lot of money in big time college football. There is a lot of money in professional football. The athletes are at real risk, physically and mentally, in this sport. The difference betwen the two is that professional athletes are pretty well compensated. There’sno easy solution to this but it’s fair to assert that the athletes have a real live grievance against the NCAA and the colleges.

  • Alex Johnson

    I’m surprised by all the negative comments for the article. The idea of paying college athletes has been argue often especially for football and basketball and it makes sense. The only difference is the author mentioned the correlation of race.
    If somebody wants to be a professional
    athlete in football or basketball they actually are pushed into college by the age restrictions and regulations in the NFL and NBA. That’s only true for those top moneymaking sports.

    • werockk

      They didn’t “just mention race.” It’s was the focal point of the article. The author also made an absurd claim in comparing it to slavery. For starters, they can pay like anyone else, they aren’t force to play and there are plenty of students who aren’t black. And many students would love to have that opportunity. You know what? Come to think of it, that doesn’t represent the statistics of California. I call a petition for more diversity in sports.

  • SCMark

    Don’t worry kid. Every young journalist writes a dumb column at some point. But there’s enough narrow-mindedness in this one to last a lifetime.

  • Paul Friedrich

    That college degree (or that coveted ticket to the NFL) will be the most
    valuable thing these kids ever possess. And it is given to them in exchange for some academic work and playing a game with a ball on a field. I can’t believe I just read
    this stupidity.

  • John Rice

    This article is pure garbage written by someone who probably doesn’t know the difference between a Halfback and a a Quarterback. Arthur is clearly a neophyte to college athletics and has a lot of naivety to overcome.

  • j metaphor

    May I call you Mr. Wang?
    Mr. Wang, It’s great that management at Daily Bruin gave you a shot at writing an article on a subject you know nothing about. “Give the kid a chance” must have been the theory, but you really whiffed (baseball term for swinging the bat and missing the ball) on the entire piece (and it is a piece). Your lack of knowledge of this or any other sport is obvious. Your use of statistics related to brains vs brute force seems to disprove the point you are apparently trying to make. Although there is certainly racial prejudice in our country, I submit that collegiate and professional sports are two of the arenas that are least likely to discriminate based upon race. This because performance and results, ie winning games, is more important to management and to the team than any other issue. The most talented play regardless of race and the strongest team usually wins. The coaches who could discriminate because of race have no incentive to do so, in fact, their livelihood is dependent upon results and winning incents them to use their most talented athletes.
    We know you got into UCLA through hard work and, I would venture to guess, hours of expensive tutoring, SAT & ACT prep courses. Many do not have the money to compete with that investment and athletics helps get them over the very high bar it takes to enter our fine school. Collegiate sport is their key, Wang, and whether they use it as a stepping stone to pro sports or gain a great education, it helps.
    If DB management was trying to give you a shot at writing a thoughtful and reasoned article, they fumbled (that means dropping the ball). If you were trying to make a point while making sense, you shot an air ball (basketball reference meaning completely missing the target).

  • opportunistic piece

    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.

    A vast majority of them will suffer chronic brain damage? Yes some do, but that’s a hyperbole to say that a vast amount do especially when the link is to an article about an individual and not to a study on how many football players suffer chronic brain damage.

  • j metaphor

    Mr. Wang,
    A quick check of several of your previous pieces reveal that race is the theme in the vast majority of your “work”. In my opinion, based upon a review of this and previous articles, you are an opportunistic pinhead using race a headline to induce the uninformed (including me) to read your poorly conceived and pathetically written vomitus rants.
    I pose this question to you and those visiting this site: What is the difference between Racist epithet and journalistic pimping of racial issues, and which is worse?
    I hope that isn’t a racist statement.

  • garyfouse

    As a lifelong Pittsburgh Steeler fan with little interest in college football, (I played college and semi-pro baseball) I have certainly come to the conclusion that the human body is not designed for football. So what do we do-ban it? It is only in recent years that we (and the NFL) have come to grips with the brain damage and concussion issue. I think to say that the vast majority of athletes will suffer chronic brain damage is a stretch, however.

    In addition, I have often thought about how much money collegiate sports brings in while the players are not paid. (Leaving aside all the under the table stuff). That is a legitimate topic for discussion. It is also appropriate to discuss how many college players graduate. If a player gets a free college education (a meaningful education) that is a big deal. On the other hand, if a kid is brought to a college just because he can play a sport and is not otherwise qualified to be in college by means of his high school grades, that is a problem.

    However, I do not see the racial angle in the above. Yes, about 50% of college football players are black as is true in the NFL. That leaves the other 50% (white, Hispanic, Pacific Islander etc) who are also affected. If there is a higher number of black athletes who are on campus only because they can play a sport, that points to a deeper sociological issue.

    As to the position point, I can well remember the days when a black quarterback was a rarity, but I think the myth that they don’t have the mental abilities to play the position has been put to rest. Many college teams now have black quarterbacks and they are increasing in the NFL as well.

    There is a lot to criticize about the business of college sports and a lot to debate on how much college athletes should be compensated. Though blacks are well represented in football (ca 50%), the issues raised also apply to the other 50% of the players as well.

  • Douglas Levene

    The solution is for universities (i) to spin off money making sports like football and basketball into independent, professional, minor league teams; (ii) to end all athletic scholarships and admission preferences; and (iii) to restore athletics as an extra-curricular activity for the benefit of the students participating, not for the benefit of alumns, donors or advertisers.