Are College Sports a Modern-Day Plantation?

A new documentary explores racism and classism in the debate over paying college athletes.

Johnny Manziel, No. 2 (Michael Chang/Getty Images)
Johnny Manziel, No. 2 (Michael Chang/Getty Images)

(The Root) — When 2012 Heisman Trophy winner and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was reprimanded for allegedly taking payment for signing autographs, the ensuing controversy reignited an age-old debate: Should college athletes be compensated? Manziel appeared on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “It’s Time to Pay College Athletes.”

But the way the controversy played out raised other issues. Manziel’s punishment for the accusations he faced was a suspension from the first half of the team’s first game of the 2013 season. Since other college athletes who were mired in compensation controversies in the past have fared worse, there were some who felt that Manziel, who is white, received a slap on the wrist, because of either his superstar status or his race or, perhaps, both.

Someone who does not believe this is Taylor Branch, the noted civil rights historian whose writing inspired the new documentary Schooled: The Price of College Sports, which premieres on Epix on Wednesday at 8 p.m.

In an interview with The Root, Branch posited that if anything, the NCAA might have felt compelled to go easier on Manziel not because of his race but because, if he had faced stiffer penalties, Manziel “would have nothing to lose” and might have represented the ideal lead plaintiff or advocate — in part because he is a freshman, a Heisman Trophy winner and, yes, white — to challenge the rules preventing college athletes from being compensated.

Branch feels strongly that college athletes should be compensated. Schooled does a compelling job of revealing the startling contrast between the millions being made by coaches, universities and corporations and the poverty that engulfs many student-athletes before they arrive at institutions of higher education and even after they are succeeding on the football field and basketball courts while there.

One of the film’s most telling moments is when professional football player Arian Foster admits that after basking in adulation after winning a big game in college, he realized that he had nothing to eat or money to buy any food. According to Foster his coach, based on NCAA regulations prohibiting compensation, violated the rules by bringing Foster and other hungry players tacos that evening.

The Roots of a ‘Plantation’ System

Foster’s tale, and others like it, highlight one of the most fascinating yet uncomfortable thematic undercurrents of the film, which is whether or not the current college-sports system is structured in a way that is inherently classist and racist. During our interview, Branch said, “I want to be clear that I’m not saying the roots of this system are racial in origin, because many of these amateur rules were put into place when schools excluded minority athletes. But as the system has evolved, most of the athletes generating that revenue are predominantly minority.” When asked if the original system was classist, he replied, “Classist, but not racist. Now it’s both.”