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)

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 Walter Byers, the first executive director of the NCAA, who served from 1951 to 1988 and is largely responsible for the current system that does not pay athletes, is quoted in the film as comparing today’s collegiate-sports system — and specifically the treatment of athletes — to “plantation” life. After all, athletes work, sometimes to the point of injury or death, for the entertainment and profit of others who are significantly better off financially than they are and are in positions of power over them.

When asked whether he agrees with Byers’ assessment, Branch — who, like Byers, is white — replied, “Absolutely. I do.” He went on to say, “Furthermore, I would compare it to a colonial system in the sense that people want to believe it’s benevolent and that we have these colonies because we are bringing them up to civilization … The hardest thing to get them to deal with is, What are the inherent rights of those people? You want to think you’re taking care of them. You’re their father. They don’t need rights because you’re taking care of them.”

To Branch’s point, in the current collegiate athletic system, players have virtually no rights. Athletic scholarships are up for renewal at the discretion of the coach every year, meaning that a student’s place at a college or university is not secure beyond one year. Branch explained that this gives coaches an exorbitant amount of power to wield over the young athletes. If they don’t play ball, both literally and figuratively, collegiate athletes can find themselves out of the athletic program and out of a chance at an education.

In addition to not being compensated, they are not guaranteed medical care or an education if an injury renders them unable to play. This very idea seems to contradict the argument that student-athletes benefit first and foremost from an education, which is why they shouldn’t be paid. Many of them are not receiving high-quality educations because that interferes with their ability to train as athletes. Instead some are shuffled to academically lightweight or nonexistent classes. And if they are injured, their opportunity for an education ceases, while their medical expenses — which athletic programs will not be liable for — increase.  

Bobby Valentine, a former baseball player and manager for the New York Mets and current athletic director for Sacred Heart University, said that players should really push the issue of compensation for college athletes “if that’s what players feel is important to them to feel like their rights are not being trampled on,” he said in an interview with The Root. “I know they want and need and deserve more than they are getting.” But providing health coverage for student-athletes is something he considers a moral imperative. “That’s just a moral question, and I think the answer [should be] yes.”

Taking the Fight to the Courtroom

Fair health care is among the many rights that Michael Hausfeld is hoping his landmark class action lawsuit will help win for current and former collegiate athletes. Hausfeld is considered one of the best class action attorneys in the nation, having landed historic settlements for Holocaust survivors and victims of racial bias at Texaco.