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)

Hausfeld said that his hope for the suit is that it creates “a balance between the NCAA league and the athletes so the athletes have a voice, as other sports leagues do, in collective bargaining.” He explained that the key goals of the lawsuit are to establish the athletes’ right to health coverage during and after their collegiate careers, the guaranteed right to an authentic education during their time as college athletes and, perhaps most significantly, the right to share in any revenue that the athletes generate.

Visanthe Shiancoe, a former college athlete, has played for the New York Giants and other NFL teams. He said that health care coverage and long-term aid for injured players would be a good starting point for the conversation about compensation, but he told The Root that he’s not particularly hopeful. “Fear runs that whole world [of college sports].”

He added, “A lot of casualties would happen careerwise” if college athletes spoke up and fought for pay. This fear factor was highlighted in the film, with a number of former collegiate players explaining that coaches wield a great deal of influence over which players are likely to be recruited by professional teams.

A player deemed a troublemaker will likely have his NFL draft prospects hampered, making many players afraid to speak out against their coaches or athletic programs, especially when you consider that a player’s draft position helps determine his compensation in pro football. When asked what he thinks would ultimately make the greatest difference in whether college athletes are paid, Shiancoe said more than a lawsuit — perhaps a unilateral lockout by college athletes would make the difference.

He may be on to something. As Branch pointed out, “The revenue sports are [made up of] predominantly minority athletes in many schools, particularly in basketball, and they are generating millions and millions of dollars that are used to subsidize nonrevenue sports that are played primarily by nonminority kids, many who come from wealthy families. So basically the basketball players are subsidizing the swim team and the volleyball team, where very few minorities are … So you’ve got a transfer where minority kids from poor class backgrounds are generating millions of dollars that they don’t have a right to bargain for any share of because all of that share is taken elsewhere.”

So perhaps if all of those college athletes playing basketball and football collectively said, “On this day, this month, this year, we won’t play until the system becomes fair,” then maybe the plantation system of college sports would change.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.