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