Quite a while ago, a high school teacher of mine turned mentor became really upset about how universities treat their athletes. At the time, I was a college athlete at a Division 3 school. In defense of that relationship, I said “They buy all of our shoes and even wash our practice clothes.” When she asked how much do I think they get in return, I remembered how the year before, women’s basketball made the Sweet Sixteen and it was nearly impossible to get our workouts in with all the news vans and fans crowding in to just watch the game. “Yeah, a lot” I agreed to her implied criticism. “And we aren’t even USC or something.”
Most recently I have been thinking about this again especially with the recent comments by Donald Sterling and the reaction to said comments, NCAA athletes asking to join the bargaining table, and even Richard Sherman’s recent remarks at Harvard. My first thought was that yes, Sterling’s comments are abhorrent. But why did Shaq and Charles Barkley agree but say that the Clippers shouldn’t boycott? I thought that NCAA athletes should have a say in the perks they receive and unionize just as the TAs do, but why didn’t they want to ask for more pay, just as the TAs do? And why can’t Sherman say whatever he wants, especially if it’s important and especially during a championship game that he was part of the team that got there?
I realized the first sad truth (lending from my mentor) that when it comes to commodities in entertainment, of which college and professional athletes are a part, the commodity is the talent and nothing else. The owners aren’t interested in supporting, hearing, or accommodating anything else. If it doesn’t impact how you run, throw, catch, jump, or shoot, then there really isn’t a point.
And then the second sad truth: we aren’t interested in asking for it. From the outside, it seemed as though when the NCAA players asked to join the bargaining table, they had to first agree to not ask for money. When I was with my Division 3 sport, I was looking at somewhere near six hours per day at practice and at least half a day of travel and a full day for meets each week. That was certainly a lot more time than I put into being a TA at top Research 1 institutions. And I imagine when one compares research dollars and athletic dollars, the revenue stream is not even close.
The Donald Sterling incident seemed the same. Everyone seemed upset, outraged, clearly put-out. But when the idea of a boycott came up, the former and current professional athletes said to hold on a sec. Let’s not be so drastic. I thought back to the Harlem Renaissance artists who had to enter through the back of the theaters to perform, then exit through the kitchen as though they were a disgrace, unable to enjoy the remainder of the show or even in the ambiance in the club that they helped to make big. And knowing that the Clippers are set to play the Warriors today, I have yet to hear my friends who are diehard Warriors’ fans say that they are refusing to go to the game.
Here is where the “you” comes into play. Students who are highly-motivated and college-bound and of color, tend to be the face of everything. They are used in publications praising the diversity and rigor of schools, inserting those stories deep into the bleeding hearts of big check-writers. “Look how great we are doing! Even this Black kid likes it here,” they are boasting. “We’re so awesome we got this one kid into a top university and she’s Latina!”, the next page says. “All of your entitled children will love having this one Asian kid in the class,” the cover states. But when it comes to putting out, getting those kids into the same universities that the majority of their student body attends, they fail. Miserably. “Well, we felt that Black kid would be better at the public university no one has ever heard of. We prefer that our more competitive candidates apply to the better universities,” they’ll say. I talked a bit about this in a previous post about how we continue the cycle of privilege when we don’t prepare and insist that our students go to more prestigious universities.
And then I realized that what really impressed me about the student from Oakland Tech and recently the student from North Carolina and the many more like them, is that they just took it. Shirley Chisholm-ed it! (It isn’t a coincidence they are all young males–programmed differently). They just took that shit. And that is awesome. It wasn’t about the universities they were told to apply, or the universities that their high school was most familiar, or the universities that their high school had the best arrangements, it was about this is where I want to go and this is where I am applying. Students of color, low-income students, and first generation students are taught not to do that: it’s about the better good of the authority figure, the family, the community, the school. “Well, if so-and-so doesn’t want me to do that, it must be for a good reason so I won’t do it” or “Mom needs me right now and college will always be there so I won’t go yet.” But the reality is that when we just take shit, all of those things get better, all of those things improve. Is mom better off with you slanging burgers for minimum wage or that entry-level position that you are passionate about? Are company owners better off understanding that the talent isn’t the commodity, but rather the customer? Yes, and absolutely yes. Here’s hoping my friends find other things to do with their afternoon and that you take some shit.