You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

College Sports Aren't Like Slavery. They're Like Jim Crow.

Kevin C. Cox Getty Images Sport

Usually the inventor knows his creation best. Walter Byers, who became the first executive director of the NCAA in 1951, turned a toothless organization into one that controls college sports. He grew disenchanted with his creation, however, writing in his 1995 memoir that the NCAA is “firmly committed to the neoplantation belief that the enormous proceeds from games belong to the overseers (the administrators) and supervisors (coaches). The plantation workers performing in the arena may receive only those benefits authorized by the overseers.”

Walter Byers

Since then, the slavery analogy has become the favored cudgel of NCAA critics. Comedian Chris Rock, for example, claimed that “college sports are no different than slavery.” A.J. Daulerio, then editor-in-chief at Gawker, argued in The Atlantic that it's OK to compare college athletes to slaves because it “makes more people turn their heads and openly question the NCAA’s policies.” Even politically conservative media outlets have endorsed the analogy. The American Spectator published a piece, "The NCAA's Slaves," arguing that in some respects slave owners were morally superior to the NCAA: "Even some Southern plantation owners allowed slaves to earn extra cash through self-employment. The NCAA is not so enlightened."

The slavery analogy, however, is wrong: It overstates and misdiagnoses the problem. The NCAA's rules don't mirror slavery but rather the Jim Crow South’s legal restrictions on black laborers. In other words, college athletes are exploited like blacks after slavery.

In the decades following emancipation, blacks were denied the whole value of their labor and the opportunity to fully compete in the economic marketplace. Southern legislatures enacted laws that allowed former slave owners to limit the economic opportunities available to black workers and increase their own profits. This exploitation was allowed to continue because it harmed blacks, a politically and socially disfavored people. Racism, that is, allowed this labor-market cartel to remain.

That bears a striking resemblance to college athletics today. So-called “student athletes” are likewise denied the whole value of their labor and the opportunity to fully compete in the economic marketplace. The NCAA enacted rules that allowed its member institutions to limit the economic opportunities available to college athletes and increase their own profits. This exploitation is allowed to continue because it supposedly benefits college athletes. The NCAA concocted the term “student-athlete” and wrapped this new phrase in a self-serving mythology that holds that college athletes who profit from their talent are distracted from what should be their first priority: getting a quality education. Many onlookers therefore accept the NCAA’s amateurism rules as proper. Paternalism toward “student athletes,” that is, allows this labor-market cartel to remain.

The former slave owners, despite their constant attempts after the Civil War, could not enforce a cartel on their own. In spring of 1865, Virginia planters met at the Louisa County Courthouse to fix the price of black labor. They resolved not to pay more than $5 a month and rations, and blacks were to pay for their own clothing and healthcare. “We hope now that the scale of prices having been determined on,” the Richmond Republic reported, “the negroes will go promptly to work.” Such efforts continuously failed because the market for black labor was far too competitive. Southern legislatures, therefore, had to do what planters couldn’t do for themselves. The market for college athletes is similarly competitive, thus the NCAA has to maintain the cartel. Whereas the South used anti-black bigotry to keep its cartel alive, the NCAA uses paternalism.

Before exploitation could ensue, though, the targets had to be denied a role in governing.   

After the Civil War, in late 1865 and early 1866, newly formed Southern legislatures enacted Black Codes. These laws applied only to freedmen, and, among other things, installed a series of economic regulations to establish a labor-market cartel. During Radical Reconstruction, when blacks voted and served in state legislatures, this cartel dismantled.

But once Democrats recaptured the South, they reinstalled these economic regulations to exploit black labor. To keep blacks from voting by using the power of the state, Southern states drafted new constitutions that disenfranchised blacks mainly through literacy tests. These tests generally required a potential voter to read and understand any section of the state constitution in order to register. “There was a general understanding,” wrote historian Vernon Lane Wharton, “that the interpretation of the constitution by an illiterate white man would be acceptable to the registrars; that of a Negro would not.”

The Fifteenth Amendment prevented Southern states from passing laws explicitly disenfranchising blacks. Unencumbered by such restraints—the Constitution affords no special protection to “student athletes”—the NCAA implemented a far cleaner solution to the same problem. The NCAA simply denies college athletes a voice in rulemaking, thereby leaving them, like blacks, without a role in the making and enforcement of rules. Voiceless, both groups had the value of their labor fleeced.

The tools of exploitation between the two cartels, moreover, are eerily similar. Southern states passed sunset laws, emigrant agent laws, anti-enticement laws, and contract enforcement laws. These laws, which reduced the slice of the economic pie dished to blacks while enlarging the portion served to white planters, have direct corollaries in the NCAA’s meaty rulebook.

“Every man ought to have a right to dispose of his own property,” former black Alabama Congressman James Rapier testified in April 1880 during a Senate hearing exploring the exodus of Southern blacks to Kansas in 1879. “I may raise as much cotton as I please,” he complained, “but I am prohibited by law from selling it to anybody but the landlord.”

Rapier was lamenting an Alabama law that prevented individuals from selling specified agricultural goods from sunset to sunrise. Southern Jim Crow legislatures enacted such “sunset” laws to block the economic avenues for freedmen, most of whom were relegated to field labor, right where the South wanted them. Because landlords often prevented blacks from leaving work during the day, this law limited blacks’ ability to do what they wished with what their own hands created.

Todd Gurley of the Georgia Bulldogs.
Getty Images

Today, University of Georgia star running back Todd Gurley, like Rapier in the 1880s, couldn’t sell what his hands created: his signature. Gurley is currently suspended for reportedly affixing his John Hancock on eighty pieces of sports memorabilia. In 2010, six Ohio State players including star quarterback Terrelle Pryor were suspended for selling game-worn uniforms, championships rings, and awards. Gurley and Pryor violated NCAA rules prohibiting college athletes from selling memorabilia and profiting off their likeness. Those rules, as did the sunset laws, helped create a monopoly. Both schemes, that is, removed competitors from the marketplace. Indeed, Gurley and Pryor, like Rapier and Alabama blacks, were restrained from selling goods or services on the open market, reducing their economic rewards while boosting that of their plunderers.

“We are bothered by people from other states persuading away our laborers,” a North Carolina man told his legislature in the late 1800s, “which [ought] to be a criminal offense.” Southern legislatures agreed and enacted emigrant agent laws which required an agent in the business of recruiting laborers for out-of-state work to purchase an exorbitantly expensive license. Emigrant agents were crucial in helping blacks learn of better, but far away, economic opportunities. These laws drove the business of Southern labor agents into the shadows. Planters, though, hired agents of their own to help sell their agricultural products. Their real issue wasn’t agents, but rather agents who helped black laborers resist the cartel.

“I hate to say this, but how are [agents] any better than a pimp?” Alabama football coach Nick Saban asked during a 2010 press conference in which he railed against agents having improper contact with college athletes. By prohibiting college athletes from having both meaningful interaction with agents and off-campus economic opportunities, the NCAA devised exploitative rules not unlike the South’s emigrant agent laws. Athletes still have contact with agents, but like in the Jim Crow South, it happens in secrecy. Saban, of course, like the planters, employs an agent who benefits him—one who put nearly $7 million a year into Saban's bank account.

Anti-enticement statutes made hiring already employed laborers illegal. Such statutes inhibited competition among employers for employed laborers, weakening the latter’s leverage to negotiate for better compensation and working conditions. John Townsend Trowbridge, a northern journalist who toured the South after the Civil War, learned how intolerant Southerners were of black laborers leaving for better opportunities. “I used to think the nigger was the meanest of God’s creatures,” one South Carolina man told him. “But I’ve found a meaner brute than he; and that’s the low-down white man. If a respectable man hires a nigger for wages, one of those low-down cusses will offer him twice as much, to get him away.”

Alabama football coach Nick Saban.
Getty Images

NCAA’s tampering rules mimic anti-enticement statutes. Devonte Graham, at the beginning of his senior year of high school in 2012, signed a letter of intent to play basketball for Appalachian State University. But Graham increased his stock after a terrific senior campaign and wanted to play for a better school. “I went on an official visit [to ASU], loved it and loved the coaches,” Graham said. "But then I realized I could play at a higher level." ASU, though, refused to release Graham from his letter of intent for over a year, in part because, according to ASU, North Carolina State communicated with Graham without the school’s permission, which, if true, constituted tampering.

Tampering rules in professional sports leagues are instituted pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement between owners and players. College athletes, however, had no such opportunity to bargain away such rights. This rule, therefore, prevents athletes from learning about better opportunities from competing institutions—perhaps more playing time or better coaching—information to which free laborers are entitled.

Contract enforcement laws compelled laborers to fulfill their contract under the threat of punishment, typically a fine or imprisonment. Not only did these laws reduce competition for laborers, they helped curtail black laborers’ mobility by forcing them to work even if a better deal could be had elsewhere.

The NCAA reproduces contract enforcement laws with its transfer rule policies. Division I football and basketball players seeking to transfer to another Division I school usually must first receive written permission from their current institution to speak to prospective schools. If granted that permission, after transferring, athletes must sit out a year before competing. If not granted permission, athletes can still transfer but must pay for school for a year before being eligible for an athletic scholarship.

When blocking the transfer wishes of freshman women’s college basketball star Leticia Romero earlier this year, Kansas State sought to achieve the same ends as the drafters of contract enforcement laws: forcing performance. Romero couldn’t fund a year of school, saying that “that's something I can't do. My parents ... the situation in Spain is really bad right now. They could lose their jobs.” Kansas State ultimately relented, allowing her to transfer to Florida State. The NCAA, nevertheless, by punishing those breaking a contract, provides schools weapons to compel performance.

Some will scoff at this comparison between the NCAA and Jim Crow South. Yet the NCAA, through its methods of exploitation, is actually far more effective at snatching money out of its subjects' pockets than even the former Confederacy. Indeed, when courts tossed out the most egregious disenfranchisement laws in the middle of the twentieth century, the NCAA took the Jim Crow South’s recipe and spent decades perfecting it. Now, college athletics need its own Civil Rights movement. Schools, coaches, television networks, and corporate sponsors have made a fortune off of college athletes' hard work. It's time those players were allowed to raise cotton for whomever they please.