In 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists at the Olympic games, taking a stand against the injustices they saw in their corner in the SportsWorld. The year 2012 is crying out for similar displays of athletic militancy but we shouldn’t have to wait for this summer’s Olympics. The time for action is right now during the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament. We need young people of uncommon courage stepping forward into what sports sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards calls “the civil rights movement for our times,” the inequity and exploitation engineered by the NCAA.
In our perennial rite of spring, we are being bombarded with bracketology, Final Four predictions and the general hoops hysteria otherwise known as “March Madness.” There are invariably articles on the business page about the billions of dollars at play from television contracts to online betting to lost productivity as workers spend hours obsessing over their brackets. Yet there is precious little discussion about the teenagers, branded with corporate logos, generating this tidal wave of revenue. This is why Dr. Edwards believes the set-up is in desperate need of a shake-up. In a recent lecture at Cal-Berkeley, he directly tied the relationship between the NCAA and its “student athletes” to the injustices that spurred the Occupy Wall Street movement.
It’s not just a comparison, it’s a connection.… The college athletes are clearly the 99 percent who create the wealth in college sports. The question is, where is the individual from the ranks who is going to frame and focus and project that political reality? Who is going to provide the spark that mobilizes the athletes? A lot depends on the extent to which the 99-Percenter movement now confronting Wall Street can encompass the movement on campus around tuition increases and these outrageous compensation packages for administrators. Someone is going to have to focus and frame that.
That “someone” may have been the great chronicler of the civil rights movement, Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch. Branch, writing for The Atlantic Monthly last October, turned his eyes toward the NCAA. The genius of his subsequent piece, “The Shame of College Sports,” was that he was a fresh set of eyes, pointing out what many of us see every day but have become too calloused, too jaded or too bought-off to notice.
While college presidents cry about athletic department deficits, Branch pointed out that in 2010, the Southeastern Conference (SEC), “became the first to crack the billion-dollar barrier in athletic receipts. The Big Ten pursued closely at $905 million. That money comes from a combination of ticket sales, concession sales, merchandise, licensing fees, and other sources—but the great bulk of it comes from television contracts.”
Branch, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s biographer, looked at the state of affairs and could come to only one conclusion: