Podcast Episode 33: Colleges are taking advantage of Black athletes

September 3, 2020
This week co-hosts Ellen and Steph give #thegist on the sports world’s restart of the restart and discuss whether or not it's time for student-athletes, especially Black student-athletes, to unionize.
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Podcast Episode 33: Colleges are taking advantage of Black athletes
AP Photo/Tony Ding

Listen to this episode of The GIST of IT here.

Ellen: What is up GISTers? Welcome to The GIST of It, I'm Ellen Hyslop.

Steph: And I'm Steph Rotz.

Ellen: And we're just two old pals and two gals here to give you the gist of what's going on in the sports world. Let's get to it.

Ellen: Happy September to you, Steph, and happy September to everyone who is listening today. I've honestly felt like such a meme because I am that girl that's saying, oh, my gosh, I cannot believe that it's September already, but I mean it from the bottom of my heart. I cannot believe that it's September already.

Steph: I'm sorry. I can't hear you behind my itchy and watery eyes. It's allergy season. The ragweed is flowing outside my window and I am going to try my best to keep the sniffles at bay.

Ellen: Try your best at that, and I see that you're not wearing mascara, so that's probably a good thing during ragweed season. You've got to get rid of all of that. Ok, so Steph, since the last time we chatted, a lot has happened. Last week, we spoke about sexism and homophobia in sports, and since then there was basically another restart to the restart in sports with basically all leagues walking out and protesting following the shooting of unarmed black man Jacob Blake.

Steph: There is a lot to unpack with the wildcat strike. We covered a lot of this in our newsletter on Monday. You can read the newsletter at thegistsports.com if you missed it, and there has been some really great coverage about all of the strikes across sports media, as well as general news and non sports media. So we don't necessarily want to belabor the point, and there's definitely other voices out there who have already spoken to this, including our faves, Morgan Campbell, Kayla Grey, Marcus Thompson, as well as many others. But there are a few key points from these recent actions that we want to highlight here on the pod. First, the WNBA has constantly and consistently been leaders when it comes to social justice, including having started their season with the Social Justice Committee, which the NBA now is going to get. Their role in the strikes last week should truly not be underestimated, so just wanted to put the W at the forefront of our thoughts. Second being, don't protest shame or expect these athletes to fix the problem. They are withholding their labor. They are being disruptive in order to force the powers to be and the people with the pockets to make these changes. So hats off truly to those athletes. And then last, the NHL joined the protest, which is better late than never, especially as a league that is 97 percent white. They did need to show their solidarity and demonstrate to their league and their fans that they actually care about black lives. So better late than never.

Ellen: Exactly, better late than never. And also good on the Hockey Diversity Alliance for actually creating a list of demands and hopefully guiding the NHL in their next steps and actions. So it'll be interesting to see what comes of that. I'm very hopeful, so here here to basically everything that you've said. I'd also love to give credit to the NWSL. They're not playing right now. Their fall series doesn't start until September 5th, but even though they weren't playing, they made incredibly swift action to stand by all of the other leagues and to condemn the Real Salt Lake, which is the MLS team and Utah Royals FC, which is an NWSL team, owner Dell Loy Hansen, after his absolutely idiotic and absolutely racist rants about the strikes, he is now willingly selling those teams because of him coming under such condemnation. To that, we say to Hansen, don't let the door hit you in the back.

Steph: Good riddance. Speaking of collective action though, Ellen, and speaking of labor strikes, this feels like a fitting time to talk about unions in sports in Monday's newsletter, throwing it back to the newsletter as well. We broke down an interesting but also quite annoying new union coming out of the men's tennis world, but for today, we're going to step aside and dig into a call for college athletes to unionize. I'm ready for this deep dive. Let's get to it.

Ellen: Ok, so before we start talking about the argument or potential to have college athletes unionize, it's important to explain exactly what a union is and to kind of dive back into my undergrad class to understand what a union is. So a union is an organized group of workers who unite to make decisions about conditions affecting their work. The main purpose of a labor union is to give workers the power to negotiate for more favorable working conditions and other benefits through collective bargaining.

Steph: So for us non athletes, a real tangible example of what that could be would be vacation days, your health benefits, your wages, lay off grievances, et cetera, that all can get brought into that collective bargaining agreement.

Ellen: Ok, interesting. That's good to know. I've never been part of a union, so this was very interesting to learn about, and the reason why I do know unions is because they're super popular and super common and North American pro sports. So basically all of the sports leagues have players associations and those are tied to collective bargaining agreements. Outside of pro sports, unions are also commonly seen in workforces like the Teachers Union and Auto Workers Union, and Steph, you said that you're actually in a union, too.

Steph: I sure am. So educational workers are in unions, lots of unions.

Ellen: Yeah, lots of unions everywhere. So generally, once you work in a field that has a union, you pretty much have no choice but to join it. Generally, it's just commonplace that you do, and you also pay dues to the union on an annual basis so that the people slash lawyers who kind of organize and represent the union can do their work on behalf of all the workers that are part of it.

Steph: Yes, exactly, and today, after seeing Kim Kelly’s latest article in Teen Vogue, which we will put the link in the show notes for you to check out, we wanted to talk about how now might be the best time to create a union or have a collective bargaining agreement for college athletes. Thinking about COVID-19 and a return to play for college sports, how COVID disproportionately affects BIPOC communities and how the college sport system benefits off of these students. A new study was released by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the U.S. that showed that college amateurism, also known as not getting formally paid to play the sport and instead receiving different range of scholarship values that could be a little or a lot creates a system in college amateurism that transfers money away from poorer, largely black youth to wealthier, mostly white adults and students.

Ellen: Yes. So get this, as reported by our dear friend Kendall Baker at Axios Sports, shout out to Kendall, less than seven percent of the revenue generated by football and men's basketball at Football Bowl Subdivision schools. That's a lot of words, so we are going to say FBS schools pay its athletes in the form of scholarships or stipends for living expenses. Less than seven percent of the revenue goes back to those athletes, and this is a big fucking deal because on the contrary, when you look at NFL and NBA athletes, they receive about 50 percent of the revenue they generated for what they do on the field or what they do on the court. So all to say, these student athletes are missing out on a huge payout opportunity and the general full ride scholarship of what athletes could get, and generally what student athletes receive is the exact same as the way that it was back in 08. We know that they have earned the NCAA and their schools so much more money, but they haven't seen a lick more of it outside of those full ride scholarships and the stipends that you had mentioned before then. So, it's just kind of wild to think about with 2008 in my mind. I think, Steph, we would have been in grade 10. I would have recently had my braces off, and I would like to say, inflation and all of that has changed. Sports as an industry has just ballooned when you look at everything digitally happening, so it's wild that it's still commonplace. It's just like, oh, you get a full ride scholarship and you get some nice bells and whistles, and that's all you get. You still get seven percent of the revenue. Wild.

Steph: Ok, here's the thing, FBS schools generally have about 20 other men's and women's sports, but a little more than half of all their revenue comes directly from men's football, men's basketball. That money goes to coaching staff, athletic departments from football and basketball to other sports who often have athletes competing in them that come from wealthier backgrounds. Non revenue generating athletes come from neighborhoods with average incomes that are thirty seven percent higher than college football and basketball players, so think of non revenue generating athletes like golf players sailing, skiing, rowing. These are generally players who are very white and are playing very privileged sports and come from very privileged backgrounds, and look, we're obviously all for sports and the economy and sharing revenue and sharing love and money, but this demonstrates yet another case where underprivileged middle class and minority America is supporting the pockets of upper class white America.

Ellen: Ok, so Steph, a lot of what we just talked about really lends to the #WeAreUnited Movement, and this is a movement where a lot of college football players are threatening to withdraw their labor and are demanding a better environment for players to play during COVID-19, which is totally fair. The issue is that college athletes aren't recognized as workers by their bosses or the current labor law, so they literally cannot accept any payment from their labor, so it's also super hard for them to be able to strike because they're not pro athletes, they're student athletes. So the only thing that they will get, and this won't start until 2021, the beginning of 2021, and again, who the hell knows what's going to be happening with sports at that point. But next year, student athletes will be able to profit off their name, image and likeness, so they won't be able to earn a salary, but they'll basically be treated like Instagram influencers. That's basically the best way to say it, and they could be put on billboards and all of that sort of stuff. So they're marketable, but they won't be earning a salary.

Steph: A very small amount of them, too, would be able to make money from that.

Ellen: Yes, exactly. Only the very top. So you're thinking about the QBs, the main starting lineup of basketball. And, again, women are going to be largely left out of this.

Steph: Yes, and on top of the study from the bureau, it's really important to consider COVID-19 and how this pandemic is affecting everything. While two of the power five conferences, the Big Ten and PAC 12, have postponed fall sports, the three others haven't. The three others haven't, of course, because of the revenue that college sports and football brings into these universities, like we talked about earlier, but canceled or not, I want to flip it back to the players from PAC 12 and the #WeAreUnited movement's demands for a safer season. Basically, students want to play. Obviously, they want to play. They've played their whole lives and they want to do it, and as safe as possible. And the players that are part of the #WeAreUnited movement put together a list of demands, including COVID-19 specific health and safety protections and guaranteed medical coverage, which is so important as well as tangible demands to help protect all sports and help and racial injustice in college sports, and help push college athletes towards economic freedom and equity for their labor. So when PAC 12 sports were then canceled altogether, as opposed to meeting these demands, #WeAreUnited published a letter in response, part of that letter saying, and I'm quoting. It is obvious that the PAC 12 was woefully unprepared to protect college athletes safety in response to COVID-19 and could not address the basic and essential safety demands made by #WeAreUnited. College athletes deserve and need a real voice in the form of a players association. I think this is a really interesting thing that they are pointing this towards.

Ellen: That is really interesting, because I also think that and I feel like we've talked about this beforehand, Steph. I have said a round of applause to Big Ten, and the Pac-12 for saying that we're not going to have any sports this year because of COVID-19. Oh, same. Yeah. So this is kind of a whole other angle that I don't know if I fully appreciated beforehand, because I still think if they couldn't protect them or have the health and safety precautions that they wanted, then they shouldn't have gone on with the season.

Steph: Agreed, it's complicated. It's obviously not as simple as we probably originally had thought it to be, right. There are layers to this. It's not safe. There's a major pandemic with very serious health repercussions if players get sick, along with not having probably the medical coverage that they would need, but on the other hand, this was a moment for them to be able to have a list of demands met by the association in order to make everybody's working environment or labor environment, let's be honest, it's a labor environment better. It's complicated.

Ellen: Yeah, it's definitely not black and white, there's a lot of gray area between all of this, and I can appreciate the back and forth, and let's not get it twisted. Obviously the players want to play because they love it. As a former varsity Quidditch athlete, Steph, I can totally attest to wanting to get out on the Quidditch pitch all the time and try to make it. No, I'm just kidding. I was a varsity Quidditch player, but I will never understand what proper varsity players are actually going through. As a former athlete, a proper athlete, and even as a Quidditch athlete, I get that you just want to go out there, you want to go out and play the sport that you worked your entire life to get this full ride scholarship for and that you love and you want to be with your friends and all that stuff, but also because these athletes aren't getting paid, you know that the top players from these Division One schools and again, D1 is the top division in college sports. And then it's 2 and then it's 3. So generally, if you're going to move on to the pros, it's the athletes from the D1 schools that are going on to the NFL and NWSL and WNBA. They're in football gunning to get drafted by the NFL next year, and so if they're not able to shine or to make a case for themselves in their junior or senior year of this college season before the NFL draft, then they might be shit out of luck. They might be SOL in terms of them signing an NFL contract, and the majority of the colleges have said that these NCAA athletes, football or otherwise, would qualify for a fifth year of eligibility and the majority of them will be keeping their full ride or partial ride whatever type of scholarships they have for this year and for next year. But again, to me, this means that they're keeping all of the top talent away from potentially getting paid or not being able for the NFL, NBA, what have you to be actually seeing them. They're still going to earn all this revenue from the top talent. As an athlete, you're risking getting injured when you're not getting paid and without a contract for another year. And again, they're not paying their athletes. So as much as I think that this fifth year eligibility is great and the scholarships are great, though, those are those other considerations where not having this season could make it or break it for someone to go to the pros depending on what happens to them next year.

Steph: That fifth year is difficult for me, too. I think it's great, obviously, that most schools are honoring those scholarships and offering a fifth year because that was, of course, up in the air at the beginning. I hear your point on players wanting to be drafted, but to face the music a bit here, less than two percent of college athletes actually go on to play in a pro league, and we're talking about football a lot with the #WeAreUnited movement. That stat is even smaller for football players at 1.5 Percent. Playing varsity athletics is also fucking hard. It's obviously a huge time commitment, so even if you aren't playing for upcoming Fall 2020, you're still an athlete. You still have to keep in shape. It's a huge physical challenge. It's a mental challenge, and because of those demands, there are also low graduation rates for these athletes, and that remains a huge problem.

Ellen: Yeah, there's a lot to this story. There's a lot of pros and cons, and there's two sides. I'm having a little bit of a hard time, wrapping my head around both sides because I can understand where both are coming from, especially during this weird time that is a COVID-19 pandemic, but when we unwrap the layers in the onion as Donkey and Shrek would say, basically the structure of college sports is it's this massive machine that takes advantage of athletes, and as we mentioned before, especially black athletes who are mostly playing football and basketball, whose free labor is making millions and millions for mostly white people and adults. Here's where I'm having a little bit of an issue, too in understanding how we could change this, because college sports are so ingrained in culture and in society. A lot of people, including ourselves before The GIST, and before really diving into college sports more, didn't really have a clue about all of its issues because you just see what you see on SportsCenter, and that's an amazing game being played on the court, or on the field. It does kind of remind me of capitalism. It's almost like this is the way it is and you have to find your place within it and within the economy and capitalism or it's really hard to otherwise find a way to make it better. You just kind of have to work within this existing system, and even when you watch shows like QB1 on Netflix or we were just chatting about Last Chance U, college sports is basically seen as a stepping stone to the pros. Unless you're LeBron James, you're going to have a really hard time making it from high school to the pros. So what I'm wondering is, because college sports is so "it is what it is" and "this is the way that it's going to work." Will unionizing actually change all of the issues that we talked about here? Does there need to be separate players unions for each sport? We're really talking about basketball and football here, carrying the weight of so many other sports, which again, is I think that's a great thing, though. I also think that sharing is caring, and when we look at the government and we say the rich should also help pay for the poor and they should be taxed at a higher rate. It's that type of thing in my mind that I'm having a hard time grappling with, and I'm wondering, is there a more creative solution than potentially unionizing or is there something different that we could be doing here?

Steph: Ellen what I do know is that the players are sure as heck more creative than us.

Ellen: Yes.

Steph: And they are such forward thinkers, and the players in college and football and basketball have continuously shown so much courage too because they have so much on the line. These are essentially kids challenging adults. This is the first time you're stepping out into the world and in your own autonomy, and these players are itching to start tackling these problems. Talks about unionizing college sports have been in the works for years. If you look into it and you start to find really a lot of discussion, and this past week after the labor strikes in pro sports, a few sports journalists reminded us about the strike five years ago in 2015 at the University of Missouri, when black football players refused to play until the university's president was fired or resigned due to his negligence towards marginalized students' experience on campus, and it worked. The dude resigned, so I think we're talking about unions and not strikes right now in this particular moment, but I'm really interested to see how these athletes continue to mobilize their collective power and the relationship between the collective power of those strikes and the pro leagues and the strikes in college sports and how that collective power can be used in the momentum from that in this current moment, as we're in the COVID-19 pandemic. I'm seeing the cancellation of the college football season might not be entirely about health and safety like we talked about. It might not be entirely all about that, but also kind of about union busting. As players were starting to get organized in response to these inequities in college sports that COVID-19 exacerbated but already existed. Unions come about as a response to poor working conditions and unfair wages, so while I'm obviously no legal expert and I can't speak to the nuance of what unionizing would mean for public versus private schools in the states, national versus state labor laws, I don't know how all of that would play into this and whether or not each team needs its own collective bargaining agreement. But of course, unionizing would also take a lot of work and a lot of effort and planning, but because we're on pause or at least two of those three major conferences are canceled, maybe while college athletes aren't competing, the time truly is now to unionize and to keep the momentum going. So I don't have any of the answers, but I think the players have a lot of momentum.

Ellen: Yeah, it'll be super interesting to see what happens for 2020 and for 2021. There could be a huge change that we're just swimming right into and maybe we don't even know about it yet.

Steph: Woosh, OK, that was a lot to go through and to talk about, and our brains kind of hurt. So let's talk about something that put a smile on our face this week.

Ellen: Yeah, my brain kind of hurts, but I also learned a lot and I feel like I had a couple of light bulb moments, Steph. So I feel like that was a good conversation. I learned a lot. But anyway, something that definitely did put a smile on my face this week was seeing all of the NBA players reunite with their families and all of their kids. We've posted some content on our Instagram, so @thegistnews.ca and @thegistusa, and it was just so freaking cute to see the kids running to their dads or see the kids cheer for them courtside. I can't imagine how nice that must feel to be able to see their family while they're in the middle of this playoff and in the middle of their protests and in the middle of COVID-19 would just be such a huge kind of push for them to keep on going. Just so sweet.

Steph: I most certainly sent those videos in a couple of people's DMs to give them a little bit of a smile, so what a great time for them. Speaking of heartwarming family content, Monday night, WNBA player Courtney Vandersloot of the Chicago Sky broke the WNBA assist record, and she broke that very record on a pass to her teammate and wife, Allie Quigley, which, of course, is rom com level. Like you can't make this shit up type of movie magic, but to use some of Vandersloot's language that she went on to after the press conference, the real angle of the story here is that "this record was untouchable." Previously, Ticha Penicheiro held the assist record with 14, which she did twice during her career. Hats off to Vandersloot and hats off to this movie magic moment.

Ellen: Imagine if Disney made a movie out of this. Oh, my God. I'll subscribe to Disney+ if they do it.

Steph: Maybe there could be some sort of documentary that we could make. Maybe we should pitch it to Disney.

Ellen: I'm writing it down.

Steph: All right, sports pals. That was the gist of it from Ellen and I. Thanks for tuning in. And you know what? Thanks so much for leaving reviews. The GIST of It was ranked number 15 on the Apple podcast sports news chart in the U.S. last week, so keep the reviews coming. Keep telling your friends about us. Keep telling us that they can find us on Apple Podcasts as well as Stitcher, Spotify, and Google Play.

Ellen: Yes, and if you like what you heard today, you have to sign up for our free twice weekly newsletter where every Monday and Thursday morning we give you the gist of what's going on in the sports world, and you could check that out and sign up at thegistsports.com. Otherwise, of course, Steph, and I would love to hear from you. Once you're done giving us five stars, you can get in touch with us over email at pod@thegistsports.com, or feel free to shoot us a DM on Instagram @thegistnews.ca or @thegistusa. Again, I'm Ellen Hyslop and I'm Steph Rotz, and this has been The GIST of It. We'll see you guys next week.