In the NCAA, Black athletes are just commodities; they are either used for profit or readily tossed away when they are not making colleges money. College athletics should not be a modern-day plantation.
College athletics is supposed to be about affording a pathway to a higher education via sport. The NCAA is meant to view its athletes as recipients of an educational benefit, and for its white student-athletes, it does.
However, the NCAA and its member institutions do not value educational access for its Black student-athletes: They value money.
Ten years ago, it was Seton Hall. Seven years ago, it was Temple University. And now, in the wake of COVID-19, five more universities — including, most recently, the University of Minnesota — have announced that they have cut their men’s track and field programs due to finances. Minnesota’s decision in particular stands at the vanguard of a troubling trend.
“Once one Power Five program drops the sport of men’s track and field,” said Curtis Frye, head coach at the University of South Carolina, via e-mail, “it becomes easier for other Power Five schools to follow suit. …”
Frye’s sentiment was shared by coaches spanning the NCAA; many are deeply worried about the precedent this decision sets.
When we see numerous Black faces playing in bowl games or during March Madness on TV, it is easy to assume that Black athletes are well-represented in the NCAA. The truth is that most NCAA athletes are white and most of the sports in the NCAA are shockingly homogenous.
In fact, 67% of NCAA athletes are white. Men’s ice hockey is about 70% white. Baseball and men’s lacrosse are about 80% white. However, when the financial going gets tough, schools don’t cut ice hockey, baseball or lacrosse at nearly the same rate as track and field.
There are only three truly diverse sports in the NCAA with large Black student-athlete populations: basketball, football and track.
The NCAA runs on the twin financial engines of men’s basketball and football, whose athletes are overwhelmingly Black (nearly 60% and 50%, respectively). The men’s basketball tournament alone accounts for 75% of the NCAA’s yearly revenue. Football brings the average Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) school a cool $31.9 million per year. Schools are mightily happy with those figures. Those Black athletes have earned their keep.
Track and field (with a Black student-athlete population of 27%) is the only sport in the NCAA where schools cannot profit from Black athlete labor. The percentage of Black athletes in all other sports falls off precipitously after track and field. NCAA schools send a clear message when they discard the one sport where their Black athletes are not revenue generators. Meanwhile, other largely unprofitable, majority-white sports continue to garner school support.
While COVID-related financial pressures have resulted in cuts for these niche sports as well, they are not being cut at the same rate as track and field. Since the COVID crisis began, only one men’s ice hockey program, one men’s lacrosse program, and three baseball programs have been cut: all at non-major schools. Five men’s track and field programs have been cut during the same time period and one at a Power Five institution. Others are likely on the horizon.
By cutting their men’s track team, the University of Minnesota has cut 85% of their nonrevenue producing Black athlete roster spots while only cutting 48% of their nonrevenue producing roster spots overall. That’s functionally racist.
The school has no problem continuing to support several majority-white programs that cost them more money to operate than track. According to Minnesota’s 2019 Equity in Athletics data, the university spent only about $6,000 per male track athlete for gameday expenses while spending approximately $130,000 per baseball athlete and $21,000 per golf player. And just like track, these sports operated at a loss. Baseball operated at a $1.8 million loss, whereas track only operated at a $1.5 million loss.
The difference is even more significant when accounting for the fact that the university took a loss of $49,000 for each of its 35 baseball athletes for one season of play while only taking a loss of $29,000 for each of its 52 male cross-country and track athletes across three seasons of play.
The University of Minnesota will continue to comfortably subsidize the education of their mostly white baseball and golf teams but can’t summon the institutional muster to do so for its diverse track team, one of its few sports that has a large Black student population. Sadly, the University of Minnesota is not alone in this regard. Schools such as Central Michigan University and the College of William and Mary have also decided that continuing to support one of the few athletic pathways to a higher education that Black student-athletes take advantage of is simply a bridge too far.
Racism manifests not only through slurs and violence but also through maintaining systems and structures that perpetuate inequity. It is functionally racist for schools to use their Black basketball and football players to subsidize their nonrevenue producing white sports — while tossing away the one sport where they cannot extract financial value from their Black student-athletes.
In effect, sporting pathways to a higher education are being protected in majority-white sports while pathways from the cheapest high school sport and one of the few that enjoys high Black athlete participation are being removed.
Also, Title IX should never be used as a convenient scapegoat. Universities could figure out how to increase their roster numbers on female teams, offer additional female sports, or modify the squad sizes of their men’s teams to ensure that they are Title IX compliant instead of cutting entire men’s teams.
Colleges with athletic teams have an obligation — a moral imperative — to provide educational opportunities via the sports they support. No longer should NCAA schools view Black student-athletes only as a commodity to be exploited for financial gain.
Black educational access via sport should be just as important as the educational access that’s afforded to white student-athletes via sport. It is clear via their actions that the NCAA and its member institutions only value the money their Black athletes can generate for them. It’s high time for that to change.
Russell Dinkins is a diversity and educational consultant in Princeton, N.J.