Since the Northwestern University football team’s unionization efforts failed last summer — after more than a year of stops and starts on the road to recognition — the conversation has seemingly disappeared. Meanwhile, the dangers of the game and the lack of compensation remain an ever-present threat to the minds and bodies of the athletes involved.
This climate of mistreatment — and efforts to strip athletes of their rights to equal pay and free speech — is as old a tradition as the annual homecoming game. The division between viewers’ enjoyment of sports and their interest in the living and working conditions of players is nothing new either.
For example, college football served as a beacon of white supremacy in the decades before integration. Historian Lane Demas describes the uproar around the 1956 Sugar Bowl, in which segregated Georgia Tech accepted an invitation to play the University of Pittsburgh and their lone black starter. Georgia governor Marvin Griffin tried to block the team from playing unless Bobby Grier — the player in question — was kept off the field. The governor’s actions were hotly debated in the state and on the Georgia Tech campus, where students poured into the streets to protest his attempt to cancel the team’s invitation.
These white students were by no means integrationists, nor were they making explicitly political demands. In fact, as Demas explains, “many students berated the governor not for his hardline stance on segregation… but for trying to earn political favor through a situation that they felt held no political meaning.”
The students’ desire to depoliticize the situation and get back to the business of football revealed segregation’s deep roots in Southern politics at the time.
Demas writes that postwar Southern leaders saw college football as an opportunity to “reinforce identity in the twentieth century.” The game allowed Southerners to revel in economic expansion and technical growth — reflected in Georgia Tech’s reputation as an elite engineering school — while simultaneously reinforcing old social norms like segregation.
For segregationists, college football both normalized and depoliticized white supremacy’s policies. Even protests that appeared to promote integration turned out to accept segregation, limiting themselves to a fight over entertainment. College athletics holds itself separate from political debate.
This begins to explain the backlash the University of Missouri football team faced last year after courageously protesting the racial animus and economic inequality that surrounded them. Members of the school’s administration and state politicians attacked the team’s injection of politics into the world of sports by threatening to slash funding and revoke the team’s scholarships.
Despite this backlash, the team was ultimately successful in winning the central demand of Concerned Student 1950, the student organization that led the activist movement: namely, that president Timothy Wolfe resign.
The team refused to play or practice until Wolfe quit, and Mizzou faced a million-dollar fine if it forfeited a scheduled game. The beleaguered president, who many saw as too lenient in the face of escalating racism on campus, resigned in anger the next day.
The players’ efforts demonstrated the strength that a college football team can wield when it acts collectively. The money involved, not to mention the connections to the community fostered between the team and its fans, make it a powerful focal point for activism.
As long as college athletes are expected to depoliticize their labor, the deprivation they undergo for the sake of fans’ entertainment will be invisible. Substandard facilities, insufficient compensation, and grueling conditions make most football players’ lives far less glamorous and exciting than big-time athletics are usually portrayed.
Those who fight for better working conditions face punishment while watching their coaches pull in bigger and bigger paychecks, seemingly unimpeded by the NCAA’s commitment to amateurism that prevents athletes from getting paid. Meanwhile, the NCAA makes billions, harshly disciplines students caught using marijuana, and does nothing to lower the rate of concussions. It exploits student-athletes and will stand in the way of any progress toward treating players like the profit-generating labor force they are.
The association claims that it represents amateurism, but this is belied by the fortune it rakes in and the punishments it metes out, both on and off the field. Any future struggle by college athletes needs to take aim at the NCAA’s role as an oppressive and exploitative force.