Black College Athletes are Rising up Against the Exploitative System they Labor InRoundup
tags: racism, sports, labor, NCAA, football, colleges and universities, COVID-19
Amira Rose Davis is an assistant professor of history and African American studies at Penn State University and co-host of the sports podcast, "Burn it All Down."
As it appears the Power Five college football conferences — or at least some of them — are close to pulling the plug on playing in the fall, some major college football players have laid out a plan to form a college football players association in the future to give athletes more of a say in the governance of the sport. This builds on an effort by a group of Pac-12 football players, who announced they would boycott the coming season unless demands around racial justice, health and safety and economic justice were met. The Pac-12 players were themselves building on the actions of Black athletes at the University of Southern California this summer, who formed the United Black Student Athletes Association (UBSAA) to leverage their platform and urge the university to “take bold decisive action to combat racial inequality and support black students.”
They are not alone. Across the country Black athletes are mobilizing, threatening to boycott, leaving programs and speaking out to force institutions to reckon with racism and take actionable steps on creating safe and healthy environments for Black students, athletes and non-athletes alike.
These demonstrations reflect a rich history of Black college athletes pushing for social change and reforms to the racist and exploitative systems they labor within. While athletes’ collegiate activism in the 1960s and 1970s produced limited wins, today’s movement echoes many of the still-unanswered demands of that time. Yet the terrain of college sports has shifted considerably in the past 50 years, and this current crop of athletic activists may be poised to challenge the very foundation of college athletics as we know it.
The first revolt of Black college athletes at predominantly White schools occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s, reflecting how the recent integration of college sports had resulted in a growing number of Black players at these universities. Schools had no problem using Black athletic talent but showed little or no desire to integrate athletic departments or other parts of the university.
When Black athletes began to show dissatisfaction with their conditional acceptance and isolation on campuses, coaches, athletic directors and journalists were quick to blame the “new militants demanding that athletes serve as symbols in the black struggle,” as one Sports Illustrated writer put it. However, college athletes understood themselves as more than symbols; they were raising real grievances.
In 1967, Black athletes at San Jose State threatened to disrupt the football season opener if the school did not address segregation, racism and hiring disparities across campus. A few Black athletes on the opposing team, the University of Texas-El Paso, indicated they would boycott in solidarity with their peers at SJSU. The threat of this action led the president to cancel the game, a decision that infuriated then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. But it also demonstrated the threat of athletic action was a useful tactic infused with power and possibilities.