Column

Black athletes have a trump card they are not using enough

What would happen if they wielded their economic and cultural power collectively?

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

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Few things are as ensconced an American tradition as football — except the exploitation of black labor and police harassment of black folk. Black people make up 13 percent of the population but comprise 31 percent of the people killed by police and 39 percent of people killed while not attacking, according to a Vox analysis of FBI data. Regardless of educational level, blacks are consistently paid less than whites. Black exploitation is American as apple pie.

And black men make up 70 percent of the football players in the NFL.

There’s a disconnect between the cultural and economic power that black athletes wield and the way they are treated — and it’s time that they ignored critics and leveraged that power to boost black communities.

One of those critics is businessman and rapper Jay-Z, who recently launched a partnership with the NFL to help produce the Super Bowl halftime show and other events. At the news conference to announce the venture, he said that he has “moved past kneeling,” referring to players’ protests against police brutality. Many people have not moved on, particularly former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who ignited the movement and remains without a job after being blackballed by the league.

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As long as the systemic and inequitable treatment of black people persists, players should not move past kneeling. When it comes to power and leverage, black athletes hold a trump card. Without black athletes, Friday night lights, homecoming, sports betting and the economies of entire cities wouldn’t look the same. It’s hard to think of any effort that has successfully sought to change the culture that allows this race-based police brutality and labor exploitation that has done so without significant contributions from black athletes. If our most famous athletes can take a stand, then maybe we all can. This reality is at the heart of the argument raised by former ESPN host turned Atlantic columnist Jemele Hill in her essay, “It’s Time for Black Athletes to Leave White Colleges.”

Hill argues that the revenue and prestige that predominantly white colleges receive from big-time athletics is derived from the exploitation of black men. Although black men make up only 2.4 percent of the total undergraduate population of the 65 schools in the “so-called Power Five athletic conferences,” Hill writes, they make up “55 percent of the football players in those conferences, and 56 percent of basketball players.” Meanwhile, historically black colleges and universities, known as HBCUs — which, Hill argues, provide better educational environments for black students — are struggling to generate revenue from athletics. She urges black athletes to work collectively to become part of programs at HBCUs, and transform HBCU sports into the ones to watch.

Of course, saying that black students should go to HBCUs prompted a backlash that the essay was “racist” and “promoting segregation.” But Hill’s argument is sound. On the field, black athletes’ labor is exploited while colleges make millions off their success. And when the students graduate, they still have to live in the same world as the rest of us, in which their trophies cannot protect them from being harassed and exploited. Just last year, a police officer was caught on video harassing Milwaukee Bucks basketball player Sterling Brown. The officer can be heard saying, “Sorry, I don’t follow the Bucks. I didn’t recognize you. I didn’t recognize your famous name.”

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We know that when our athletes take a stand, everyone takes notice. In November 2015, black members of the football team at the University of Missouri showed their support of Jonathan Butler, a graduate student who went on hunger strike to draw attention to the failure of the university system president to address racism on campus. The footballers offered administrators an ultimatum: The president had to go or the team wouldn’t play. The very next morning, he resigned.

Kaepernick recognized his own power when he took a knee — and as fellow players followed suit, the NFL had to recognize that power, too. What if black athletes across sports and different levels exercised their power collectively like the Missouri football team? I’m pretty sure that kind of collective effort has a greater likelihood of producing the kind of change in policing that black people want to see than the halftime shows Jay-Z plans to produce.

Jemele Hill’s call for black athletes to take their talents to HBCUs isn’t a radical one; black athletes have the economic leverage and the moral high ground to disrupt inequality. The only people who advise otherwise are those benefiting from the status quo.

This story about Black athletes was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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