Marching to Madness, Marching to Politics: The NCAA, Collegiate Politics, and Student Empowerment


In the midst of an unpredictable NCAA men’s basketball tournament with many upsets, including the historic defeat of the one seeded University of Virginia by the sixteenth seeded University of Maryland-Baltimore County, the uncertainty with match-ups and games have also resonated with the uncertainty and unevenness of the investigations and sanctions in collegiate basketball.  We cannot watch the game without also acknowledging other actions backstage, away from the dunks, blocks, passes, and game winners.  The FBI—yes the freakin’ FBI—has been actively involved in matters concerning issues of athletic impropriety, bribes, and payoffs for athletes.

Why is the government involved in collegiate sport? With the increasing gun violence and mass murders across this country, what is going on with the time, energy, and money spent to investigate collegiate sport and not the NRA and white supremacy? The need to capitalize and maximize profit within collegiate sports becomes a national emergency.  Yes, this type of media focus means that there is a silence. When one story becomes visible, there is the disappearance of other issues.  This disappearance tells us much about the priorities of our nation and our centers for higher learning.

When the news came out about University of Arizona, Duke University, and other basketball power conference schools involved in violations of NCAA rules concerning the payment of student athletes, there was quite a media surge.  What we also witnessed was the collusion between academic institutions, governmental forces, and coaches in punishing athletes and coaches (be it in not equal ways).  We see the heightened militarization of the educational process and the presence of the FBI to curtail other forms of funding and employment.  The excessive force and power involved in managing the lives of student-athletes reveal something about both the NCAA and our collegiate institutions of higher learning: follow the money, not the morals or ethical high ground.

The thing that stands out most is the exploitation of (primarily) black bodies, black labor power. The NCAA has a monopsony relationship with its labor—it is the only show in town for football and basketball, because there is no other employer en route to the professional leagues. The level of surveillance in those sports is also much higher than in non-revenue generating white sports. The definition of amateurism is stricter. What we are getting at is this is first and foremost an issue of labor exploitation—low-paid, high revenue-generating black labor.

In many ways, this exploitation gets rushed under the sheets of “amateurism.”  It is the idea that a scholarship is all that these athletes need.  It is the idea that the student-athletes are lucky to be here.  It is the idea that collegiate sport represents the very best of sport.  What such a discourse does is legitimate the expenses and investments institutions make in sports and justify the payment that coaches get.  In fact, the college football coach and men’s basketball coach has been in some cases the highest paid public employee in our states.  Just look at any major men’s basketball or football program, the ratio of coaches to student-athletes is 1:3.  I teach at City College and the ratio of faculty to students at best is 1:35.  The smallest classes we often see at elite teaching institutions are 1:8 or 1:10.  Yet, the realm of coaching and sports offers an ever-expanding revenue-stream where so many people benefit from their labor, except for the student-athletes.

In the world of collegiate sport, which is organized through wins and losses, the athletes lose this game.  Even the scholarships college athletes receive are not on their terms.  Rather, the scholarships are on the terms of coaches.  As we have seen at numerous institutions, student-athletes of the major sports rarely have the opportunity to pick classes or subject areas of their interest.  Rather, they are pushed into academic schedules that would best fit their sporting schedule.  Furthermore, just the sheer exhaustion, bodily and mentally, from sport training makes academic time fleeting.

The reality is that the NCAA has created a minor league for basketball and football that is highly profitable for some, and it speaks to many people’s romantic connection to spectator sports.  The category “student-athletes”  was created by Walter Byers, the first executive director of the NCAA from 1951 to 1988, so that collegiate athletes would not be considered workers and therefore could not claim workers’ compensation. So the cost to workers of their labor becomes externalized and the worker has to absorb the cost. If we challenge the ways by which the “student-athlete” model exists by correctly naming them through “worker” model, we would finally get at the beginning at the exploitive nature of this system.  While paying student-athletes is the first the worker model would still not be enough because we have not transformed the very system of labor relations and conditions in collegiate sport.  Yet, this offering would not do anything to amplify the silences that follow with the focus on collegiate sports.  Paying student-athletes is a minor step forward but it does not make the college campus safe and does not bring to the foreground the issues of rape culture that govern our institutions of learning.

What gets left out with this focus on payments and financial loopholes for student-athletes? By controlling the narrative, the focus on bribes and money in collegiate sport aims to dismiss, cover, and elide another major aspect of collegiate life, #metoo.  With the many voices speaking out on sexual violence, sexual assault, and the rape culture embedded in every fiber of Hollywood, the “mattress campaign” at Columbia University and other cases of awareness for rape culture in our society are not taken seriously.  With the sheer numbers of young women, woman-identified, trans women, and LGBTQI college students bringing to light the prevalence of rape culture as the taken-for-granted ethos of college life, where is the governmental oversight? Where is the FBI? Where are the coaches and presidents and chancellors? While the fear of losing profit and capital brings big players to the yard, these same actors disappear when the whistle is blown, when the scream happens, when the silence and fear reign, when the sobbing alone happens, when the nightmares become everyday in living in a climate of rape culture.

Athletics, alcohol, and the Greek system all promise to provide students with a good time while they are in college, and universities heavily promote those things when selling their brand. They are also very slow to crack down on them except in very symbolic ways as a means to manage a crisis, as when a student dies of alcohol poisoning or a program is heavily penalized for rampant rape (e.g. Baylor). If universities start paying athletes, they would be better compensated—but that would not disrupt the corrupt system of collegiate athletics and other major issues on college campus.  The issues of racist violence on our college campuses, deepening inequality, the rising cost of education that is starting to exclude a much wider swath of our society, the defunding of Ethnic Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and the rape culture on our campuses are dismissed as we center the criminalization of student-athletes, mostly young black men. Female students would be no less at risk of rape on campus with realigning the revenue streams in collegiate sport. If anything, the increased cost of sports production would place greater stress on the institutions to generate revenues and capital accumulation would lead to even lower oversight than currently exists.

Having just been to Las Vegas for the first time to watch the first few games of the March Madness basketball tournament, I could not have been any more disgusted with the ethos that devalues the humanity of athletes and commodifies women as just sexual things.  The silence concerning rape culture is a clear statement that women are the embodiment of the prized student or the prized commodity.  Rather, the silence addresses how the right to a safe education and bodily and mental integrity is not of concern.  With bets flowing over counters in Las Vegas, women waiting tables, and mostly men shouting at screens and high-fiving, their voices and pleasures resonate loudly while women’s call for change on our campus brings few institutional powers to the yard.  Where is the investigation of rape culture in our schools? Where is the investigation of sexual assault, serial rape, and other such matters in poor communities and communities of color? Where is the research, as Andrea Smith has shown in Conquest, when 1 in 3 Native American women are raped and 9 out of the 10 perpetrators are white men? The FBI, governmental entities, and high-level collegiate officials (from presidents to head coaches), protect the institution and not the survivors.  They show through their disavowal and dismissal as to what bodies and lives count, and give the terms of how they are to be counted.  The scholarship of Cheryl Cooky (No Slam Dunk), Audre Lorde (Sister Outsider), Angela Davis (Women, Race, and Class), Charlotte Pierce-Baker (Surviving the Silence), and Michael Messner (Taking the Field) should be a requirement for all first year students, faculty, staff, police officials, and governmental actors.  In fact, Title IX offices are rarely equipped to handle the rape culture of our universities.  In fact, while we have 1:3 coach to athlete ratio, the ration for gender counselors to student is along the lines of 1:5,000.  Yes, rape culture is endemic and part of the process by which our young men, both athletes and non-athletes, are socialized into masculinity.

It is time to call out the profit-driven politics that governs our institutions of higher learning and the subsequent silences that follow.  We know of the anti-black racism, anti-immigrant racism, and homophobia that govern our institutions and these injustices are muffled and misdirected on U.S. campuses.  It is time to collaborate.  It is time, as the amazing Black Lesbian Feminist Audre Lorde implored, for us to work through and with our differences and see the common foe in the leadership at our academic institutions.  Yes, it is time.  Yes, it is time for student-athletes across all sports to work together to form a union.  Yes, it is time for student-athletes to work with Women’s Centers and Gender Counseling to support female students on the campus.  It is time for all of our communities to come together to demand a safe and non-exploitative learning environment where we are not treated merely as commercial and sexual commodities.  It is time to ask academic leadership to come to the table.  It is time! The time is now! Organize, organize, demand, demand, call out, call out, and secure the community that we can all live in and learn.

Stanley Thangaraj is Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Gender Studies, and International Studies at the City College of New York.  He is the author of Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (New York University Press, 2015). 

Jeffrey Montez de Oca is an Associate Professor in the Sociology department and the founding director of the Center for the Critical Study of Sport at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. He is author of Discipline and Indulgence: College Football, Media, and the American Way of Life during the Cold War (Rutgers University Press, 2013).