OPINION: Thoughts on Black college athletics

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As children, many of us were taught to “let sleeping dogs lie.” Although that should be the case for most phenomenon, when it comes to Black athletics on white college campuses, the writer finds it difficult to let that sleeping dog lie. The exploitation is so obvious and widespread. Yet, the words of this article may fall on deaf ears, leaving the sleeping dog lying. 

In the Spring of last year, the writer raised the issue in an article entitled, “Do you mind Tommy Tuberville being in charge of your youth athlete?” The essence of the article was that, like Tommy Tuberville and Jerry Jones, many racist college coaches are in charge of the lives and careers of young Black athletes; that they do not lose their racism because they become coaches, they just gain wealth and fame because they are winning based upon their star Black athletes. It further emphasized that white owners and coaches buy, sell, and exploit Black athletes as sportsmen buy race horses, or as their ancestors did prime, enslaved Africans.

That should be unacceptable to parents and the youth themselves. Since it continues to happen, however, the writer asks, “Does it matter to them at all, so long as the Black athlete is rewarded for producing for the owners/coaches (masters/overseers)?” This condition has led the writer to decide to abandon predominately white college athletics. His friends are aware that he only watches historically Black college athletics. While he realizes that his boycotting may be less than “a drop in the bucket,” it is his way of protesting, keeping a clear conscience, and not supporting the exploiting institutions (plantations, in this instance).

Since the article last Spring, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin has called upon Black youth athletes to avoid playing for Alabama’s colleges and universities because of that state’s recently passed law opposing diversity, equity, and inclusion. That law, which has been praised by white right-wing racists in many other states, is designed to cripple efforts at providing needed and deserved assistance for Black people and others who continue to be handicapped based upon race, ethnicity, gender, class, religion, culture, and other such conditions. Does that mean that it is okay to exploit Black athletes, but not to assist Black faculty and students? 

Hopefully, Woodfin’s position will be heeded by individuals who may not be moved by the reasoning of this writer. There are a few Black athletes who have expressed agreement with the reasoning, but too many parents or youth athletes still go along for the ride that is provided to them. At some point, perhaps, it will all register.

Before leaving the argument, however, we will express the fact that the current system helps to diminish Black college athletics for HBCUs, and thereby the perceptions of the colleges and Black people. The problem can be seen historically by realizing that once the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public educational institutions in the South, formerly declared racists began racing to get the “best” Black athletes who otherwise would go to Alcorn, FAMU, Tennessee State, Grambling, JSU, and other Black colleges. 

People forget about the scores of outstanding Black athletes who attended those Black institutions. Despite the racial prejudices of owners in major league baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, and other such athletic organizations, hundreds of Black athletes broke in the professions and changed the style and nature of the sports. Beyond Doug Williams, Jerry Rice, Willis Reed, Steve McNair, and Walter Payton, there are many other Black athletes from HBCUs whose names are in the history books. Remembering players like Willie Totten, Harrison Hal, and Robert Braddy, we know that hundreds of other Black college athletes were simply passed over. When many look at Black athletes on white campuses today, all of that is forgotten. 

As time passed, the “buying” by the white colleges became so extensive until the Black powerhouse institutions dwindled to the point that today they are viewed by nearly everybody as second-rate; as unable to compete with the white institutions that a few years ago would not have accepted them as students nor athletes. Black colleges are so unequally funded until they almost never secure any of the top athletes. Yet, we help the white institutions by the support we give them – attending games, watching them on television, buying their paraphernalia, bragging about and betting on them, and encouraging Black athletes to join their teams.

While we realize that much of what we say here will fall on deaf ears, it is difficult to believe that: (1) the majority of adult African Americans would think that the coaching ranks have eliminated racist coaches like Tommy Tuberville and Jerry Jones; (2) Black people in America, especially the American South, would think that white colleges and universities have shed their racist histories and cultures and no longer exploit Black athletes; and (3) Black athletes need or have to go to the white institutions in order to become recognized and drafted into the professional ranks. As many Black people close their eyes to those realities, we regretfully conclude that due to the long history of the racial oppression of Black people in America, many, too many, of them accept the idea of white supremacy, even in the field of college athletics. 

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OPINION: Thoughts on Black college athletics

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
April 14, 2024