Exploited Athletes Exploit the Exploiting System: The Hidden Game Behind College Sports

Keenan Norris

There is a game hidden behind the basketball courts and football fields of our universities, an unscrupulous match that mostly advantages the institutions themselves.

“I rarely teach African-American Lit anymore,” one professor of English at a California community college tells me. “I was a marginal athlete on the Mt. San Jacinto Junior College basketball team. I was 20, 21, out of the military, and I had no idea how much control coaches had over my classes as a freshman.” EJ Jones, a military veteran, turned student-athlete, turned graduate student, turned college professor will go on to parallel his experience as a naïve college entrant whose coach pre-enrolled him in cushy classes specially selected for student-athletes to his experience as a professor obliged to teach similar classes, especially the African-American Literature course that he had initially looked forward to more than any other. “I remember, I had to enact something, I had to do something just to be able to pick my own classes. I wanted to take History to transfer to a University of California school and I was told, ‘You know, that class is hard. Are you sure that you can do both?’ It was made clear that I would have to do both [be an athlete and a student] and it was clear which they cared about.” Laughing wryly, Professor Jones notes, “I think that even the best and most well-meaning people think they are doing black people a favor by allowing them into college only to do something that is purely physical.”

Unwilling to facilitate such fallacy, Jones prefers to teach elective courses in film and literature.

Hardly confined to obscure community colleges like Mt. San Jacinto Junior College, the compromised relationship between certain classes and a given college’s athletics department actually imperils the academic experience even more at major universities, where revenue-generating sports contribute substantially to institutions’ financial wherewithal. Put bluntly, black athletes are revenue-generators, doing lucrative economic work on behalf of your average state university. For a complex of reasons, some of them opportunistic, some altruistic, with a fair dose of Ellisonian tragicomedy thrown in, many African-American Studies and Ethnic Studies professors have been forced into a hard bind.

“You’re dealing primarily with instructors of color and athletes of color,” notes Dr. Khalid White, who teaches Ethnic Studies and holds a doctorate in Education from the University of California, Davis. “African-American Studies has only been an official curricular field of study since 1968, so it’s not given the same credence as History, Poli-Sci, or what-have-you. And it’s almost seen as permissible to slide these players into these classes, to fudge these grades.”

Hardly the banner issue of any college sports scandal, the complex dynamics that professors who teach athlete-impacted courses must navigate is the story that the headlines do not tell.

About That Scandal

Though this essay’s genesis is in scandal, I’m neither an investigative journalist nor an editorialist. This is not an exposé or a hit piece. Student-athletes are, by and large, high-achieving individuals who push themselves to succeed in ways that many young people do not. Just try focusing on your quantitative economics curriculum while drenched in morphine as you nurse a busted shoulder between football games. (Professor Akubundu Amazu-Lott, formerly a defensive back at San Jose State University and now a professor of African American Studies there, related this experience, in excruciating detail, to me in our interview.)

Moreover, knowledge of African-American life, it should go without saying, needs to be part of our bedrock as culturally literate Americans. “Because students don’t get Ethnic Studies or African-American Studies until college,” Dr. White points out, “and they’re not familiar with the academic nature of it, the assumption is that the class is predicated around watching BET… But it’s about critical thinking, engaging students in social justice, educating them on the ways that oppressed and marginalized people have thought about their oppression and marginalization and the struggles, legal, political, cultural, that they’ve undertaken to overcome these historical disadvantages.” Indeed, to take noted historian Robert O. Self’s point about the American Civil Rights Movement in American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland a step further, the struggle of black people in America represents one of the most sustained confrontations with the modern state apparatus in recorded history.

The point of this article is not to castigate but to investigate: What are the predicaments that our college games impose on a specific group of professors? How do they deal? Is the price of these tickets, to athletic fame and university fortune, worth it in light of the pressures placed on specific areas of serious study? And how might things change for the better?

But first, the scandal: namely, the formal uncovering of which began in 2013 with criminal fraud charges being brought against University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill professor Dr. Julius Nyang’oro for accepting $12,000 in special pay for a 2011 summer class that apparently never met. Criminal charges against Nyang’oro were dropped when he decided to cooperate in an investigation led by Kenneth Wainstein, a former U.S. Justice Department official, who was hired in February by UNC-Chapel Hill to conduct its third internal investigation into the academic fraud charge. In a June 2014 ESPN “Outside the Lines" interview, Rashard McCants, a member of UNC’s 2004-2005 national championship basketball team, alleged widespread grade fraud involving the University of North Carolina basketball and football programs, in addition to the university’s African, African American and Diaspora Studies Department.

Meanwhile, Wainstein’s investigation returned damning results, the crux of which was that UNC’s lack of institutional controls allowed for secretary, Debbie Crowder, and Professor Nyang’oro to facilitate an 18-year scam (1993-2011) that generated inflated grades through the conversion of conventional lecture courses into counterfeit independent studies that Crowder, though herself not a professor, initiated, oversaw, and graded.

Crowder retired from her fluid role in 2009 and, like Nyang’oro, received immunity from criminal prosecution for her cooperation in Wainstein’s investigation. Nyang’oro predictably resigned his professorship in the wake of Wainstein’s investigation.

According to a recent ESPN investigative report, members of former UNC football coach Butch Davis’s staff have been identified as abetting the fraud by steering football student-athletes to the bogus classes. According to the Charlotte News & Observer, Bobbi Owen, a professor of dramatic arts who was identified in the Wainstein report as having knowledge of the fraud and taking little action to stop it, was removed from her post as director of UNC’s Honors Semester in London for spring 2015. The paper has also revealed that Jaimie A. Lee, an academic counselor for the football team, was fired as a result of Wainstein’s investigation, which revealed widespread negligence and refusal to report wrongdoing by athletic and academic administrators. Along with Lee, eight other employees, it’s been reported, have either been terminated or disciplined.

The fallout, in all likelihood, is far from finished.

To my mind, the scandal at UNC, though far from indicative of the general state of affairs in African-American Studies departments in our colleges and universities, nevertheless points out some critical tensions at play in the complex, confusing interrelation between black studies, black students, and sports in American higher education. (It should be noted that many key figures in the UNC scam, including its principle facilitator, Crowder, are white.)

That Nod

"Being a black male professor, there’s always that nod. There’s an expectation that I share a certain experience with other black men. And that doesn’t end when I go in to teach a class,” Professor Jones notes. “One example: I had a student-athlete who was in his 20s, has kids, one strike. He’d been playing on the basketball team, having fun. No dreams of the NBA. He wanted to graduate and join the [basketball team] staff. He takes African-American Lit and it becomes very apparent that he can’t read well and when I point that out, his response is ‘Motherfucker, I’m 27. I’ve got two kids. I’m trying to use something that I’m good at, basketball, and make a way for myself. And you, the motherfucker who should be helping me, you’re not giving it to me.’ It’s very, very difficult to be the gatekeeper. And that’s why I rarely teach the class anymore, because there was more sorrow than joy.”

A Welcome Tension

Cleavon Smith is also a military veteran and a former Division 1 athlete (fullback, Naval Academy). He now teaches English, including African-American Literature classes, at Berkeley City College. His experience too reflects the difficult double-bind that black male instructors find themselves in. “I think as an African-American male instructor there is undue extracurricular pressure, period,” he says. “I need to be on this committee or that committee or reach out to this individual or that group when the same isn't expected of my white/European peers.”

He has experienced this from both sides; now as a professor, previously as a student. At Navy, “I didn't have the same academic expectations as the non-athletes,” he states forthrightly. “I was expected to go to class, complete my work, but the expectation for me to do well wasn't there. So even though there was no bending of the rules, or any classes I could simply not attend and still pass, there was still a sense that I wasn't the scholar that my non-athlete peers were; which is to say that I wasn't expected to be as intellectually capable or developed.”

But there was more to the story than just the devaluation of their intellects. The Navy football players fashioned their own methods of resistance. Certain professors at the Academy even took it upon themselves to co-collaborate in the athletes’ intellectual insurgency. “At Navy, we had professors who all of the football team wanted to take for this Calculus class or that physics class and rarely was it because that professor was going to give the easy A. Usually we took those professors because they went the extra mile to ensure that we were just as challenged and pushed to perform well as the others. We tended to do well in those classes not because the coursework was easy, but because the way we were treated was respectful of our intellect and our drive-through-a-mountain mentality.”

Inspiringly, there were professors at the Academy who catered to student-athletes, even football players, not by easing up but by holding them to the academic standards of an institution known for its integrity and rigor. That athletic and academic departments at various institutions have fallen so wide of this mark only testifies the more to opportunity lost. “I find it a shame,” Cleavon notes, “that the student-athletes at UNC were denied an opportunity for genuine self-actualization in the classes where they should have most urgently had it nurtured.”

Cleavon acknowledges the uniqueness of his position: “Yes, students will be steered my way because I'm perceived as someone who will ‘watch out for them.’ And this is true.” Herein lie the complexities: “The problem exists when there's a difference of opinion of what ‘watching out for them’ means. I don't currently work at a college with sports teams, but in the past I had two different types of coaches I worked with. On one hand, I had the coaches who felt their players' performance in the classroom was an extension of their dedication to themselves as people and therefore as athletes. I loved these coaches. Then there were the coaches who had the audacity to get me to ‘do things’ that would make the road to a successful mark in class easier, who challenged my expectations as unrealistic and went so far as to accuse me of holding people down.”

A professor can view this tension between athletics and academics not as an inevitable hindrance to the latter, but rather a unique opportunity that African-American Literature and Ethnic Studies professors have before them, occasioned precisely because the academic environment within which these classes are held is so cluttered, so contradictory, so compromised. “You want them to take class just as seriously as sports,” Dr. White insists, “and, for lack of a better term, you have to force them to take class just as seriously.” The cross-purposed bind that attends the very title of student-athlete and the complicating factor of an Ethnic Studies or African American Literature professor’s own blackness are points of influence that can be turned hard against the grain of expectations. “I welcome that tension in the class,” Cleavon admits. “It sets a great context for the African American literature course. It makes reading the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass very contemporary, to say the least.”

Can black students who have been brought to a university to perform physically for the joy of the crowd and the economic betterment of that institution relate to the slave in the field for whom the simple act of reading is an insurrectionary deed? Does simply stating this synergy between our history and our present condition excite or inhibit the mind? Do the methods of resistance conceived and applied by David Walker and Mary Stewart and Douglass when the penalty to be paid for revolutionary failure was summary execution have any currency for students, marked by race and physicality, who in 2014 encounter the soft bigotry of paternalistic overseers and, in the worst instances, easy classes and gift-wrapped grades? How is the relationship of the black professor to his or her black students to be understood in light of the historic clash between the black bourgeoisie and the black under-class, in light of DuBois’s debates with Washington and Garvey, in light of the current partition of street lit from the academy?

These are difficult, demanding inquiries into our history and current condition that I doubt anyone but a black professor working within the context of an African-American or Ethnic Studies course would even be allowed to pose. They are questions that forcefully join the past to the perilous present and that challenge our students to conceptualize, by dent of their own insights, a more humane future.

"The demands of the slave on the present,” Saidiya Hartman writes in Losing Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, “have everything to do with making good the promise of abolition, and this entails much more than the end of property in slaves… To what end,” she asks, “does one conjure the ghost of slavery, if not to incite the hopes of transforming the present?” This, plainly, is the charge of any curriculum that has as its core critical race theory applied to the black experience. Indeed, rather than the saturation of black student-athletes tamping down such an intellectual project, their presence should enhance our work. “I love teaching Ethnic Studies,” Dr. White emphasizes, “because it gives me a chance to work with a lot of students of color. I want all students to succeed, and particularly our black male students, because I know, as a black male myself, what challenges are out there without a degree.”

* * *

Despite highly choreographed protestations to the contrary by his coach (basketball legend Roy Williams) and many members of the 2004-2005 national title team, the Wainstein investigation has proven true most of Rashard McCants’ allegations, a resolution unsurprising to anyone familiar with the commonplace corruption of big-time college athletics. As whistleblowers go, McCants is not the most sympathetic of figures, having exploited a host of undue academic privileges that were unavailable to his peers who did not possess his physicality prior to acquainting the world with his truth. But it also must be acknowledged that the system that McCants and others exploited was not of their making and that student-athletes, especially in revenue-generating sports, are exploited on multiple levels within the American college environment. The Ed O’Bannon case has already revealed that the courts view the merchandising of student-athlete likenesses without compensation to the student-athlete as illegal. The ability of student-athletes to unionize has been legalized. The walls are crumbling.

In the meantime, for academics who teach African-American literature and Ethnic studies courses, there remains a middle ground between evacuating the domain of black studies to budget-cutters and the fraud and neglect alleged at the campus at Chapel Hill. It is in this valley between two unwelcome outcomes that they expand student knowledge of black writers beyond Malcolm X and Maya Angelou, advise Ph.D. candidates on dissertations, while slow-walking undergrads through the early stages of their college careers, staying current in a complex discipline while teaching kids out of public high school how to write an essay.

And all the while, Ethnic Studies departments are first up on the budget cut chopping block, and are at pains to validate their existence. “Our discipline,” Dr. White contends, “is under attack. They’re cutting departments left and right and we have to compete with more lucrative disciplines.” Certainly this fight for academic life has some bearing on any discussion of educational ethics at the sparsely funded fringes of academia.

There is a game hidden behind the ones played on the basketball courts and football fields of our universities and colleges. It is, in many respects, an unscrupulous match that mostly advantages the institutions themselves, while devaluing the student-athlete and serious study of the African-American experience. But these problematics ain’t the half, for, as in Ellison, the complexities of power and profit present us with difficult paradoxes, not easy conclusions. Exploited athletes exploit the exploiting system. A veteran at first raw and green to the peculiar institution of college sports eventually out-clevers his basketball coach and becomes a professor. Years later, a student-athlete curses him for his integrity, and a professor at North Carolina forfeits his. Cleavon and his cohort at Navy realize that the game that they’re playing is actually playing them and move effectively against their manipulation. And somewhere now some child is coveting a scholarship and unwittingly courting a battlefield.

Paradoxically, the complex fate of the scholars and student-athletes at the center of all of this may not be a predetermined compromise of values, but more a competition, rigged yet unresolved, which the players, despite the system, still can win.

Keenan Norris’s first novel Brother and the Dancer (Heyday Books, 2013) is the winner of the James D. Houston Award for first books. The novel has also been nominated for the inaugural John Leonard Prize, a debut fiction prize that is part of the National Book Critics Circle awards. He is the editor of the seminal critical work Street Lit: Representing the Urban Landscape (Scarecrow Press, 2013). His commentaries have been featured in the Huffington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, New York Observer, and KPFK radio. Keenan holds an M.F.A. from Mills College and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Riverside, and teaches at Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, California.

Splash image: UNC Tar Heels desktop background from





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