Today’s guest columnist is Dr. Billy Hawkins, a professor at the University of Houston.
During the celebration of Black History Month, we should remember that not too long ago college athletics programs remained segregated. We cannot forget some of the athletes who endured the challenges of anti-Black racism while assisting in the desegregation of college athletics—more specifically, college athletics in the southern region of this country.
The Southeastern Conference (SEC) was lauded as the final citadel of segregation; it was one of the last major conferences to desegregate its universities and athletic teams because of staunch segregationist posing in the forms of governors, mayors, college presidents, faculty, athletic directors, coaches and boosters. Their racist beliefs and adherence to segregationist doctrine prevented many Black athletes and students from these institutions of higher education.
However, with northern and western conferences progressively and successfully recruiting and utilizing Black athletic talent, the SEC realized it was falling behind. It wasn’t long before southern athletic conferences reneged on their segregationist tendencies and capitalized on the talent pool once relegated to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
One historic impetus to the desegregation of southern universities was the Texas Western Miners’ 72-65 victory over the Kentucky Wildcats, who were coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp, in the 1966 NCAA men’s basketball D1 championship. Texas Western’s lineup was the first all-Black lineup in an NCAA title game. Another was the 1970 football game between Southern California and Alabama, in which the Trojan squad was the first integrated team to play in the state of Alabama. USC running back Sam “Bam” Cunningham scored two touchdowns and rushed for 135 yards in a victory over Bama’s legendary coach Bear Bryant. These events have been recounted numerous times, captured on the silver screen and labeled as catalysts in assisting Civil Rights legislation in the desegregation of predominantly white southern university campuses, especially their athletic teams.
And since the desegregation of college athletes, these predominantly white NCAA Power 5 conference athletic programs have benefited tremendously. Black athletic labor is essential, and even critical, to the economic viability of the college sport industry and the university.
Fast forward to the current racial configuration of the revenue-generating sports of football and men’s basketball. Examining the predominance of Black male athletes who undergird this multibillion-dollar industry, one could easily forget the efforts white segregation employed to keep these universities exclusively white.
In 1963, Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, heralded the segregationist’s proclamation when he said “… segregation today, segregation tomorrow … segregation forever.” Now, the state’s university has a football program that has appeared in six of the last nine championship games, winning three of those six, with a team made up of 50-70% Black athletes. Their basketball team (81% Black) is currently ranked third in the nation. And remember, the CFP receives $470 million annually from ESPN to air the playoff games.
Consequently, basketball programs at these Power 5 institutions share a similar economic benefit from the athletic labor of Black male athletes. The NCAA made $1.16 billion in 2021, and more than 85% of that came from the Division I men’s basketball tournament. The racial demographics are similar to that of football and justify the value of Black athletic talent to the industry of college athletics. For example, the 2022 NCAA champions, the University of Kansas, had a roster made up of 60% Black men, while the 2021 champion Baylor Bears were 71% Black.
The direct economic impact and benefit of March Madness produced by Black male athletic labor is evident and should be celebrated and remembered during Black History Month, as well as the indirect benefits this athletic labor attracts to these universities in the form of institutional development, i.e., through corporate sponsorship, alumni support, student recruitment and global exposure. The collegiate sporting events are cultural and corporate gatherings that aid universities’ fundraising and advancement. Collegiate football and basketball have been coopted by corporations and are used to sell products and, most important, sell ideas and dreams.
Hopefully, the point is clear that Black athletes are crucial to the success of the NCAA. And in return, college sports have been beneficial to the athletes. Although Black male athletes’ graduation rates are lower than full-time non-athletes, many, upon graduating, have enjoyed successful careers in various industries, including the small percentage who make it in professional sports. There has also been greater agency given to college athletes at this level in the form of name, image and likeness (NIL) legislation and the advent of the transfer portal. However, greater economic emancipation will occur when these athletes receive an equitable return from their athletic labor.
Therefore, during Black History Month and during March Madness next month, celebrating Black male athletic contributions and achievements is essential, especially at a time when Black male bodies are being beaten to death like Tyre Nichols, strangled like George Floyd and Eric Garner, and shot and left exposed like Michael Brown. These men serve as a reminder of the lynched bodies that once hung as symbols to remind others of their fate in challenging the authority of white supremacy.
I hope that one day soon, we will be able to reconcile these two extreme experiences of Black men—where they are cheered on predominantly white campuses yet live under the threat of assassination and are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people. Hopefully, the latter extreme diminishes as we continue to interrogate and seek to eradicate racial terrorism, reevaluate our common destiny and celebrate all expressions of humanity.
Dr. Billy Hawkins is a professor at the University of Houston in the Health and Human Performance department. He has served as an interim chair for the department and as the Associate Dean for Faculty and Student Success in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. He is the author of several books, including The New Plantation: Black Athletes, College Sports, and Predominantly White NCAA Institutions.