Op Ed: SCOTUS Ruling Disproportionately Impacts Opportunities for Black Males

Ban on race-conscious admissions leaves Black males that are not student-athletes with reduced access to higher education.

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By Christian Collins

For too long, American society has traditionally viewed Black men’s value and worth through the lens of our physical labor. Originating in chattel slavery and continuing through the Jim Crow era and into the present day, the benchmark for our collective societal participation has never been about who we are as individuals but about what we can provide to others in terms of economic value. A prominent lens into how deeply this perspective is ingrained into our governmental framework is college athletics. The rulings from the United States Supreme Court declaring race-conscious admissions policies unconstitutional are a warning that diversity, equity, and inclusion for Black males is only prioritized on playing fields and not in classrooms.

Christian Collins

“Equal Play, Unequal Pay: Race- Conscious Admissions and the Systemic Exploitation of Black Male Athletes,” my report for the Center for Law and Social Policy, a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization advancing policy solutions for people with low incomes, highlights how college athletics exploit Black male athletes for profit instead of treating them as full students. Though athletics were often featured in the legal arguments involving race-conscious admissions, an underacknowledged aspect was how athletics are a significant enrollment mechanism for Black male students at selective universities.

Commonly marketed as a substantial opportunity offered by universities to diversify their campuses through providing scholarships, college athletics function as a problematic method of attempting to replicate the impact of race-conscious admissions due to the economic exploitation that athletes are subjected to. Given already existing racial and economic disparities, and with additional threats to financial aid and support services programs meant for underrepresented student groups, Black males face a shrinking number of options to access an affordable postsecondary education at selective institutions. Thus, the Supreme Court rulings will likely create a system where the willingness of Black male athletes to have their talents exploited is a requirement to be admitted to selective institutions and receive financial aid.

Classifying college athletes as amateurs theoretically establishes access to postsecondary education as the primary objective of college sports programs, but the label of amateurism has purposely been used by colleges to limit the compensation of athletes. Though the growth of college athletics as a business sector has expanded substantially in the past several decades, this practice has even older roots.

In 1929, the Carnegie Foundation released a 385-page report detailing how universities were using the commercialization of athletics to erect new campus buildings and pay professors off the backs of unpaid college athletes. The term “student-athletes” originated in the 1950s as part of a legal strategy from the NCAA to deny workers’ compensation benefits to a widow after her husband died playing college football. In the modern era, billions of dollars flow through college athletics departments from media broadcasts, ticket and merchandise purchases, and other revenue streams. Corporations experience similar financial windfalls through advertising opportunities, sponsorships, and deals with athletes marketing their products. The recent legalization of sports gambling allows almost every American adult to gain financially from college athletes. However, the athletes who bear the brunt of the labor that fuels college athletics see very little, if any, of the profits.

What makes these issues of particular concern for Black male athletes is not just their overrepresentation compared to other student groups but also their concentration within the two largest college sports in terms of revenue: football and men’s basketball. Three hundred fifty-two schools make up the NCAA Division 1, the athletic division that includes the largest schools by in-person student population and revenue raised from athletics nationally. Just under 11% of all Black men enrolled in these schools received some form of athletic scholarship aid for the 2022-2023 academic year, making them the second-largest group to receive this aid. In the same academic year, 55% of Division 1 scholarship football players and 57 percent of Division 1 scholarship men’s basketball players identified as Black.

Due to the vast amounts of money raised primarily by Black male athletes who represent majorities in revenue-generating sports, these Black men in turn are underserved in their academic and social development while on campus. Men’s basketball had the lowest four-class graduation rate of any NCAA sport in 2022-2023 and is the only sport where less than half of participants graduated: only 48% of athletes graduated within six years of enrolling, and for Black males it was only 44%. Football was the third-lowest NCAA sport for graduation rates, with 62% of all players and 58% of Black players graduating within six years.

Not only do Black male athletes receive inadequate academic support, but, due to their overrepresentation in revenue-generating sports, they are disproportionately subjected to institutional surveillance and monitoring tactics, including tracking their personal social media usage, locations, and biometric data. Athletes at all levels of collegiate competition also face a lack of health care coverage and support to handle non-tuition costs of attendance.

In the wake of postsecondary institutions being compelled to adopt race-neutral admissions, Black men applying to colleges and universities face the disproportionate burden of adverse consequences. Despite not being subject to the Supreme Court rulings, several programs dedicated to increasing access for students from underrepresented populations have come under increased legal and administrative threat because of deliberate misinterpretation of the scope of the rulings.

My research shows that the removal of race-conscious admissions policies and continuous underfunding of financial aid programs create barriers to educational opportunities for Black men, leaving athletic talent as one of the few avenues for admission. Champions of diversity, equity, and inclusion in postsecondary education must develop new strategies that support not just Black men but all groups of students whose educational potential is not seen as the priority in their acceptance to college.●

>> Christian Collins is a policy analyst for education, labor, and worker justice at the Center for Law and Social Policy.