Episode 136: The ‘Ungrateful Athlete’: Anti-Black, Anti-Labor Currents in Sports Media

Citations Needed | May 19, 2021 | Transcript


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: “Good, hard working kid”, “they get paid to play a child’s game”, “he’s asking for too much money”, “he shows up and does his work and never complains”, “a 4.0 student.” Despite the fact that the concept of paying college athletes has gained some mainstream support in recent years, much of the ideological scaffolding that exists to justify their lack of fair compensation is still very popular and widespread in sports punditry and writing, AM radio and even play-by-play broadcasts.

Adam: Patronizing full-grown adults while chatting about their GPA, talking about how quote-unquote “kids” are quote-unquote “becoming men,” racialized claims of lazy or ungrateful players, a wildly different double standards for players and owners for when they attempt to maximize their economic interests — all prop up a system that despite liberal hand-wringing and box-checking concern for not paying players of late, still refuses to pay college athletes for their labor in the year 2021.

Nima: The stakes go beyond just sports. This conservative cultural contempt for athletes as a whole mirrors and also informs that of other workers as well. Whenever, say, nurses organize for better pay and safer working conditions or, in the era of COVID-19, teachers’ unions seek to continue virtual rather than in-person classes for the sake of public health, they’re dismissed out of hand as self-interested and domineering.

Adam: On this week’s episode, we’ll parse the racist, anti-labor characterization of athletes in media, how they are both scary, threatening men and tiny children who should be paid for their labor, and break down how this topic has cultural implications to other labor struggles, by informing and reinforcing anti-union tropes across the board.

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll speak with Professor Amira Rose Davis, Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies at Penn State University, where she specializes in 20th Century American History with an emphasis on race, gender, sports and politics. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Can’t Eat a Medal: The Lives and Labors of Black Women Athletes in the Age of Jim Crow and co-host of the sports and feminism podcast, Burn It All Down.

[Begin Clip]

Amira Rose Davis: The most important thing is that all athletic scholarships were only going to be one year contracts, and of course, this shifts the balance of power so clearly to coaching staff, to admins, to the schools, right? Because if you have a bad year your scholarship is jeopardy, but also, if you talk back to your coach, if you raise the issue of wanting a black history class, if they catch you at a protest, you can see how more precarious athletic labor became for college athletes if they’re on a one year contract that’s not guaranteed to be renewed.

[End Clip]

Adam: So the current state of play with this narrative is that, and this is what we’re dissecting on this week’s episode, is that there’s a lot of kind of liberal box-checking, mainstream acceptance that we sort of should maybe in principle have some kind of financial arrangement where we pay student athletes, the optics and the groundswell of activism, and legal challenges, frankly, have made it untenable to make the conservative argument although many still do — this is about a 50/50 split, I think it’s fair to say — what we’re arguing on the show is that even though we’ve had this kind of broad liberal consensus at the highest levels, even within Disney’s ESPN and CBS, there’s still nothing that’s ever done about it, and in many ways, the basic ideological justification for not paying athletes, which is that they’re basically children and that college is some life improvement seminar they’ve signed up for for four years where they should pay to have the privilege of maybe one day making it to the NBA or NFL, that those ideological premises are still very popular. So what we’re arguing is that the support for paying college athletes is largely superficial and that a primary reason why they’re still not being paid today is that heavily racialized anti-labor, anti-union premises still exists today, and that the extent to which there is support for paying athletes, it’s largely superficial.

Nima: It’s easy to look at some headlines that are against the idea in general, stuff like, “Paying college athletes is not the answer — NCAA should incentivize education, not paid employment,” which was written in The State Press. Or this from The New York Times, “Paying Students to Play Would Ruin College Sports.” Or this from US News & World Report, “Students Are Not Professional Athletes.” Or this from The New Yorker, “Why N.C.A.A. Athletes Shouldn’t Be Paid.” And of course this snarky headline from Bleacher Report, “There’s No Crying in College: The Case Against Paying College Athletes.” So those do exist, but this idea that even those who nominally support the idea still have these common tropes that entrench the idea that actually student athletes, as we’re going to get into, the term “student athletes,” should not be paid, they are not employees, they are not professionals, and therefore, there are these legal carve outs that present barriers, they argue, against paying them. Now all of this, I think, is against this backdrop of faux-racialized purity of sports. The system itself, I think, is widely acknowledged, like those who profit are white and wealthy, right? It’s rigged, everyone knows it, but the public faces of the labor, the stuff we love, the stuff we watch, not the back office, those faces are pure, they’re untainted, they’re there to play for the love of the game alone, oh, and also to get a education that they couldn’t possibly have gotten otherwise, but their labor is one of love, right? This kind of intangible innocence created the noble facade of college sports, the huge profits are reaped by their coaches, trainers, administrators, institutions, those are very real, those are tangible, the money is real. Let’s not forget, the United States is the only country in the world to embed a multi-billion dollar, media-boosted, highly commercialized physical labor regime in higher education. This is the only place where this happens on this scale.

Adam: Yeah, much of our show is showing how this is not a normal thing, you know, it’s a frog in boiling water. If we started a system tomorrow where we had a labor force that was 60–70 percent African American that was unpaid while large corporations, advertisers and private universities and wealthy public universities reaped all the rewards we would be outraged, but it’s just sort of always the way it’s been done, and the reason it’s been done is because from its inception the concept of a student athlete was an anti-poor, anti-black construct that was created to provide just that, which is free labor. And if there’s one thing capital loves more than anything, it’s free labor, and if you can have free labor well into the 21st century, you’ve done a pretty good propaganda coup, and this system, which again, can only exist due to a somewhat complicated moral ecosystem that’s totally made up by a bunch of marketing people, is testament to the fact that this is fundamentally a story of media narrative, and obviously, it’s a heavily racialized narrative. So this falls within the purview of Citations Needed.

Nima: Yeah, so speaking about how language is used, how terminology is created and weaponized, has everything to do with our understanding of how college sports at this level operates. Let’s talk a little bit about the history of the term and concept of “student athletes.” To actually understand the origins of this concept and this term, it’s definitely useful to consider the formation of the NCAA, the National College Athletic Association itself. The institution and subsequent ubiquitous vernacular of the student athlete were both born out of a response to college football injuries. Now, the NCAA was founded in 1906 as the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States, the IAAUS, a regulatory body for college sports after then President Teddy Roosevelt’s son was injured playing college football. Now, Roosevelt is widely credited in US media with quote-unquote “saving football” at a time when editorials were calling for the abolition of football because of its physical danger and everyone was getting hurt — a debate that continues to this day of course — Teddy Roosevelt apparently insisted that football be regulated for safety and therefore allowed to continue, hence the formation of the IAAUS and the preservation of the noble game of college football. The IAAUS became the NCAA officially just four years later in 1910.

Diagram representing offensive and defensive formations under the new rules proposed by the IAAUS, published in a 1906 issue of the New York Tribune. (Library of Congress)

Adam: So after the formation of the NCAA, paying college athletes was viewed as a major ethical breach. So not only was it not a thing that was allowed, it was criminalized and heavily sanctioned and viewed as somehow a moral affront. A 1928 article from Sioux City journal about a college quote-unquote “accused” of paying its athletes calls the charge serious, the headline reads, “Serious Charge Against School: North Central Officers Say Student Athletes Received Pay.” Oh, my God. The article would go on to say:

Charging that student athletes were paid for their services, the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools expelled the University of West Virginia during the course of the organization’s annual meeting today at the Hotel Sherman.

The association declared, through the report of its executive committee, that West Virginia was laying too much stress on athletics to the derogation of academic, health and character interests of its students.

By the way — well, we’re gonna get into that — but this literally word for word still happens.

…and recommend a defiant stand against the payment of salaries or the furnishing of tuition to student athletes.

Any system that has those based on free labor, necessarily has to severely and swiftly and with tremendous moral outrage punish anyone who gets around that system and pays labor, which is why this article, of course, has been repeated dozens of times since.

Nima: The term “student athlete” itself, which we just heard was already being used in the 1920s, was not only invented in the early 20th century, but is directly linked to the anti-labor attitudes within the NCAA. Walter Byers, the first Executive Director of the NCAA, is traditionally thought to have massively popularized and weaponized the term student athlete in the ’50s during his tenure with the association. The term was initially formulated to preclude college athletes’ classification as employees and thus their eligibility for workers compensation. In court testimony during the 1990s, Walter Byers, again, the then former Executive Director of the NCAA, explained that quote, “The student-athlete was a term used to try to offset these tendencies for state agencies or other governmental departments to consider a grant-in-aid holder” end quote, to be an employee, meaning it was a carve out. This term was thereby designed to characterize college athletes as amateurs above all else, not professionals, a principle known as amateurism, and would soon be codified within the lexicon rulemaking and legal interpretations of the NCAA from classrooms to courtrooms and eventually, widely throughout American culture itself. Now, Byers knew exactly what he was doing. Indeed, he had worked previously in public relations.

Adam: No!

Nima: And he explained in a 1995 memoir that after they quote-unquote “crafted” — and yes, he uses the word “crafted” — the term student athlete, he says this quote, “We told college publicists to speak of ‘college teams,’ not football or basketball ‘clubs,’ a word common to the pros,” end quote. Byers had taken the helm of the NCAA at a time when televised collegiate sports were a relatively new phenomenon. During his tenure from the 1950s on, Byers negotiated a series of increasingly lucrative television deals, priming the NCAA to become the multi-billion dollar organization it still is today.

Adam: Yeah, but you could tell that wasn’t the culture. By 1934 the Three Stooges film Three Little Pig Skins, which was where they go play football, of course, they don’t know how to play football, they play college football, and a major plot point, a major point of tension in the movie is that they’re chosen because they’re amateurs, because they’re not professional football players and their amateur status is huge conflict in the show. So by the 1930s it was sort of broadly known that college, that amateurism itself, like student athlete, a total bullshit term they just made up, was this weird carve out we could have because it was tied to academia. So it was viewed as a learning pursuit, or a sort of betterment, right? Which instead of free labor, which, of course is what it was.

There were a few legal cases that animated Byer’s use of the term student athlete. In 1953, Colorado Supreme Court ruled that Ernest Nemeth, a football player at the University of Denver who was injured during practice, was eligible to receive workers’ compensation. As late as 2014 a New York Times editorial referred to the NCAA’s anti-labor fears as quote-unquote “well-founded.” Subsequently, the student athlete defense helped the NCAA win many liability cases through the years and avoid having to deal with countless more because football, especially back then, it was an extremely dangerous sport. People actually died quite often, and they absolutely do not want to pay workers compensation, and that carve out not only prevented them from paying workers compensation or paying medical bills for people who were injured, but of course prevented them from paying them at all. Shortly after the 1953 Nemeth case, Billie Dennison, the widow of Ray Dennison, who had died in the mid-50s while playing football at Fort Lewis A&M in Colorado, she sued the NCAA. Billie likened college football to a full-time job, and argued that his death should be covered by state labor laws. The court finally ruled in 1957 that Billie was not entitled to death benefits, reasoning that football players were quote-unquote “student athletes” and not college employees.

The most notable victory for the NCAA against paying players either death injury or just compensation was a lawsuit brought by former Texas Christian University running back Kent Waldrep, one of those names that only exists in the ’70s. Waldrep had been paralyzed in a 1974 football game against the University of Alabama. After just nine months, Texas Christian University stopped paying Waldrep’s medical bills. His family struggled to get by on charity for years afterwards. Then, in 1991, soon after Division I schools began carrying catastrophic insurance for football players, Waldrep sued the NCAA for workers comp, arguing that he had been an employee of TCU at the time of his injury. Waldrep initially won $70 a week for life and medical expenses dating to the accident, but TCU’s insurance carrier appealed. Finally, in 2000, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that Waldrep was not eligible for the compensation, stating that he had not been an employee of TCU because both he and the school had intended for him to participate in sports as a student, not a professional. As part of its decision, the Court wrote that a basic purpose of the NCAA was to make the student-athlete an integral part of the student body, and cited the definition of an amateur student-athlete from the NCAA’s own beneficial bylaws writing, quote, “One who engaged in athletics for the education, physical, mental, and social benefits he derives there from, and to whom athletics is an avocation.” So here you have this idea, and this is gonna come up again and again here, is that it’s presenting college athletics as some sort of betterment program, as if you would sign up for a self-help seminar or a boot camp workout program, it’s sort of for your own interest.

Kent Waldrep (right). (Birmingham News)

Nima: You’re there to improve yourself and to learn and if you get to play sports in the meantime, or that’s an avenue by which you do that learning, that self improvement, that growth, you therefore cannot get paid for it, it is part of your schooling.

Adam: And to this day, the commercials for the NCAA that they play during games, and there’s a reason why they play these commercials, because they’re there to reinforce the ideological premises of not paying them e.g. student athleticism, every single premise of the commercials are here are these players we had, they will sort of show you know, someone who’s a swimmer, a ski shooter, a runner, a basketball player, and they say they went on to become a doctor, they went on to become —

Nima: More than 80 percent of student athletes go on to do something else, right? Not play sports.

Adam: The implication being that through their free labor they gave the university and the corporate advertisers of Viacom and Disney and AT&T, that through their free labor, that it’s actually for their best interest, that this was basically a self-help seminar that we subsidized for them because we’re so fucking benevolent.

Nima: It was their own collegiate SWEAT Pledge Adam.

Adam: Exactly, it was the Mike Rowe SWEAT Pledge.

Nima: So let’s talk a little bit about the restrictions that the NCAA puts on athletes. In most states, college athletes are prohibited from earning money or compensation apart from scholarships when they play a varsity sport for a college or university. Yet the institutions themselves, as well as coaches, the NCAA as an organization, the regional conferences and other forms of power in the world of college athletics earn billions every year through college football, basketball, and a handful of other high profile sports. In fact, in the 2016 to ’17 academic year, the NCAA’s revenue reportedly reached a billion dollars, yet athletes aren’t given even a fraction of that, despite the fact that the majority of that revenue is generated by the Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, of course, March Madness. Now the NCAA also bans athletes from profiting from the use of their name, image or likeness in media and advertising though this has recently been challenged by some state legislators, which we will of course get to later.

Adam: In recent years, there’s been a movement to pay college athletes, it has become more popular. In September of 2019, as we mentioned, California passed a law allowing college athletes to sign into paid endorsement deals, hire agents and pay for the use of their name, image or likeness. It’s abbreviated as NIL. California is the first state to do this. Other states like Michigan and Kansas have followed in its footsteps. The media adopted a similar story tone about this when reporting on these developments. While it is an improvement, the model at play here comes at zero expense for the actual employers, the universities themselves. So it allows them to kind of market themselves but still, they’re still not allowed to actually get paid for their labor as such. So it would be like Aaron Judge or LeBron James not getting paid by the NBA or Major League Baseball, but they’re sort of permitted to do Nike commercials. And so it’s an improvement, but again, it still gets the NCAA off the hook and still maintains the basic premise of quote-unquote “amateurism.”

Nima: Now, as we’ve discussed and mentioned some of the headlines earlier, it’s usually been perfectly acceptable to argue that quote-unquote “student athletes” don’t deserve to get paid. The rationale, again, buttressed by Walter Byers’ concept of amateurism tends to fall into the following categories: Supposed fairness among students, that some get paid with others wouldn’t, upholding the quote-unquote “value” of a college degree, that that is the ultimate success that you are earning through college not money, not fame through the glory of sports, and the ideas that, through free tuition provided by scholarships, athletes are already paid, and that if they were to be paid salaries on top of that, that kind of compensation would somehow corrupt, as we said, the purity of this beautiful game.

So for instance, back in 2004 Dan Shanoff wrote on an ESPN blog this:

Last time I checked, Joe Jumpshot and Teddy Tailback got to attend college FOR FREE. And not just free tuition — an all-the-way free experience. Not just free food: Free ‘training table’ super food (at least for football). Not just a free room and board: The best dorm rooms on campus. Not just the occasional access to professors: Full-time teaching assistants whose only job is to make sure the athletes get the most out of the education experience (uh, that’s aspirationally). Not just free books and classes: First choice of any classes they want. I’m pretty sure any student who is paying (sorry, borrowing) his or her own way — or whose family is taking out massive, decade-crippling loans — would trade the many hard hours of work and dedication it takes to be a college hoops or football player in exchange for that kind of ‘sweat shop’ experience. It may not be a paycheck, but when you total it up — not even accounting for the ‘psychic reward’ of best housing, best classes and best food — the ‘payment’ package in kind is north of $120,000 over four years, especially at one of your NCAA tournament №1 seeds like Duke or Stanford.

Adam: This is such a great argument because it’s the definition of sophistry because it sort of sounds superficially appealing and then when you look back and you say, yes, but if you didn’t, quote-unquote “pay” for those things, but paid them what they were really worth, or rather, if you use that as a baseline of pay, because obviously everyone deserves all those things, you still come way, way short of what quite a few players are worth and more importantly, shouldn’t it be their decision what they spend their money on, not your decision to tell them what their compensation is. There’s no other job where you say, I’m going to give you X, Y and Z, but I’m not gonna write you a check you’re gonna work for free, but I’m gonna subsidize X, Y and Z and therefore you should feel grateful. Education, which by the way, should be free, and education of public universities and states before the deregulation trend 20 years ago was basically free, already should be free. So you take largely poor African American kids, and you say, ‘Okay, well, you should be grateful for an education that a normal moral society and in fact a lot of societies on Earth would have provided for free anyway without you needing to work 50 to 60 hours a week risking your your life and limb so a bunch of red-faced, scotch-drinking boosters up in the suites can watch you run the ball so they can beat their buddy who went to Auburn.’

Nima: It’s also really disingenuous, because when you are so myopic that you’re only looking at what college athletes get and at that level, again, right, this argument sounds superficially like ‘Oh, yeah, look at what they get that’s not fair,’ but as Jhacova Williams pointed out on the Working Economics blog for the Economic Policy Institute, in January of 2020, these arguments about college athletes getting, you know, access to world class facilities, world class coaching and credible academic support, they’re not alone in that and as Williams points out, quote:

…there already exists a group of students who are employees of the university, have access to world-class facilities, teaching, and academic support, and no one calls them selfish when they receive their salaries. Who are these students? Ph.D. students.

The article goes on to say this:

Yes, because they work for the university. A large percentage of Ph.D. students are funded via fellowships or assistantships. Funding, which covers tuition and provides a stipend, varies across institutions and doctoral programs due to what can be viewed as ‘educational hierarchy.’ Assistantships require that Ph.D. students’ work anywhere from 20 to 40 hours per week that include duties such as grading, managing labs, or lecturing. Additionally, doctoral students are awarded (or sometimes apply for) money that allows them to attend international or out-of-state conferences to present their research and network with others in their field.

In short, Ph.D. students sign a contract with an institution, agree to work a certain number of hours per week, maintain a certain GPA, and conduct research. In exchange, the university covers their tuition and pays them a salary. What do college football players do? Sign a contract (you may have seen signing day on ESPN), maintain a certain GPA, and kick butt on Saturday, which requires countless hours of practice! Additionally, their success can help recruit up to tens of thousands of students and generate millions of dollars for the institution.

Adam: Jon Chait, for years, was one of the biggest advocates, and I guess still is, we don’t know, I don’t know if he’s changed his mind. Of course, his wife works as a teacher’s union buster, and he hates teachers unions. So you will not be surprised to learn that he also hates paying student athletes. He wrote an article in 2011 quote, “Why Paying Student Athletes Won’t Work,” in which he offered the most popular bad faith arguments but here’s one choice quote, quote:

If it were generally true that college sports is a crass mutual exploitation arrangement, in which athletes generate revenue for the school in return for a shot at professional lucre, then how could you explain walk-ons? These are players who put in the same work as scholarship athletes, and don’t get a scholarship in return. How could you explain the athletes at the lower levels of competition, who know they’ll never make the pros but put in the same work anyway? There’s no compelling moral reason to pay an athlete less merely because he doesn’t command a large enough fan base. We could put all college athletes, male and female, across all sports, on salary. But what would be the point?

I don’t know. First off, most major walk-ons are probably more likely to be white, which of course is one compelling reason. But look, a lot of people write for fun. You know, I write for fun, I post things to Medium and I don’t get paid all the time, which maybe isn’t the best decision in the world.

Jonathan Chait

Nima: I heard you have a Twitter account, Adam.

Adam: I write on Twitter, give my labor to Twitter 18 hours a day without any compensation. A lot of people write for free, therefore, why should we pay Jon Chait, what I presume is $150,000-$200,000 to write this fucking bile for New York Magazine. So just because there are people who want to do something without compensation does not mean that we should not compensate those that do that thing. There are lots of jobs that people do for “free,” quote unquote, jobs you will do for free when they want to. This does not preclude playing people. So it’s, again, every single argument is based on reverse engineered sophistry to rationalize the system because everyone knows that if you pay college athletes, it’ll be far more expensive and I think for people like Jon Chait, all the kind of, I think all the racial disciplining is central to their enjoyment of the game and once that racial disciplining is undermined, then the sort of romance of college athletes is no longer as meaningful to them.

Nima: Yeah, I think that there’s this idea also that even if you say that you understand that at a certain level this is unjust, you then get into the hand-wringing part of it, right? The, ‘How would this even work? It’s really complicated. It’s so complex, we can’t possibly figure it out.’

Adam: This is by the way, the same thing Jon Chait has been doing for years with Medicare for All. He does the nuance trolling and the feasibility trolling.

Nima: So for instance, you get a good example of this from a recent April 2, 2021 article in The Associated Press, entitled, “To pay or not pay college athletes is not the issue,” and what it does is it details the results of a AP survey of athletic directors around the country in response to this idea of who should get paid, how much should athletes receive, how can you ensure gender equality, will non revenue sports survive? And so, you know, this kind of concern trolling leads to this kind of quote which one athletic director submitted to the survey, quote:

What little revenue 95% of institutions realize through revenue sports, goes toward supporting other sports. Paying those 5% of students will devastate the other teams that rely on that revenue to survive.

End quote.

The survey also found that, quote:

…a striking 94% of the ADs responding said it would be somewhat or much more difficult to comply with gender equity rules if their school were to compensate athletes in the biggest money-making sports.

Adam: Yeah, so suddenly, everyone’s very concerned with women’s sports, which we’ll talk more about with our guest, but this has become increasingly a popular counter argument that ‘Oh, if we pay athletes, because male sports or men’s sports make so much more money, that therefore the women will get paid less, there’ll be a Title IX issue.’ Again, every single person making this argument, literally five minutes before they made that argument, had never mentioned or cared about women’s sports ever before. You may have seen this trend as well with anti-trans bills, suddenly everyone’s super concerned with women’s sports who didn’t care about it literally five minutes prior. Many popular white sports figures who rise to the sort of prominence of their sport because of their conservative ideology and their own kind of selfish branding exercise have come out against paying college athletes or have trafficked in anti-labor tropes for both professional and college athletes. So we want to recap these assholes because I don’t like them and I’ve been looking for an excuse to do an anti-Tim Tebow, anti-J.J. Watt, anti-Brett Favre rants. So this is just the —

Nima: We got it.

Adam: This is for you real heads out there. We try to market this episode to people who don’t know anything or don’t care about sports, because it’s probably fair to say that because we’re a left-wing podcast there’s not a, the Venn diagram’s not huge.

Nima: Oh, you don’t know that. That’s a trope!

Adam: Oh, come on.

Nima: (Laughing) Okay.

Adam: Have you listened to sports radio, Nima? It is MAGAland. So, this is Tim Tebow speaking on the SEC network in 2019 about why he opposes the California bill allowing student athletes to have endorsements and it pretty much checks off every single Citations box that makes my fucking blood boil but but let’s just go ahead and listen to it.

[Begin Clip]

Tim Tebow: When I was at the University of Florida I think my jersey was one of the top selling jerseys around the world. Kobe, LeBron and then I was right behind them and I didn’t make a dollar from it, but nor did I want to, because I knew going into college what it was all about. I knew going to Florida, my dream school, where I wanted to go, the passion for it and if I could support my team, support my college, support my university that’s what it’s all about. But now we’re changing it from us, from we, from my university, from being an alumni where I care which makes college football and college sports special to then okay, it’s not about us, it’s not about we, it’s just about me. And yes, I know we live in a selfish culture where it’s all about us but we’re just adding and piling on to that, where it changes what’s special about college football, and we turn it into the NFL, where who has the most money, that’s where you go. That’s why people are more passionate about college sports than they are about the NFL. That’s why the stadiums are bigger in college than they are in the NFL, because it’s about your team, it’s about your university, it’s about where my family wanted to go, it’s about where my grandfather had a dream of seeing Florida win an SEC championship, and you’re taking that away so that young kids can earn a dollar and that’s just not where I feel like college football needs to go. There’s that opportunity in the NFL, but not in college football.

[End Clip]

Adam: So, Tim Tebow comes from a very comfortable middle-class family of Christian missionaries, both of whom are college educated, grew up in a comfortable household, attended private school. So perhaps — dare I say — there’s not as much urgency for him to market his brand, especially knowing full well he was going to make it to the NFL, which a lot of players aren’t or don’t by virtue of being injured. But there’s more at play here than just self interest of course, he is a conservative Christian, this is ideological for him and I think he does the sanctimonious bullshit, because he knows it’s good for his brand. And white athletes who appeal to a certain conservative demographic as part of their image play to this bullshit all the time, because again, it’s heavily, heavily racialized, and they know what they mean when they say, ‘love of the game,’ ‘trying to be greedy,’ ‘asking for too much.’ Again, these are all very clearly provoking certain images about uppity players who are just greedy.

So someone else who does this, who also panders to a similar demographic, who was also a fucking scab, is NFL defensive end J.J. Watt. He just signed a big deal with the Arizona Cardinals but at the end of last season, when the Houston Texans were dogshit, and losing a bunch of games, he went on this very, very viral rant that Fox News, Breitbart, every single right-wing media, and a lot of mainstream media picked up on it, it had this kind of populist appeal and I want to listen to that, we’re going to talk about why I hate this fucking bullshit, and why it’s so dangerous and while it may seem kind of vaguely populist, it is absolutely right into the wheelhouse of Mike Rowe SWEAT Pledge, trying to pass off sucking up to the boss and reinforcing bourgeois morality and sucking up to the boss and I want you to listen to this clip and we’re going to dissect it here. We’ll just play it.

[Begin Clip]

J.J. Watt: If you can’t come in and put work in the building, go out to the practice field and work hard, do your lifts and do what you’re supposed to do you should not be here. This is a job, we are getting paid a whole lot of money. There are a lot of people that watch us and invest their time and their money into buying our jerseys and buying a whole bunch of, and they care about it, they care every single week. We’re in week 16 and we’re 4–11 and there’s fans that watch this game that show up to the stadium that put in time and energy and effort and care about this. So if you can’t go out there and you can’t work out, you can’t show up on time, you can’t practice, you can’t want to go out there and win, you shouldn’t be here, because this is a privilege. It’s the greatest job in the world, you get to go out and play a game and if you can’t care enough, even in week 17, even when you’re trashed, when you’re 4–11, if you can’t care enough to go out there and give everything you’ve got and try your hardest that’s bullshit. So that’s how, I just, I think it’s, that’s, there are people every week that still tweet you, that still come up to you and say, ‘Hey, we’re still rooting for you. We’re still behind you.’ They have no reason whatsoever to. We stink. But they care and they still want to win and they still want you to be great. That’s why. Those people aren’t getting paid. We’re getting paid handsomely. That’s why and that’s (pause) that’s who I feel the most bad for, our fans, and the people who care so deeply in the city and the people who love it and who truly want it to be great and it’s not and that sucks as a player to know that we’re not giving them what they deserve.

[End Clip]

Adam: Alright, so blah, blah, blah. ‘Shut the fuck up, you scab.’

Nima: ‘Shut up and play.’ It’s the ‘shut up and play.’

Adam: First off, he’s criticizing people in his union: big no, no. Second off, this, of course, was covered in mainstream media, ‘J.J. Watt goes over lack of professionalism,’ and this is a classic sort of example of right-wing populism because it seems like he sort of centering the customer, right? Which of course is a trope of a lot of right-wing bullshit. ‘The customers pay a lot of money to come here.’ Look, that’s true. ‘We get paid handsomely,’ yeah, relative to a fucking public school teacher, but relative to how much the NFL makes you absolutely do not get paid handsomely and one thing to keep in mind of course, and one thing that we need to emphasize here, is that most NFL players do not get paid handsomely — and this is going to sound counterintuitive because you see contracts for a million, $2 million dollars — the average length of an NFL career is 3.3 years, which means if someone plays in the NFL, starts at the age of 20 lives to be seventy years old, if they make a million dollars a year for the average length of an NFL career of three and a half years — which is still a lot, a lot of players don’t make a million dollars — assuming they do get paid a million dollars a year, if you average out their earning potential — because again, they weren’t going to University of Alabama to become fucking chemical engineers for the most part, they were there to play a sport and to get paid for it, of course they weren’t paid to college — but even if you win the fucking lottery and go to the NFL, and you make a million dollars a year, if you average that out over your entire life, that comes out to $70,000 a year and this is the only opportunity they’re going to get a chance to make meaningful income. Now, of course, they go on to do other things, you can go on to work in coaching or do this or that.

Nima: As long as you don’t have, you know, massive concussions and traumatic brain injuries.

Adam: Yeah, to say nothing of the fact that poor players, of course, are usually supporting a lot of people. They’re supporting brothers and cousins and their mother and other people who come from poor communities who don’t have the resources that Tim Tebow and J.J. Watt had. J.J. Watt also had a very comfortable middle class upbringing. So when he says they’re getting paid handsomely, he’s getting paid handsomely, but most NFL players are not getting paid handsomely and to the extent to which they are getting paid handsomely, if you average it out over a lifetime, it’s barely $50,000, $60,000, $70,000 a year job and this is the scam they pull. They act as if these are all a bunch of spoiled brats and the mental image that comes up when J.J. Watt talks to his fucking MAGA fan base about how these people are lazy and not trying hard and they’re 4–12 and all these people pay hard money, I think we know who he is really talking about especially since 80 percent of the Texans are African American and aside from being scab shit, it’s about his own conservative brand building because this shit went viral. People eat this shit up because it plays into every single anti-labor, racialized trope about spoiled ungrateful athletes, you know, if management’s not going to invest the time to build a team, if I’m a player, if I go out there, put my body on the line every day, it’s like any other job, whether it’s waiting tables or fucking accountant, I don’t care what it is, if your boss is not going to give you the support you need and if there’s no real way you’re going to have any meaningful outcome to a season, fuck it! You should phone it in, you should fake an injury, you should half ass it because if they’re not going to support you why the fuck should you support them? So this is typical kind of white, faux populist, Mike Rowe bullshit, when really what he should have been doing is saying, ‘Management did not invest in the players, they didn’t spend the money they needed to spend, they made bad decisions at the NFL draft and the offseason when it came to trading.’ So again, the onus is put on these kind of anonymous black supporting crew to the great holy sanctimonious J.J. Watt, whose little rant, by the way, of course, got him exactly what he wanted, which was to be pushed out of Texas so he can get a bigger contract with the Cardinals. And by the way, NFL contracts, despite being the most dangerous sport with the absolute shortest lifespan, unlike other sports, are not guaranteed contracts, you are never guaranteed a contract unless you’re like in the elite, elite, even they’re never guaranteed beyond two years, three years, you’re never guaranteed a contract more than a year, you are a fucking mercenary, if you get injured, that’s it, it’s over, you’re done, and the media loves playing this trope because it’s how you extract more and more labor out of people. This appeal to professionalism and trying hard and all this ideological reinforcement about shutting up and playing the game and keeping your nose clean and just doing the job, it’s all anti-labor bullshit and that anti-labor bullshit flows into and permeates the culture into the public perception of unions in general.

Nima: And is built up, of course, when you start these careers in the NCAA. Now of course, there have been some high profile and some less high profile instances where athletes actually work together to challenge the NCAA rules and regulations. One of the most famous of course, is from 2009 when former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon sued the NCAA for, among other things, licensing his likeness without his permission. Now, the NCAA was found to have violated antitrust law for restricting athlete name, image likeness, NIL compensation, and schools were ordered to fully cover the cost of attendance, meaning they’d cover cost-of-living expenses that fell outside of the bounds of the NCAA scholarships of the time. The NCAA appealed the O’Bannon decision, though its appeal was denied by the Supreme Court.

Ed O’Bannon. (Stephen Dunn / ALLSPORT)

A number of years later, in 2015, football players at Northwestern University attempted to unionize, asserting that they were university employees who should have the right to collectively bargain. In a unanimous decision, the National Labor Relations Board declined to classify the athletes as employees, claiming that doing so would not have promoted, quote, “stability in labor relations,” end quote. Now, the NLRB made the following statement to this effect, quote:

“The board has never before been asked to assert jurisdiction in a case involving college football players, or college athletes of any kind. Even if scholarship players were regarded as analogous to players for professional sports teams who are considered employees for purposes of collective bargaining, such bargaining has never involved a bargaining unit consisting of a single team’s players.” End quote.

Meaning that athletes at a certain institution could not themselves just unionize without it being say a league-wide union. The New York Times had a way-too-sympathetic take on the NLRB’s ruling, citing, quote, “the complexities of an N.C.A.A. in which one team might be unionized while others were not, and whether a union would negotiate terms that conflicted with the association’s rules.” So, you know, god forbid we actually start to reevaluate the association’s rules to begin with.

Adam: CBS pundit and March Madness staple, Seth Davis, who’s probably one of the most vocal opponents to paying players, you notice their arguments keep morphing. Now the new line they’re trying to auction off is that this is just like working for the American Enterprise Institute or Cato Institute, where you sort of come up with what capital means and then you kind of come up with clever sophistry to reverse engineer. So, we’re now moving on to the idea that taking away, as Nima noted in the AP poll, the new line now is that it’ll take away from non revenue generating sports. So let’s listen to Seth Davis on a Sports Illustrated podcast discussing his new very, very much earnest, very sincere concern about what would happen if we had to pay athletes.

[Begin Clip]

Seth Davis: A very small percentage of people who play college sports, and I’m not even talking about like the non revenue sports, so the fact you have all this money coming in men’s basketball and football is allowing hundreds of thousands of soccer players and volleyball players and golfers and baseball players and swimmers to get some form of scholarship assistance, and they don’t want that to go away. But like I say, I don’t have all the answers but I do think that there’s more room to open this thing up if someone wants to be able to get paid to get an autograph show, if you’re selling somebody’s jersey they should get a cut of that, I mean, there’s areas that they can go into and open up and modernize without just throwing their hands in the air and saying, ‘Anybody who wants to make any money for anything can go ahead and do that.’

[End Clip]

Adam: So what you have here is you have a fucking, you have a state subsidized, monopolistic, free labor pool and you do not want to get rid of that and what they’re scared of is that in the event that you open up the door, which he’s sort of right to say, you basically will get rid of college athletics, because there’s zero objective reason other than branding why you would tether development leagues to college athletics. They don’t do this in Europe. In Europe they have development leagues and other places in Asia, this is a totally American thing, right? And what they want to do is they want to have a hybrid system where you, you maintain the sort of prestige and brand of a Michigan or Penn State because, I mean, I’m going to root for University of Texas or the University of Illinois, I’m not going to root for fucking the redbull.com fucking Tigers, it’s the, you know, there’s no, there’s no sort of mystique, there’s no romance, there’s no, you know, ‘I had my first sip of a beer and a hotdog and an Alabama game,’ you know, there’s there’s a sort of emotional connection, right? And he’s saying that if you get, if you open up the Pandora’s Box, it may cause volatility in that system and he’s right, it could.

Nima: Because the fantasy is then evaporated, but that’s kind of what we’re talking about.

Adam: Yeah, because you’re still getting, it’s still bullshit. It’s still a heavily racialized, totally fake system of not paying people. Now, I think you can do both. I think you can maintain the romance and still actually pay people, but this idea that we’re going to somehow by paying players take money away from the swimming programs or the fucking water polo team is totally not true and this has been debunked about a million times, but they’re down to the stems and seeds, right? They’re running out of arguments and so now they’re super concerned with women’s sports, they’re super concerned with non revenue generating sports, but it’s all a bullshit distraction from the fact that the boosters, people like Seth Davis, who gets paid millions of dollars to be a TV pundit from CBS, you know, in between Geico commercials and Sprite commercials, that that fucking gravy train may have to go from 90 miles an hour to 84 miles an hour, and they don’t want that, they don’t want anything that challenges the racial disciplining labor arrangement they have with these athletes.

Nima: To discuss this more we’re now going to be joined by Professor Amira Rose Davis, Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies at Penn State University. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Can’t Eat a Medal: The Lives and Labors of Black Women Athletes in the Age of Jim Crow and is the host of the sports and feminism podcast, Burn It All Down. Professor Davis will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Amira Rose Davis. Amira, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Amira Rose Davis: Yeah, absolutely. My pleasure. Thanks for reaching out.

Adam: So you’ve obviously written about this quite a bit. Specifically, the piece we mentioned earlier in The Washington Post that you wrote last year that we thought provided some much needed historical perspective with regard to student athletes involved in activism, both in terms of their own labor, but also broader social issues. Of course, they go hand in hand. I think a lot of people, especially with the Colin Kaepernick situation, they sort of thought this was a recent trend, that this was some kind of social contagion that took over during Black Lives Matter, but of course, this has never really gone away and is indeed is very, very old, many, many decades old as you lay out so clearly. So I want to begin by maybe focusing on the late ’60s and early ’70s as a kind of inciting point, an emphasis point, and how activists in that era really kind of threatened both the white supremacist establishment and also the free labor racket and as we argued those two go hand in hand, of course, they’re inextricably linked, because you really can’t have one without the other. So we want to start off by talking about the history with a focus on the late ’60s and ’70s and what lessons can be gleaned not only from their activism, but the reactionary pushback from their activism.

Amira Rose Davis

Amira Rose Davis: Yeah, I would love to and I would say that it’s a perfect place to start the conversation in general, because the earlier moments of black athletic activism in college are happening generally in two ways. They’re happening in black spaces, in black college spaces. So you have early activism in the ’30s at Howard when the football team is striking for access to better meals and dormitory accommodations, and then of course, you have a larger kind of fight for integration to predominantly white schools. So when we’re thinking about parallels to contemporary black athletic activism in collegiate spaces, really the precedent that we are reaching for is that area that you highlighted in the ’60s and ’70s, and that’s because this is where you’re gonna see that first kind of trickle of black athletes, particularly black male athletes in college basketball and college football, and black women in cheerleading spaces, which I’ll get to in a second, is definitely happening in this moment. And so what is occurring at that time, is what my friend, Frank Guridy, talks about as the sporting revolution. His great book is out now about Texas, where he talks about this changeover, where you have desegregation and you have women’s sports also doing new stuff, and in this moment, these pioneering black players at predominately white schools in the late ’60s, they’re starting to look around and notice that they don’t like a lot of the things that they see going on. They don’t like being housed in dormitories way at the edge of campus based on a fear that they would be near white women students, they don’t like that they’re the only black students on campus, that there’s no black coaches, that there’s no black history classes, very familiar concerns that you hear parroted by black college students in other places, black high school students, and so they are definitely part of a movement and a moment that’s happening outside of just these athletic spaces, but within them, you start seeing them try to mobilize. I think the big lessons that we can take from this moment in time is that varying successes really shows you how still precarious their athletic labor is, at this time period, and so when black student athletes at Oregon State are calling out the facial hair requirement and say, ‘Hey, this is racist, my hair is cultural, the dress codes are racist,’ they get kicked off the team. When 14 football players in California said, ‘Hey, we’re not going to participate in spring practices until we have more say in the team. Are you bringing black coaches? Will you stop stacking us a way from positions that are quote-unquote “skilled positions.”’ They were dismissed. They were let go. They were reprimanded. I think the highest profile case of this, of course, is the Black 14 in Wyoming who took issue with playing BYU, and the church at the time and for a while had a very, I don’t know how you want to say it, but obviously racist policy towards black folks.

Adam: Yeah, I think it was until 1978 they barred black members.

Amira Rose Davis: Yeah, I think it’s ’78. The Book of Mormon taught me that. Yeah. And so they were like, ‘Hey, we don’t want to play against them,’ and that’s a really high-profile case of course because they tried to wear black armbands, a simple strip of black armband against BYU, against that game to protest and their little armbands caused so much a commotion that they were dismissed by the team. Not only were they dismissed, but fans poured into that game at that stadium wearing yellow armbands with Eaton, the coach’s name, on them. So these 14 men then sued, insisting that they had a constitutional right to be able to wear a damn black armband and they lost that lawsuit. They were expelled. They were really just completely rendered disposable. And you see that over and over again with these early mobilizations. Syracuse is the other one I reach to because in Syracuse, nine players are like, ‘Hey, we want a black coach,’ and the school is like, ‘Sure, here’s a black coach, all of you are released,’ and so in the 1970/71 season Syracuse had one black coach and zero black players. And so I think that when you take all these examples together at the end of the ’60s and early ’70s, you see on one hand the beginnings of growing mobilization on the part of black college athletes who are now growing in number in these spaces, but also those numbers are not yet at the point where they have leverage, they’re not yet the center of the system and while we can see how They are planting seeds, how they could have that power, it’s very clear that they are easily rendered disposable, even as college sports are continuing to recruit black football talent away from black colleges, Polynesian football talent away from Hawaii and Samoa at this time, the structure is in place in a way that their efforts are not really gaining traction.

10 members of the Black 14. (University of Wyoming)

Adam: Yeah, because in a sense, it’s sort of a glitch in the Matrix, right? Like it’s the one of the very few avenues along with maybe music or other forms of entertainment at that time that had black wealth and a platform, which is why I think the aggressive racial disciplining was so prominent. This is why Paul Robeson was constantly being sanctioned and condemned by The New York Times, right? Because it was sort of a classic shut up and play. In his case, it was shut up and sing when he was protesting the Korean War, they wrote an editorial insisting he just sort of go back to being an entertainment, to be a role model for black people and if you sort of go outside of that narrow framework, the whole kind of arrangement doesn’t work and I think that’s always been why the racial disciplining is so aggressive and urgent in sports, because it does have this component, where by definition there’s a platform, by definition there’s celebrity, by definition there’s something they can’t really, there’s an X factor they can’t really control and I think we’ll talk about this later but I think that was a huge reason for why there was so much pushback against LeBron James when he started his Miami Heat super team in 2010, you know, maybe the decision wasn’t the best marketing, but I think that was a very small part of it, I think it was very much a pretext, him and a bunch of players getting together and sort of commanding the nature of a team really upended the sort of racial arrangement and I think that’s why there was so much pushback and why there was two years of kind of white AM sports collar meltdowns over this because I think it sort of offended the way things are.

Amira Rose Davis: No, I mean, I think that and I’ll just say, I think that’s 100 percent and one of the things that you can see as the sports demographics start to shift is leagues, from colleges to professional leagues, trying to figure out how to assert that disciplining. My friend Theresa Runstedtler is writing a great book about the so-called dark days of the NBA where we get dress codes and harsh enforcement of penalties and all of these harsh things that you’re pointing to like, okay, now, we know that there’s this platform, how can we still control it? And I think it’s really important to read black women into these spaces and black cheerleaders are so pivotal here, because they, by their very presence, are calling out the farce for what it is. And so one of the things that you see black cheerleaders doing is using their kind of sideline space, but very much baked into the spectacle of college football, they’re protesting during anthems, they’re putting their fists up, they’re walking off the court and the other thing they’re saying is like, what you’re interested in is black football talent, you’re interested in athletic labor. One black cheerleader that I write about in a piece about black cheerleading activism says, ‘So you want our boys to play for us but you don’t want us here,’ and one of the things that comes up again and again in these efforts of black college football and basketball players is their advocation or their outrage over the treatment of black girls either being barred from or their experience on the spirit squad, the drill teams, the cheerleading squads, because in those spaces what they’re seeing is, ‘Oh, no, you don’t want integration, you don’t want to actually fuse our dance styles and integrate the team or whatever, you want us to adapt to how you’re cheering in your kind of stale, non rhythmic way, you want us to be only one in that space,’ and then really there’s this anxiety on the part of a lot of boosters and fans that the spectacle of college football is fine with with the black people being the labor on the field, but as soon as you start putting black women on the sidelines as cheerleaders, as sexual objects, as beauty standards, all hell breaks loose in terms of being like, ‘No, this is how we’re protecting our institutions, we don’t really want you here.’ But I think that they’re so great about calling that out and they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s very clear why you’re not hiring black faculty, or caring about black student populations writ large, it is because your priorities are so clearly fucking centered on the athletic talent, how you treat us is indicative of that.’ So I think that is exactly, you know, right on what you’re saying.

Nima: I think this idea of leverage and power and precarity, but then this idea of discipline and pushback, really gets to something that that I want to ask you about, which is in January of this year, you noted on an episode of your podcast, Burn It All Down, that as a result of the protests of the late ’60s and early ’70s, the athletic departments, the powers that be really pushed back, as always happens, as we’ve been talking about, but for instance, taking away the common four year scholarship and replacing it with a one year scholarship that needed to be consistently renewed. That happened in 1973. Clearly, the implication is that this is a form of racial discipline, by way of a financial threat. So at the time, the move went largely overlooked, but as you have noticed Amira, the players knew, of course, exactly what was going on and what message was being sent. Can we talk a little bit about that move, but then also other similar, maybe subtle, maybe less so, measures that the NCAA has consistently used to control its own unpaid labor and how this precarity, this threat, this looming sword is always overhead is baked into the system as a mechanism of racial, and of course, labor control?

Amira Rose Davis: Yeah, absolutely and I really like talking about this, because I think you’ll see some similarities and parallels right off the bat. So this is one of those interesting things where it’s really instructive to listen to how athletes and other kinds of lay people interpreted this, because even if you kind of reach back and you look at this moment, in 1973, when the NCAA is gonna make a few different changes, right? There’s a way that sometimes looking back, it’s read about all of a sudden being about Title IX, right? But Title IX becomes a very convenient shield — does this sound familiar yet? — and I think that one of the things that you have happening there is that the NCAA is definitely in this sporting moment, in this sporting revolution, they’re figuring out ‘Well, how the hell do we stay relevant? Do we stay in control? Do we continue to have and hoard this power?’ And so one of the ways that they do that is to take the scholarships, to limit the number of football scholarships that you could have at a college. So, instead of unlimited, now, colleges were reduced to only having 105 football scholarships, limiting basketball scholarships to 18, but the most important thing is that all athletic scholarship were only going to be one year contracts, and of course, this shifts the balance of power so clearly to coaching staff, to admins, to the schools, right? Because if you have a bad year, your scholarship is in jeopardy, but also, if you talk back to your coach, if you raise the issue of wanting a black history class, if they catch you at a protest, you can see how more precarious athletic labor became for college athletes if they’re on a one year contract that’s not guaranteed to be renewed and I think that this is still a system that people grapple with today in terms of the dangers of injury or being replaced or the way that it’s hard to have any kind of power or leverage within the system that really isn’t guaranteeing your survival in it. But one of the things that I do think is really important to understand is that this is coming after multiple years of increasing protests speaking out, mobilizations by black athletes, and this idea that like, ‘Oh, this is a decision that’s like really influenced by Title IX,’ I think is like a little bit more convenient than historically accurate, because Title IX, yes, is passed in 1972, but they are arguing it, the NCAA is going to spend years trying to avoid having anything to do with Title IX. So certainly not in January of 1973 are they like, ‘Oh, this is the main basis.’ They are though, it’s not completely out of the conversation, they are saying, ‘Okay, clearly, we’re in the midst of a lot of change, how can we think about reaching for the reins and making sure we have them as all these things are changing?’ And so I think that this is why it’s great to have these complicated lenses that we look through because we can see how it’s the combination of the threat of women’s sports and the equity needed, the growing threat of athletic power, the growing presence of black athletes, all of these things absolutely have the NCAA quivering and figuring out like, ‘Okay, how do we really assert ourselves?’ And, I mean, if they’re good at one thing it’s figuring out how to retain power and holding on for dear life.

Adam: Right and it’s totally a legalized, free labor market, which is sanctioned by the federal government, which is almost unheard of. So I want to fast forward to today where, you know, Nima and I watch March Madness on CBS, both men and women’s, and they’re still not being paid.

Amira Rose Davis: If you watch women’s, it wasn’t March Madness, you know, because they won’t let them have that designation.

Eric Gay / AP

Adam: Oh right, sorry. It’s ESPN. You’re right. The women’s tournament is on ESPN, not CBS.

Nima: It was like, “The Women’s Tournament,” with no additional information.

Amira Rose Davis: Exactly. But you know what, this is what’s wild because our assumption has been for years that this was actually a corporate thing, right? Like CBS had trademarked this and that’s why. No, actually when you dig into it, they were actually able to apply March Madness to the women’s tourney as well, they just didn’t, they just refused. So it’s actually not a corporate issue that for many years, especially people like us in the industry, we’re just like, ‘Oh, yeah, like that CBS.’ No, apparently it’s not. But yeah, just a mess.

Adam: That makes sense.

Amira Rose Davis: Yeah, layers of mess.

Adam: So I want to fast forward to today because obviously they’re not getting paid and it’s strange, because it’ll last 10 years. I think there’s been a kind of consensus now to at least pay lip service to players needing to be paid. Even Jay Bilas is sort of a down-the-middle, normie basketball analyst, occasionally he’ll say we need to pay these players, and it’s now sort of accepted, I think, except for a few holdout kind of Tim Tebow types, and some other anti-labor pundits they have, but it’s kind of consensus, at least in liberal circles, that it’s politically correct on corporate TV to say, the players should have some kind of compensation. Yet, you see this Dove campaign during the men’s tournament that had a #celebrateblackmen campaign, where they said, we’re gonna celebrate black men and they sort of go through the roster of black men who’ve played NCAA sports, and were successful, but of course, they want to celebrate black men, but they don’t want to pay them. There’s no effort on the part of this corporation that extensively supports black men to actually compensate them for their labor. And we saw this since the George Floyd protests, all these sorts of corporations adjusted towards racial justice language, but here you have this glaring racial injustice issue, which is free labor and there really isn’t, the corporation’s don’t come out in support of that. So I want to talk about where the kind of momentum is today because it seems like nothing’s really changed, that there’s a lot of lip service, no real movement, no real substance, certainly none of these corporations who make a killing off of not paying these players are going to say anything about it despite all their, you know, kind of cynical hashtag marketing campaigns. So I want to get an update about what’s happening today. I know there’s been a ton of legal challenges, I know California is pushing this, where players can monetize their own brand and image name, I know that’s sort of on a 510 year rollout plan, but it’s apparently going to be happening somewhat soon, and it seems like there’s this thing where we all sort of acknowledge it’s bad and evil, but then we go on and talk about Oral Roberts and what a great upset they just had.

Amira Rose Davis: If you had asked me this a year ago, I would have been like 10 years, we’re probably still, you know, moving like molasses. This year has been weird, I have to tell you. I think that the pressure is mounting on things that are going to push and challenge the NCAA in ways that it hasn’t been pushed for years. I never count the NCAA out in being able to somehow still figure out how to still remain on top and in power, right? How much can they give while still carrying most of it? I will say there’s two different things. I think the conversation isn’t as agreed upon as we would hope because there’s still people who are parroting the same kind of narratives about benevolence and education and blah, blah, blah, blah. I think they’re definitely becoming smaller in number, but they’re very vocal, and they’re there. I just think that those arguments have been much harder to make in the face of some of the things we’ve seen over the last year, right? COVID really lays bare a lot of these kinds of lies we tell ourselves about sports so how can you argue that the main job of an athlete, a college athlete, is to be a student first when UNC is sending all the students home but keeping the athletes, right? There’s all of these ways that the pursuit of profit and maintaining that profit in the fall especially, was very clearly demonstrating where the investment is, I mean, at my university, at Penn State, in a year where staff has been furloughed, in a year where admissions are down, in a year where even the athletic department was furloughing people and figuring out, they’re running on a deficit, the Board of Trustees still overwhelmingly voted to approve a $48.3 million plan that is renovating the lobby and adding in some, you know, tech wizard or something in the football building that needs to borrow funds from the university to start construction and that is very clearly built on this idea, this logic, right? That investment in the football facilities, even of that magnitude, is going to help recruitment, which is going to make the team better, which is going to make the university more desirable. That is the logic that underwrites those decisions. And so I think COVID really made a lot of this so clear, that it’s hard to have that position, and so what happens then, is that people move to a more molasses-like reform mentality, which, you know, it’s appropriate that you talked about George Floyd because I think you can see this in the same way that people talk about social justice, right? Which is this general sense that this is not right, but very easily appeased by incremental things like, ‘This is not right, but — ’

Nima: But doing anything about it is also really hard.

Amira Rose Davis: Exactly. It’s very difficult, you know?

Adam: Right. It goes to the PR corporate laundromat and by the time it comes out the other end it’s the Dove ad.

Amira Rose Davis: Exactly. You’re just wearing “equality” or you’re painting “end racism.” I’m like, Oh, my God.

Nima: It’s a Pepsi given to a cop at a protest.

Amira Rose Davis: Right, exactly.

Adam: Yeah, right. Yeah. We somehow went from Abolish the Police to Defund the Police to Black Lives Matter to education reform on the back of the jersey.

Amira Rose Davis: And not even like education reform, it will just be like “education.”

Adam: Yeah, it’s like “equality,” you know, it’s so generic. Who’s going to oppose equality?

Amira Rose Davis: Exactly.

Adam: I mean, the way the whole thing got watered down by the NBA because they got ahead of it, you know?

Amira Rose Davis: Right.

Adam: There were labor strikes, and maybe we’re digressing a little bit, but you know, they wanted to get ahead of these labor strikes and that was quickly aged and undermined by the powers that be because that cannot happen. That fucking gravy train can not stop running on time, right?

Amira Rose Davis: Precisely.

Adam: You can have, they’ll let you have the slogans and the images and the hashtags, but you can’t actually stop labor. You cannot stop the gravy train.

Amira Rose Davis: And I think in college sports absolutely this is what they were trying to juggle with COVID, right? I mean, listen, I get the economics of it. I live in a football town. I live in a college town, town and gown. I live in a place where not having the blue and white practice spring game last year cost the town a deficit of $1.4 million, right? I watched businesses board up because of that one weekend alone, but it also probably tells you that you cannot build your economy on the house of cards of unpaid labor, right? This is not what you build all of this system on and so what is threatening that is not only COVID, but then this kind of moment, this pause that allowed athletes to be like, ‘Hey, actually,’ like when people like Mike Gundy are saying, ‘Hey, I don’t care if my players get sick, they’re young, they’ll get over it and we need money to run through the state of Oklahoma again,’ you’re saying the quiet part out loud, right? And this is one of the things that we saw going on in college, compounded with the racial dynamics, compounded with what we saw over the summer, and so then it also emboldened people like Kylin Hill to be like, ‘You know what, I’m not going to play football in the state of Mississippi until you do something about your flag.’ And I think that what we have seen in this last year, and even in the professional ranks, we talked about the 48-hour wildcat strike, we can kind of point to this and see that shift of the threat, that possibility of collective action, especially within college athletics. Now, it’s really hard to do, it’s really hard to mobilize, it’s really hard to bring together, but we have seen flashes of this before, right? In 2005, black students and community members had been for a year tirelessly lodging complaints and trying to draw attention to racist happenings that were going overlooked by the administration who weren’t taking action and ensuring the safety of black students at the University of Missouri, and despite protesting for a year and mobilizing for a year and multiple range of tactics, it wasn’t really going anywhere until they started mobilizing and reaching out to members of the football team. Then, of course, midweek, the football team said, ‘Hey, we’re not going to play in the game this weekend, unless something happens,’ and in 48 hours resignations were attended, in 48 hours people were stepping down, and in that moment, you saw that not only the football team standing together, but standing and amplifying what was happening on the broader campus and also their coaching staff stood with them. And so while everybody focused on this moment, it was kind of applauded, they stood up for what is right, etcetera, etcetera, secretly, the University of Missouri wrote into contracts moving forward that head coaches would not be able to stand in solidarity with their players, right? And so those are the quiet ways that we kind of lose sight of how power is reasserting itself, even in these moments of possibility and I think that that’s what we’ve also seen this year, from players saying, ‘Hey, we’re not gonna play until you answer at least these questions about COVID or you do X or you do Y or you do Z,’ and we’ve seen that breadcrumbs, whether their names on jerseys or a day of action or something is thrown at it enough to be like, ‘How much can we give to get them playing again, to get that money flowing again, to get people distracted again,’ and how hard it is to sustain that mobilization effort past those initial moments and that’s also what we saw over this year, but I think it’s undeniable that there’s such potential in that collective action at this point.

Nima: You know, talking about the stuff on jerseys — Equality, Education — we talk on the show a lot about, of course as media criticism, show the way words are used. So kind of building on this, you know, one of the tropes that we discussed earlier on the show, and I’d love to ask you about is this constant patronizing, head patting, commentary during the games themselves. If you watch college sports, you’ll obviously recognize this kind of thing, play-by-play, color commentators, other on air pundits, routinely talking about athletes in their early 20s as kids, right? The kids, ‘Look at these kids today,’ discussing their GPAs on air, talking about, you know, the amazing men and women that they’ve become through this process of growth through sports, and generally pushing, and this is in ad campaigns, but also, of course, in the commentary itself. This ideology of the “student athlete” as this noble, worthy cause. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes not, but it’s definitely powerful. The basic premise of course, being that like these quote-unquote “kids” are just kind of lucky to be there and certainly that the NCAA is maybe just some few years long, altruistic self-improvement seminar for the lucky kids that get to be a part of it. So I really want to ask, how does this heavily racialized infantilization process just help rationalize, even unintentionally, if we are generous, the free labor racket that the NCAA has set up and diligently maintains and maybe most important of all why is something like a student’s GPA when that student or that say, athlete, who’s not being paid, is making Pepsi or certainly their own schools, millions of fucking dollars, why is their grade point average anyone’s fucking business?

Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks. (Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)

Amira Rose Davis: Yeah, no, it’s a great question and words absolutely matter and I think that one of the things that we can see here is the tone matters, the context matters. This is why I like so much how you talk about how we can really think about and chew on words, because the way that kids are used when you’re talking about in game commentary is not that same way at all, right? It’s used in a way to reprimand, it’s used in a way to insist on like you said infantilization, but also this idea that they are lost in this house, they know, not what they ask, right? Like they don’t, they don’t realize they’re getting education, they don’t know priorities. And you’re absolutely right that this idea of condescension when people are talking down, whether they’re saying kids or not, but if they’re using a tone to somehow imply that they know better, and that they can see that this system is clearly working, and that these students would only get that when they grow up, right? Or they are just so distracted by this idea of people manipulating them or telling them they need more, and I think that a lot of times this is used to also drown out the voices of athletes, right? To dismiss them to say, ‘Look, you’re only good with what you do with your body and not what you say with your mind.’ So when people say, ‘Hey, I’m housing insecure, I can’t eat, I go to bed hungry or this is not sufficient or let me talk to you about abuses I’m seeing within the system,’ whatever, it’s easily shushed. If you say, ‘Oh, they’re just dumb kids, they don’t know what they say,’ but the other thing that you brought up that’s really important to mention before talking about language, is the idea of a student athlete itself. Because absolutely right, the way that it’s yielded and if you watch any of these games, you’re gonna see those commercials.

Nima: ‘Only X percent of student athletes go pro.’

Amira Rose Davis: Exactly and it’s benevolent in this way that is continuing to run with the idea that student athlete is somehow a term that protects amateurism or is anything other than what it actually is in its origin, which is a way to defend against workers compensation claims. And so legally the term that was invented was student athlete. It was a legal defense to say, ‘Well, the contract was to play football, but it was really to be a student and they’re “students” before they’re “-athletes,” so any injury they get is not really about them performing labor or working, but it’s just like what happens when you’re a student.’

Nima: Yeah, it was slipping in the hallway.

Amira Rose Davis: Exactly. This holds. By the 1980s, the people on the main team who came up with that term are like, ‘Okay, chill, we didn’t mean for it to become what you’re using it for, like this was the legal defense and now it’s the epicenter of all these wrapped up romantic ideas of what college sports is,’ and you’ll notice, like I try to say college athletes, right? I try not to invoke that word, because the way that it is even in rotation now, that we’ve all kind of just put it into our lexicon and come to accept it is really inheriting this idea that is at its core a legal shield for paying workers compensation benefits and so anytime if you hear the word student athlete and you hear romance baked into that, know that that is all farce and spectacle and gussying up of what at its core is a defense of exploitation.

Adam: Yeah because let’s be honest, if 80 percent of the people not getting paid here were white over the last 50, 60, 70 years, let’s be honest, we would not be having this conversation.

Amira Rose Davis: Right.

Adam: I think it’s fair to assume, because there’s just no way that this would have sustained if the people not getting paid looked like me and Mark Zuckerberg, right?

Amira Rose Davis: Precisely.

Adam: And I think this racial component really creates a feedback loop that they’re just not going to pay anyone which leads me to my next question, which is the pro unpaid labor camp, now much like the transphobic crowd, suddenly the hearts bleed and they’re very concerned with women’s sports. They’re all suddenly very concerned about the solvency of women’s sports and Title IX and so a new argument you see trotted out a lot, because again, I think they’re sort of running out of arguments, is that paying athletes will harm women athletes and women’s sports, and I want to talk about that for a second. I know a future Hall-of-Famer Chris Bosh recently wrote an article in The Players’ Tribune about why players should get paid and he said that it’s even more skewed against women athletes, quote, “Not only are women’s basketball players unable to profit from their incredible contributions to the college game — they’re still having to fight for basic levels of equality in terms of treatment, coverage and respect.” So I want to talk about the sudden concern for the solvency of women’s sports from the unpaid labor crowd and what do you say to it? How much bullshit it is, and we can be slightly prescriptive here, from your perspective, what would a paid system look like and why should maybe these sudden concerns trolls about gender equality? Why are they full of it?

Amira Rose Davis: Yeah, it’s all the bullshit. You said it exactly right. It’s a shield and I think that first and foremost doing away with an exploit system helps all college athletes in revenue sports and non revenue sports and let’s be very clear about what the actual infrastructure and economics of college sports looks like, because sometimes we clump it in in a way that we really don’t understand. College football stands alone at the top of what is going on, even on paper, it’s not going to look like they’re generating all this revenue, because they’re very good at also spending, right? Have you seen LSU’s locker room? Have you seen Alabama’s spa, right? And then you’re gonna have college basketball, men’s college basketball, and then you’re gonna have a little bit of drop off into growing revenue sports, like women’s softball, like hockey, and the campus by campus, this is going to shift a little and then you’re going to have a cluster of the other sports. So in general, what you really have is college football, and occasionally college basketball, subsidizing the entire infrastructure, not just women’s sports, but they’re the ones who are going to kind of get called out and targeted as if they are just inheriting this alone, right? So first and foremost, when we’re talking about a paid college athletic structure and what’s on the table now what we’re dealing with is name, image and likeness. So these benefits, or really deregulation of this, benefit women athletes too. I mean, act like you’re not on Twitter every other week, when a gymnast from UCLA’s story gymnastics programs goes viral with a perfect 10 and a really dope floor routine. Tell me that a college athlete, if you watched, you know, the women’s tournament, who had a beat face and lashes that somehow stayed on all game could not pop over to Instagram where there are millions of followers on their account and endorsed a lash glue, right? Of course, all of these avenues for college athletes of all stripes to participate in the so-called free market, and so the idea that, ‘Oh, women’s sports are going to be hampered by that.’ No, first of all, athletes, especially in Olympic sports who have the chance to compete at the Olympic level and then right now have to choose, do I go for my elite dream or do I stay in college? Don’t. What would it look like for Simone Biles to come back with all her endorsements and then still get to go to school? I think that these are some of the ways where we can very clearly see that everybody is really being hurt by this, not just black men and in college basketball and college football, this is especially important because for college women’s sports, this is a really prime moment to be able to lean into exposure in a way where your professional future is certainly not guaranteed, and right now, there’s not an infrastructure for all the talent we have. We just have the WNBA Draft, there’s maybe like 12 to 14 roster spots in the league right now. That’s not half of the first round, right? There’s just a huge drop off after college. So there’s a lot of opportunity there, you know, Bosh is absolutely right, that they stand to gain a lot from rethinking and rebooting the system. I think it just requires us to think more expansively about these preconceived notions we have about the apparatus of college sports. So the other thing that we saw today, of course, is, you know, if you were paying attention to the tournament, the basketball tournament and you notice some of the disparities, maybe you watched Sedona’s TikTok where you saw the disparity in weight equipment, maybe you saw the food, but there’s other things.

My little cousin plays for Texas A&M, you know, I was facetiming her and looking at their food, but also more concerned about the fact they weren’t given access to the same COVID tests, right? They weren’t given access to the rapid response PCR tests that were available at the men’s tournament, and the NCAA was like, ‘Oh, well, San Antonio didn’t have the facilities to do it,’ and Dan Solomon from Texas Monthly pointed out that San Antonio actually built a facility specifically to process PCR tests a few months earlier, right? And so there was like, things like that, like the NCAA deciding to count nursing infants against the team allotments, despite spending all of March saying, ‘It Women’s History Month, and we’re empowering women coaches,’ and stuff like that. Well, you have women coaches who are literally feeding, Adia Barnes, you know, coaching her team into the final is late coming out of the locker room at halftime because she is pumping for her child who counts against her allotment for personnel she can bring into these bubbled spaces, because you actually don’t give a damn about your coaches and your women and these things. Also, if you go up to Division II level, the women in Division II had very menial things. You can switch sports, volleyball tournaments are happening right now, at the beginning of the volleyball tournament people called attention to the fact that women’s volleyball for the first two rounds did not have any commentators assigned to it and they were like, ‘We don’t have the personnel. We don’t have the personnel.’ It trended for like half a day and suddenly they found all the personnel to staff the first two rounds of the game. But more concerning than that, some of the mats and the practice floors were on concrete flooring. Volleyball. Some of the facilities which they assigned to teams to play these rounds didn’t have locker room facilities and so they quickly said, ‘Oh, no, no, just to clarify, we were never going to make them change out in the open.’ Like they were like creating these spaces but everything is so clearly reactionary. You cannot help but say, oh, there’s a pattern here. And I think that part of what it compels us to understand a lot of people when this happened, were saying, ‘Oh, Professor Davis, Professor Davis, like why isn’t this a Title IX violation?’ It’s like, oh, well, because there’s a lawsuit in the ’90s that said that, like actually, the NCAA doesn’t need to adhere to Title IX, because even though they take a lot of money from member institutions, it doesn’t touch them, it doesn’t apply to them and so I think that part of thinking about a reboot of the system, and not this kind of molasses-like reform, but actually rebooting it, that talks about what pay equity looks like, that talks about a lot of resources, that talks about how we think about racial disparities, that talks about really uprooting these foundations of college sports, doing away with these romantic narratives and dealing with actually what it is and finding meaning in that that actually is for the collective and not just patting the the profits of a few and that’s what’s required, because these issues are pervasive, and overlapping and continuing and definitely on display during the COVID year, and as we’re kind of slowly approaching normalcy, I think that the power of sports is that you get a little bit of sport washing, and all of a sudden you get distracted because you get into the thrill of Jaelyn’s shot, you want to debate if DeJanet was fouled or not. Sports draws you in and so we avert our eyes and that’s I think a little bit of what they’re betting on, is how can they slink out of the limelight and I think our purpose and our thing is to keep, you know, we like fire metaphors on Burn It All Down, that segues to my podcast, but to keep their their feet to the flame and saying like, ‘Well actually this is really fucked up and we need to do more.’

Nima: Yeah. Look, this has all been so amazing. Amira, can you tell us a bit about what you all have going on at the Burn It All Down podcast and where folks can check that out?

Amira Rose Davis: Yeah, so our podcast Burn It All Down, my co-hosts Jessica Luthor, Shireen Ahmed, Lindsay Gibbs and Brenda Elsey, we bring you two episodes a week. On Tuesdays we drop a segment that features us talking about a variety of things in sports, like talking about Qatar and the World Cup and awful human rights violations there. And we talked about the evolution and politics of sporting uniforms, because new kits dropped that were fire, we want to place them in the longer conversation. Then we also, of course, burn all of the trash things that happened in sports that week, and there’s always things to go on the burn pile and then we lift up some torchbearers who are really getting it right and blazing a trail through the sporting worlds. And then on Thursday, we drop an extended interview with a number of people connected to sports. We’ve had a few authors of new books. Our friend Andrew Maraniss is talking about Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke, openly gay baseball player. My friend Frank Guridy. I talked to Meghan Klingenberg, a professional soccer player, about the lifestyle brand Re-inc that she founded with her teammates Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Christen Press which is a gender-neutral lifestyle brand that dropped a new line called Gamer so I talked to Meg. We have hot takes up about stop Asian hate beyond sports featuring Dr. Courtney Szto and Alex Wong. I did a hot take with Andraya Carter with WNBA nitty gritty draft preview. So we do game analysis as well. And of course, we’ve had ongoing content about the NCAA. So Episode 200 actually, we hit our 200th episode, and that was all about the NCAA appearing in the Supreme Court and so if you want more of this kind of conversation, I would check out Episode 200. If you’re interested, we have a hot take about the anti-trans legislations, which I think are really an important conversation to have, and I can’t advocate for checking out that enough and I can’t wait to see what my co-hosts are gonna drop this week. But I did some really dope interviews with some folks talking about the history of women in wrestling, so we’re doing a little WWE action, so definitely stay tuned.

Nima: Uh-oh. That’s my shit.

Adam: Yeah, that’s Nima’s thing.

Amira Rose Davis: Yes.

Nima: We’ll have to talk about Sherri Martel at a different point. But before I let you go, tell us a little bit about the book that you have coming out.

Amira Rose Davis: Yeah, so my book Can’t Eat a Medal: The Lives and Labors of Black Women Athletes in the Age of Jim Crow looks at a longer history of black women in sports from the early 20th century to this kind of dawn of Title IX and it tracks the ideological and institutional development of sporting opportunities and it goes beyond some of the names we might know like Wilma Rudolph, but doesn’t just leave her alone, but actually shows more of her story. So there’s a little bit of everything there, and particularly, there’s a chapter on the long history of black women’s athletic activism, which I’m sure will be of interest, there is stuff about this sporting revolution I was talking about in the ’70s with black women and early black women professional athletes, I write about three women who played baseball in negroe leagues with men, I write about the, you know, pioneering black women figure skaters and wrestlers and bowlers of the ’30s and ’40s. It’s a lot of fun, I really enjoy the history and my kind of general takeaway is that there’s a way that black women are really useful symbols and we see them and yet we also render them invisible. So sometimes we can think about black women having a sporting history if we think about Althea, if we think about Wilma, if we think about Flo-Jo, we think about Serena, but that’s all. We know just individual names and part of what I’m trying to do is peel back the curtain a little bit more to show the infrastructures from which the names we know are right beside the names that have been forgotten to history. So you can check it out hopefully next year, COVID delayed a little bit, but keep your eye out because it will definitely be, you know, on its way to you soon.

Nima: Well, that is all amazing. We have been speaking with Professor Amira Rose Davis, Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies at Penn State University, author of the forthcoming book Can’t Eat a Medal: The Lives and Labors of Black Women Athletes in the Age of Jim Crow, and of course, the co-host of the sports and feminism podcast, Burn It All Down. Amira, thank you so much again and again and again for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Amira Rose Davis: Yeah, thanks for having me. It was a blast.


Adam: Yeah, I think that, again, this is an issue of how we frame who it’s morally incumbent upon to take the burden of these systems. It’s always, the double standard, one thing we didn’t spend a lot of time getting into, but it’s really a great illustration of this is how the double standard between players maximizing their economic utility versus owners is covered. So the owner of the Seattle SuperSonics, who capriciously moved the beloved basketball franchise to Oklahoma —

Nima: Oklahoma, yeah.

Former Seattle Sonics owner Howard Schultz, left, with current owner Clayton Bennett, right, who moved the team to Oklahoma City. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Adam: Is sort of maybe given a little criticism here and there, but it’s not really centralized. Meanwhile, Kevin Durant, who played for Oklahoma, takes the paycheck to go into championship to play for Golden State and the media meltdown for years about how he’s titled chasing and just in it for the money and how he portrayed Oklahoma and this is something you see over and over again, the players are greedy, they’re asking too much money. My favorite trope, which we unfortunately did not have time to get into, but we will probably get into it at some point, is that anytime there’s the need to publicly subsidize a stadium, the billionaires say, ‘The players are asking for too much money, I can’t afford to build the stadium.’

Nima: With like the empty pocket pull-out by the Monopoly Man.

Adam: I mean, the narrative alone, which again, could be its own episode, and probably will be at some point, the way that owners manipulate the media is fucking amazing. Just billion-dollar stadiums subsidized, but also, ticket prices go up they say, ‘I have to compensate for the new high salaries.’

Nima: Right.

Adam: Which is a total joke, because any adjunct economist professor will tell you that the owner is going to charge whatever he can charge, regardless of what his expenses are, because all the money’s going to go to him anyway. So again, we see the way there’s double standards, anti-labor, again, heavily racialized double standard plays out and I do think it begins to inform broader perceptions of labor in unions, especially unions that historically have been racialized, like urban teachers’ unions, and like nurses’ unions, that there’s a sense of laziness and greed, oh, and public-sector unions and the US Post Office, and I think sports provide much of the ideological reinforcement of that perception, which is why when scabs like J.J. Watt — I’m not going to go on another J.J. Watt rant, I promise. I really don’t like that man — this is why rants like J.J. Watt’s go viral because they reinforce these racialized anti-labor tropes, which are so easily packaged and digested so people go, ‘You know what, he’s right. They are fucking lazy and they didn’t try.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, the ticket prices, he’s like the ticket prices,’ they’re paying all this money for ticket prices and it’s like, yeah, dickhead, who do you think sets the ticket prices? If your team’s dogshit and the owners can’t build a decent team, then you should be yelling at them, not the fucking players for not putting their bodies on the line.

Nima: But what it also does is it really kind of links the idea of dissent and organizing against, say, some of the worst parts of professional and of course, college sports, it then turns that into the ‘shut up and play,’ right? ‘You’re making all this money, can’t you just, you know, like, adhere to what the fans want, you’re here for them, you have the privilege to be here, this is not about anything that you want, because you already have it so good,’ and whether that’s you have it’s so good, because you’re gonna get a college degree that you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise and you have a dorm room, all the way up to ‘Let’s not talk about anything that has to do with police brutality when it comes to sports, because that’s just not the place for that. Shut up and play. Be thankful and be silent.’ And that always has not only implications on class, but of course, always for race. I mean, one of the things we didn’t touch on is in a number of states across the country, one of, if not the highest, paid public employee is the State University basketball coach. So I mean, who is reaping the benefits for this? Who is allowed to be the face of an institution and what does that institution quote-unquote “deserve” per the NCAA bylaws, as opposed to the face of the game and who is allowed to reap the benefit from the faces of the games that are deemed to be transitory, they are not the permanent part of it and therefore, are just as expendable.

Adam: Basically, this whole episode was a thinly veiled pretense for me to —

Nima: To talk about Tim Tebow and J.J. Watt.

Adam: To talk about how much I hate J.J. Watt and Tim Tebow.

Nima: That’s really all it was.

Adam: I have weird hate sports beefs I needed to exercise and I use the thin patina of leftist ideology to do it. But yeah, I think at the end of the day all this is about pitting precarious or middle class or working class whites against seemingly bourgeois or wealthy blacks, who of course, a lot of them aren’t because again, if you average it out, they’re not and this kind of ‘Let’s all sort of pit each other against each other’ without no one talking about the owners who largely remain anonymous and unscrutinized and I think that’s an extension of an allegory for how right-wing populism works which is we never sort of direct our anger towards the author of our suffering. It’s always these kind of powerless, relatively powerless or obscure, uppity black athletes who are the reason I have to pay so much or the reason my team lost and and I think that does begin to permeate into other anti-labor perceptions.

Nima: That will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you, everyone, for listening. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated, we are 100 percent listener funded and as always, a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, May 19, 2021.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.