The money rules of college sports are simple. Stakeholders of the game — the NCAA, colleges, athletic departments, coaches, media, and more — rake in billions of dollars, annually. Meanwhile, so-called student-athletes responsible for driving said billion dollar revenues are entirely cut out of any of the profits earned. What results is exploitation of student-athletes, corruption, and a litany of college sports scandals. It’s a decades-old issue requiring reform.
Co-authors Kenneth L. Shropshire (CEO of the Global Sport Institute and the adidas Distinguished Professor of Global Sport at Arizona State University) and Collin D. Williams, Jr. (Director of Leadership and Education Programs in the South region for RISE, the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality) attack the problem head on in their newly published book, The Miseducation of the Student Athlete: How to Fix College Sports. Shropshire and Williams not only identify the core challenges facing the NCAA, its member institutions and student-athletes, but most importantly, the co-authors present an action plan, The Student-Athlete Manifesto, that serves as a “roadmap to increase the likelihood that student-athletes can succeed both on and off the field,” beginning with the prioritization of a meaningful education and improved post-athletic career preparedness.
After digesting 70-pages of their bold call-to-action, I had the privilege to speak with Shropshire and Williams. We discussed why it’s important to highlight the racial and cultural statistics associated with the Division 1 college sports landscape, an aspect that I feel is often omitted from the discussion; whether student-athletes should be paid; and if their Manifesto will indeed “fix” the corruption in college sports.
Below is a snapshot of our conversation. Dive into the discussion and order a copy of The Miseducation of the Student Athlete for yourself. It’s a thought-provoking read that successfully provides the framework to shift the cultural narrative of college sports back to education, while also presenting historical context and statistical facts to support its recommendation.
ASE: When the topic of “fixing” college athletics is debated by mainstream media, racial and cultural implications are rarely discussed. However, your book doesn’t waste any time addressing that the majority of Division 1 basketball and football athletes are Black. Why was it necessary to include race and culture in the discussion from the outset?
Shropshire: That’s a deep question. Don’t you have to? I say that having read a lot of other people’s work that doesn’t deal with it. Black people and scholars have always addressed this issue in some way. The first formal scholarly addressing of it, in my mind, is Dr. Harry Edwards, who kind of founded the psychology of sports in the mid-60s and began to say we have to talk about this issue too. Unfortunately, we’ve been talking about it a lot. I could name a lot of scholars talking about it. Then, Taylor Branch writes a piece in The Atlantic, The Shame of College Sports. I wish I had saved the calls and emails from the scholars who had been thinking about this for a while saying, ‘Here we go again, Columbus discovered America.’ This is something we’ve been saying all along and here we have this white, world-renowned scholar say it…and in some ways, that’s a good thing. The bad thing is that in some kind of way he becomes the voice. He, in a less articulate way than Bill Rhoden, maybe two or three years before in Forty Million Dollar Slaves, articulates this whole plantation analysis. And frankly, I don’t think as many people paid attention to that as they did Taylor Branch saying essentially the same thing over again.
ASE: You share the title of the book was inspired by Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro. You also reference his theory of “back-door thinking”, which I believe has long term effects on athletes well beyond college. We’re seeing that with today’s NFL and the divide that protests have caused among current and retired players. Additionally, you acknowledge that one can be miseducated even with a degree; a statement that I support. What I wonder, however, is how does the manifesto address shifting the “back-door thinking” mindset of these athletes?
Williams: One thing that the manifesto does is open up greater realm of possibilities for all student athletes. There are narrow opportunities for these young men and women to make decisions and choices to sit down and develop critical thinking skills, as opposed to having very rigid schedules and decisions being made for them. We really emphasize each athlete on an individual basis thinking through the things they really want to do. Thinking about who they want to become, not just as athletes but as people, and helping them to make decisions about their future. To go through processes in a different way. Looking at the long term possibilities, we start to empower them to look beyond just sport. We want to have them think about what’s to happen later and bring that awakening to them sooner so it’s not something that’s too late.
Shropshire: Our hope is that it’s a conversation shifter to systemic change in the way reforming NCAA college sports is thought about. The idea of rewarding coaches or athletic directors for the number of students that graduate is not the answer. Paying the kids is not the answer. It really is a more holistic approach to making sure these men and women are ok. That they’re going to be ok going on with life after they’ve spent this moment of time doing this thing that they love to do.
ASE: Are you for or against student athletes getting paid?
Shropshire: I think it could be a good thing, but I don’t think there’s any money left if we do all of the things we say to do. There are a number of priorities that take precedence in terms of spending. But I have no problem with the idea of doing it. It’s just where does it sit on the priority list.
Williams: Similarly, I don’t think student athletes should not be paid. I really do think it’s about prioritizing. I think there are some extenuating circumstances in which student athletes may need funds to live standard student life, right? So there are kids who are coming there who have parents who are at home that are really struggling to get by, things that really impact their ability to be a student or an athlete. I also just have the fear that some might see payment as the catch all. And money, in my time working in player engagement in the NFL, if you have certain problems, adding money to that problem only increases them. It doesn’t really solve them…
ASE: Like Biggie said, mo’ money, mo’ problems, right?
Williams: …yeah, mo’ money, mo’ problems. Because now you’re a target. I don’t think money without, again, critical thinking, without the know-how, without the savvy of what to do with that money really helps. So, like Ken said, it’s really about focusing on the priority which is getting these folks meaningfully educated so that they can, when the money comes around, make the types of decisions that will add to their quality of life.
ASE: I understand the emphasis and prioritization on education, and holding the NCAA and these schools/programs accountable. After all, these are educational institutions. But does the manifesto also solve the issue of players feeling like they need money to support themselves and their families…now? And will that eliminate them from taking money until they’re in a better position to provide for their family through making it to the league?
Shropshire: That’s a good question. There are exceptions, but everybody needs more money. And everybody can take on the burden of their family to varying degrees. So, what would the ideal be? The ideal would be the manifesto and money. And again, there’s nothing wrong with that [paying student athletes]. They’re doing another basketball issues committee with Condi Rice. They did one about 20-plus years ago. I was on there, and Dean Smith was on, and all of these big time people, and me as a kid. One of the discussions we had was should we, and so this was the late 80s, should we pay college basketball players? And I remember the discussion came around to how much would we have to pay them to keep the problems away. And the conclusion was, on our end there was no formal analysis, but you know we couldn’t figure out what the right number is to pay anybody. If we came up with one number, would that be enough? If we made that number big enough then we’re paying the pros. So, is this something that can really practically be done? The answer is sure, if you could put more money in, that’s great. And if you can provide more freedom for kids to go to the professional opportunities where they can get paid earlier, get rid of the one and done…things like that. Those, in my mind, are good things that provide options and opportunities. So, nothing’s wrong with it. Again the question is, is there enough money in there to do what we say is the first part, and then get to this other one?
ASE: Do you believe if the majority of D1 football and basketball athletes weren’t Black, we’d be closer to “fixing” the system?
Williams: I can’t say yes to that. Part of capitalism is somebody’s winning and somebody’s losing. It’s a zero sum game to some extent. For somebody to make a lot of money there’s somebody who has to be undervalued for whatever type of labor that they’re doing. So were it uneducated white men from rural parts of the country, I don’t think that we would see anything differently. I don’t think it’s, we don’t care about them specifically because they’re black men. I just think that based upon the limited opportunities in other parts of our economy, like education for example, that people gravitate to sport as their way out whatever scenario they’re in. Whoever it is that’s poor and doesn’t see themselves as a lawyer, a doctor or in any sort of field that can elevate them, I think sport can become that route for them.
ASE: Who do you hope benefits most from The Miseducation of the Student Athlete?
Williams: I really hope student athletes, particularly D1 athletes. The guys playing basketball and football. I want them to recognize the realities and the outcomes, and not to push them aside. I worked with the NFL, with the Ravens. In that role we helped guys transition from college into the NFL, and then throughout the NFL, and then helped them transition to their next lives and their next career. Too often, what I saw, and this was across the league, was that no one was ready to play their last down. You kind of get kicked out of the NFL. Most guys don’t walk away from it. Very rarely will someone walk away. Even the guys that are excellent. That are elite, that have played 10 years. Which is like a miniscule percentage. Even then, when it’s time to go, it’s time to go. And as we say in the book, an athlete dies two deaths. The first is when he has to retire from his sport. So, I really, really want to help bring this reality to more athletes sooner, so they can start to build the relationship with people while they’re high profile college athletes. I really want them to benefit, but I don’t know if this book is going to be in their hands first. So we are hoping to shift the narrative overall. I want sports commentators, and pundits, and analysts to be talking about this. We want this in the higher education space where the member institutions are looking at this saying, I didn’t think about it like that, how can we reprioritize some of the spending, some of the funds and make sure we really care for our student athletes to the extent we say we care about them. All the stakeholders in sport — the colleges that admit them, the NCAA that reaps tons of financial benefit from them, to the coaches who are their mentors that love and care about them, their advisors, the tutoring counselors, who are rather than doing the work for them are actually teaching them to do it for themselves — that’s who we’re trying to get to so it can both trickle down and circle up.
The Miseducation of the Student Athlete is available for purchase today. To get your copy or learn more about the authors and the book, go here.