Athletes at Northwestern University shocked the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the governing body of college sports, by taking steps to unionize student/athletes. Surprisingly, NBA Hall of Famer Bill Russell, former NFL great Jim Brown and Harry Edwards, who organized a human rights protest at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City that culminated in Tommy Smith and John Carlos giving a clenched fist salute when they mounted the winners platform, do not support the idea.
It’s not that Bill Russell, Jim Brown or Harry Edwards have mellowed. They have not. Rather, they think there’s a better way to help athletes who generate $500 billion a year to major universities, athletic vendors and others.
“I am totally against the unions in college,” Brown said. “I don’t like the NCAA. I think it’s a greedy organization, a dictatorial organization, and an organization that’s totally unfair to the players. But on the other hand, I think we have all gotten away from the value of an education.”
Russell and Brown made their comments recently as part of a sports panel moderated by Edwards at the University of Texas. The discussion was part of three-day summit at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Russell said the NCAA’s money machine should be viewed within the context of other successful U.S. businesses.
“All great fortunes are amassed on cheap or slave labor,” he said. “The NCAA (the one group everybody is focusing on) has this money machine. To keep it this way, the labor force has to be free or paid low wages.”
As Everett Glenn, a former sports agent, pointed out in a three-part series for the NNPA News Service: “College sports is big business—for everyone except the athletes who make it possible. College basketball and football have long operated as quasi-farm systems for professional teams by discovering talent, training players, and highlighting performance.”
For example, Glenn noted, “Black athletes represent 52.9% of Ohio State University’s basketball and football rosters and dominate among its star players, fueling a nearly $130 million athletic department budget on a campus where Black males represent only 2.7% of the student body. The disparity between the graduation rate for OSU’s Black football players, at 38%, and all student-athletes, at 71%, represent the highest disparity in the Big-10.”
If colleges are serving as farm teams for the pros, players are spending less and less time on the farm.
This year, for example, Kentucky freshmen basketball stars Julius Randle and James Young have announced that they will enter the 2014 NBA draft. It’s one-and-done for the Wildcats. Randle is projected to be among the top five picks, which means he may earn $6.1 to $7.5 million over two years.
But many pro athletes have received a truckload of money, only to squander it. Terrell Owens, Allen Iverson, Antoine Walker are just a few who come to mind.
Sports Illustrated reported that by the time former NFL players have been retired for two years, 78% of them “have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce.” Within five years of retirement, approximately 60% of former NBA players are broke.
Athletes have to cope with other issues as well, said Harry Edwards.
“Fifteen percent of the athletes who show up for the combine having already been in concussion situations before they even get to the NFL—and concussions are not something that you get over. That’s something the unions can’t address.”
Instead of unions, Edwards said, the emphasis should be put on making sure athletes get an education so that even if they end up broke, they will have other skills with which to support themselves.
“When we talk about young students, I think there are other considerations that take priority over the monetary aspect,” Edwards told me after a press conference in Austin, Texas. “Money shifts the focus even more than already is the case and away from the education imperative that these institutions are obligated and should be committed to delivering on.”
Edwards said rather than rushing into the pros. Student/athletes should have scholarships that allow them to complete college within six years. For those who complete their education in four years, they should be given another two years for graduate study.
“Ninety-eight percent of athletes who play college football will never be on a professional roster,” Edwards said. “They are going to have to go with what they achieve educationally.”
He should know. Edwards has a Ph.D. in sociology from Cornell University and has been a longtime professor at the University of California-Berkeley.
(George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his website,. You can also follow him at and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.)