“Since the time of Jesse Owens it has been presumed that any poor but rugged youngster who was able to jump racial fences into a college haven was happy all day long.” So wrote Harry Edwards in The Revolt of the Black Athlete (p. 75). The observation describes the ruling common sense, which is to say, a ruling ideology – in which an education is a blue ribbon or trophy (something you win, rather than earn); a college campus is “a haven” and the black male athlete is imagined as the eternal supplicant, “happy all day long” because he has been saved (from what? himself? his world? his color?). Any poor but rugged youngster – any “Jesse Owens” – must be running with joy, he must run as a means of joyful escape – running isn’t his job; it isn’t his work. If he’s happy all day long, it is because this discipline is his pleasure. This is perhaps, more true today than it was in 1969, the year Edwards published his account of the radicalization of the black athlete, of the movement that led to one of the most enduring images in sports history – Tommie Smith and John Carlos, on the Olympic medal stand, heads bowed and fists raised.
Tommie Smith (the gold medalist) has a dim view of college athletics (even as he has a real love for his sport). Smith is one of the greatest sprinters to have ever taken to the track – he was, of course, a stand-out at San José State, then known as “speed city” for its sprinting program. Smith’s memoir, Silent Gesture, is remarkable for many reasons – he is an incredible person – but many would likely find his lack of nostalgia for his college years bracing. Smith describes his relationship to his alma mater as a big fat blank. Recalling a trip to San José State to participate in events honoring Smith and Carlos’s shared legacy, he writes,
I didn’t feel anything from the faculty and the administration when I was a student, I didn’t feel anything after I graduated and I didn’t feel anything that night [when he and John Carlos were honored] or since.
Smith is clear in his memoir: college sports is a fraud. Black athletes playing big-time sports then and now are ruthlessly exploited; they are treated as frauds (as undeserving), they are abandoned to a world of lowered expectations, used until they are used up. Smith doesn’t think that much has changed since the late 1960s, neither does Edwards.
The myth of the grateful black athlete puts a gloss on the collusion between universities, the NCAA, media and sports corporations – systems that bank on the spectator’s investment in the idea that this athlete is, indeed, “happy all day long” because the world is doing him one favor after another. That spectator’s pleasure is easily purchased, but the cost for the athlete is high.
Fraud charges were filed last month against a former professor at UNC Chapel Hill, the latest plot twist in an old fashioned college sports scandal that’s been at a gentle boil for over three years. (See The Daily Tar Heel’s “Tracking a Sports Scandal”) It’s a particularly depressing story.
Professor Julius Nyang’oro (who retired in 2012) chaired the African and Afro-American Studies Department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill for 20 years. Today, he stands accused of defrauding UNC by accepting pay for a 2011 course that he basically didn’t teach. That summer course, according to the Raleigh News and Observer
is one of more than 200 such lecture-style classes dating back to the mid-1990s that show little or no evidence of any instruction. These classes included roughly 500 grade changes that are either confirmed to be or suspected of being unauthorized. (See Dan Kane, “Former UNC Official Nyang’oro will fight felony charge”)
People in the department described it as balkanized — professors stuck to their own courses and research — and said that Mr. Nyang’oro was an inattentive administrator who was often out of the country, even when he was supposed to be teaching. They said that his continual reappointment as the department chairman, a job most professors hold for 10 years at most, reflected the university’s indifference to what was going on there. (Sarah Lyall, A’s for Athletes)
Like a piece of equipment, the black athlete is used. The old cliché ‘You give us your athletic ability, we give you a free education’ is a bare-faced lie, concocted by the white sports establishment to hoodwink athletes, white as well as black.First of all, there is no such thing as a ‘free’ ride. A black athlete pays dearly with his blood, sweat, tears, and ultimately with some portion of his manhood, for the questionable right to represent his school on the athletic field. Second the white athletic establishments on the various college campuses frequently fail to live up to even the most rudimentary responsibilities implied in their half of the agreement. (Edwards, 16)