NCAA Football: Jesse Jackson Was Right, He Just Had the Wrong Sport

Asher ChanceySenior Analyst IJuly 22, 2010

BERKELEY, CA - NOVEMBER 12:  (FILE PHOTO) Reggie Bush #5 of the USC Trojans runs with the ball against the California Golden Bears at Memorial Stadium on November 12th, 2005 in Berkeley, California. Bush was picked second overall by the New Orleans Saints in the 2066 NFL Draft on April 29, 2006.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

The Reverend Jesse Jackson made a big splash last week when he compared Cleveland Cavaliers' owner Dan Gilbert to a slave owner, saying that Gilbert had a slave-owner's mentality, and that Gilbert was angry because his slave, LeBron James, had escaped.

That Jackson's comments sparked a brief, poorly publicized controversy speaks to just how ludicrous his comments were; there are very few people in the United States who are going to the notion that LeBron James, who hopes to one day become the first billionaire athlete, is being treated like a slave by anyone.

However, if Jackson would be so kind as to redirect his attention, he will find another sports industry that operates very much as a plantation economy. We're speaking, of course, about college athletics.

More specifically, we're talking about college football.

If recent events on opposite sides of our great nation are any indication, money and corruption are becoming more, rather than less, of a problem in college football in the 21st Century.

The USA Today reported on Wednesday that the University of Southern California will be removing the athletic jerseys and murals displayed around campus to honor former USC athletes Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo.  

Bush and Mayo were each caught up in scandals involving being paid money to enroll at the university. As a result of these scandals, USC has received numerous sanctions, including forfeiting a national championship, being banned from any bowls for two years, and having its total number of athletic scholarships reduced.

Meanwhile, in a still-developing story, it has been revealed that somewhere between 30 and 40 of the best college football players in the Southeastern Conference may have attended a mega-party thrown by professional agents looking to recruit the players for their post-NCAA football careers.

The worst case outcome from this scandal would be the suspension of several of the biggest stars in the SEC.

The early fallout from the party in Miami has led to a sort of "enough is a enough" moment for some coaches in the SEC. Nick Saban, the head coach at the University of Alabama, referred to agents as "pimps" and raised the possibility that it is time to ban all NFL employees from college campuses. University of Florida coach Urban Meyer, too, weighed in, tarring agents for compromising the spirit of college football.

There is an "it would be funny if it wasn't so infuriating" irony to the ire shared by Nick Saban and Urban Meyer.

Saban and Meyer don't play college football, they coach it.  

Because they are coaches of major SEC programs, both of these men are making about $4 million per year, have their own agents, and can party on South Beach anytime they want. None of their players have that luxury.

Both of these men can appear in commercials, television, and movies, and can make public speaking appearances for which they will be handsomely compensated. None of their players are allowed to do any of this.

Both of these men can sign contracts with apparel companies to endorse their products, and again, be handsomely compensated. If one of their players did that, they'd never play college football ever again.

But why is that?

Why is it that we have accepted the proposition, for decades, that college athletes can't be compensated for what they do on the field of play on Saturdays every fall?

As college football has evolved from organized clubs of former high school athletes competing against each other to a multi-million, if not billion, dollar industry, why have we not questioned the notion that college athletes should be playing for free?

As millions upon millions of dollars have flowed into the pockets of network executives, advertisers, athletic conferences, colleges and universities, apparel makers, product licensers, food vendors, magazine publishers, and, yes, sports agents, why have we not at least pondered the notion that perhaps the athletes could also reap some of the rewards.

As millions of college football fans have filled stadiums larger than the largest NFL arenas across the country, paying more and more money each year for the opportunity to do so, why hasn't someone suggested that perhaps the guys on the field deserve a slice of the pie, no matter how thin.

In short, when did we decide that, while all other Americans in all other walks of life should be paid for their work, college football players should work for free.

When did we decide that college football players were slaves.

Because that is exactly what college football players are. When you have a business which features those in charge making money while those actually doing the work do their work for free, that is called slavery.

When you have college football coaches making millions of dollars per year for the labor of their uncompensated players, that is called slavery.

When you have laborers who perform incredibly difficult work for no pay, they are called slaves.

Frankly, I don't know how we've let this go on as long as we have.

Look, at the end of the day, I have no problem with a college selling tickets to let people watch their amateur athletes play football. I really have no problem with the college paying professional coaches to guide these teams, though the question "why do the players have to be amateurs when the coaches don't" is certainly a valid one. 

I suppose I have no problem with colleges organizing into conferences to market themselves.

What I do have a problem with, though, is the insistence of these coaches, colleges, and conferences going to great lengths to ensure that their players don't receive any compensation whatsoever for their labors. Why is it OK for the coaches, colleges, and conferences to make vast amounts of money from amateur sports, but it is such a crime for the players to do so?

It's not like college football players hang out on campus all week and then show up on Saturday to play some ball.  Even at a small program, college football players put in immense amounts of time each week practicing, working out, and preparing for games. At the large programs, college football is life for these guys.

Maybe, if we paid these guys, let them attend parties, let them receive gifts, and let them market themselves, then maybe we wouldn't have so many scandals involving players illegally receiving money.

The notion that college football players can't be paid to play college football is particularly troubling for the best football players. These are guys who are literally biding their time, and hoping to not get hurt, until they are eligible to be drafted by an NFL team.  

These guys have earning potential through the roof, but are not being allowed to tap into that potential because of college football's archaic rules. How can we even pretend to be surprised when someone like Reggie Bush turns out to have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from USC boosters.

He deserved a lot more.

There will be those who argue that college football players are being compensated by being able to go to college and receive an education they may not have had access to otherwise.

OK. Let's do this:

In my left hand, I have a check for the market-value of a football scholarship to the University of Southern California. Tuition at USC is currently about $18,000, so that check in my left hand is worth about $72,000, give or take.

In my right hand, I have a check for the market-value of Reggie Bush's value to the USC Trojans on the football field, including television rights, luxury box sales, apparel contracts, season tickets, game day tickets, and an appearance (and a win) in a BCS Bowl.

Which check would you rather have?

At the end of the day, I know there are no easy answers, and I know influence-peddling and corruption would still be an issue even if we paid college football players some sort of value-appropriate wage.

But at the same time, I just can't stomach football coaches making millions of dollars per year complaining about the unfair influence that sports agents are having on their players.

If players playing for free is so important, why don't you coach for free, Nick Saban?

Reggie Bush is a bad person because he accepted hundreds of thousands of illicit dollars in exchange for bringing his extraordinary talents to USC. Never mind the fact that USC coach Pete Carroll made over a million dollars per year because of Reggie Bush.

O.J. Mayo is a bad person for receiving gifts during his time as a USC basketball player. Never mind the fact that he put fans in the seats for USC, and that his coach Tim Floyd made a couple a million dollars during his time there.

Thirty to 40 SEC football players will soon find out if they will miss part or all of the upcoming college football season because they partied hard one night on South Beach. Never mind the fact their schools will make millions of dollars off of their efforts this season.

Somehow, Americans all across this great nation have given tacit approval to one of the last vestiges of slavery in the United States.

Where's Jesse Jackson when you need him.

Asher B. Chancey lives in Philadelphia and is a co-founder of .


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