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No, I answered a friend who had asked the question: Would I have been a slave owner had I lived in the mid-19th century? Of course not! Everybody I know would give the same answer. Otherwise, why would I want to know them?

college football plantation system

The topic came up in a discussion of a recent episode of the PBS program, Finding Your Roots with Louis Gates Jr. Guest Larry David learned that a patriarch had not only owned slaves but also fought for the Confederacy.

There we sat, talking about the episode while watching a major college football game on TV. The juxtaposition was jarring. How so?

While most of us would be aghast even thinking about the return of the plantation system, I’d speculate that most of us don’t give much thought to how that system persists in contemporary form. To make matters worse, one form exists for our enjoyment.

I’m talking about revenue-producing college sports--football and men’s basketball, specifically. Those sports are hosted by major universities, places that stand for very different values, at least in theory.

Revenue-producing college sports didn’t start that way, but they have evolved that way. “That way” is a neo-plantation system, a system that benefits “owners,” those who manage “field hands,” and others who benefit from the system’s existence. The laborers’ skin color is mostly the same as it was 175 years ago, and so is the skin color of those who benefit most.

What it means is that 21st-century America sustains a variation of a 19th-century arrangement. Complicit in the enterprise are fans, like you and me, who endorse the system by cheering it on and helping to bankroll it.

There’s “something” unique about America and its culture that makes it possible. Nowhere in the world is there a major college sports system like this. Just ask international visitors and those who are new to our country.

Players in this neo-plantation system participate without compensation. They play at risk. The majority are African Americans—a good share of whom might not be in college if it were not for sports.

Players in this neo-plantation system participate without compensation. They play at risk (head injuries, etc.). The majority are African Americans—a good share of whom might not be in college if it were not for sports, and who probably wouldn’t be matriculating “on scholarship” without sports. Yes, they are given an “opportunity” in a classic neoliberal way, but the majority don’t benefit in the way masters do. I know, I know: the “best of the best” players go on to pro careers, but relatively few players are able to make a pro career. A good number of players never graduate. And as they move through the system (using up eligibility to play) field masters busily entice newcomers to replace them. Called “recruiting,” it really asks: “Who’s next on our assembly line?”

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Host institutions focus on winning. Colleges fundraise aggressively to attract coaches, build and update facilities, and possess all the other things that make for “winning programs.” That takes money—plenty of it—and there aren’t financial restrictions, either. The game plan is straightforward: raise as much money as you can. Alumni and donors comply and the U.S. government assists. “Contributions” to athletic programs are classified as charitable contributions to nonprofit institutions.

The record shows that big-name schools spend just about all the money they raise. They’re the lucky ones. Most schools can’t raise enough money from sports activity, so they dip into university general funds and/or charge student fees to make ends meet.

The striking thing about what I’ve just described is that it doesn’t bother enough people. The system proceeds—getting bigger and deeper—without changes of major consequence. Yes, there are adjustments at the margins, but nothing “big” ever seems to happen.

Why is that? I think it’s because benefits are too significant for serious reforms to take hold … even to be proposed. In one sense, everybody—I mean everybody—seems hooked on the status quo in a way that brings to life Cole Porter’s classic lyrics:

Why not use your mentality – step up, wake up to reality?
But each time I do just the thought of you
Makes me stop just before I begin.

(From “I’ve Got You Under My Skin)

So, yeah, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been a slave owner. But if I had been alive back then, would I have spoken up or acted out against the plantation system? I wonder.

I say that because I’m a lifelong supporter of revenue-producing college sports, a plantation-like system. Not only have I supported it, but just like millions of fans across the country, I can’t seem to get enough of it. That’s why I was watching the other night. I’m still hooked, trying to figure out a reasonable exit strategy.

There’s something terribly wrong with the picture I’ve just described. One reason is personal: I’m in it.


Frank Fear