This time of year, so-called “bracketologists” and other sports soothsayers babble endlessly about the teams and players currently in contention as March Madness begins. But many other issues equally important to the sport rarely if ever get discussed in sports media. Another View’s “unconventional” coverage this month will leave the usual chatter to others and instead explore “The Shadow Side of March Madness.”
This week: The college sport “machine” in which Black student-athletes are “cogs.”
The NCAA men’s basketball tournament — March Madness’ crown jewel of championships — begins next week. It’s also part of a multi-million-dollar “machine” that regularly chews up players, most of whom are Black, and then spits them out.
These players are “cogs” in “a machine so strong [that] it’s tied to politics, the economy, to money, to the president of the university who ultimately make decisions,” proclaimed Leo Lewis, a former senior athletics administrator at the University of Minnesota. He spoke during the March 2 panel discussion at St. Paul’s Hallie Q. Brown Community Center sponsored by his former school’s Race, Indigeneity, Gender, and Sexuality Initiative (RIGS).
Also on the panel with Lewis, now the Minneapolis North High School athletic director, were broadcast analyst Lea B. Olsen; Frank White, a former basketball official who works with youth sports; and Minnesota senior Natasha Moore, a St. Paul Johnson graduate who until last year ran track for the Gophers.
“Sports is big business,” said White. “It’s major money even at youth sports.”
Lewis noted that Blacks too often begin making themselves “cog” material as early as age five “when they first identify themselves as being an athlete. It’s encouraged by parents, by communities they live in, by friends, by social agents, by coaches and parents who want to be coaches, and then also by community members who want to have young people enjoy the fruits of participating in sports.”
Moore complained that college athletic departments such as Minnesota’s don’t look at players as whole people. “Until we see athletes as whole people, and are willing to see them as something other than sports,” these individuals won’t be fully prepared to face the world when their athletic life ends, Olsen said.
“We are not preparing them in other ways than being an athlete,” added White. “Everything revolves around ball as they grow. It’s all about ball… That’s the only thing that matters.”
Then, if they are recruited, comes big-time intercollegiate athletics, continued Lewis. Can these players be able to do more “than bounce a ball or carry a football” while on campus, especially Black players at a predominately White institution who are supposedly preparing themselves for the world beyond?
Said Lewis, “I feel they are institutionalized even before they come to campus. They come to the campus with a whole different idea about what success might be. Some think they are going to make it in the pros when they haven’t finished high school yet. Their thought is that the only pathway to success is through sports.
“The business of sport has really brought African Americans from all over the country to a place where they are so foreign that it creates an isolated incident. They’re there to play football or whatever sport it is. That was the agreement before they came to campus,” noted Lewis.
“They are supposed to get their degree, but there’s never an agreement or any discussion about how they are supposed to survive. Their well-being is supposed to be kept at a level where they have some sanity.
“Are they really exploited after their tenure on campus? Are they now forgotten after [their eligibility is complete]? Or is it such that they should start maturing enough to take care of themselves and look for support on their own…?”
“If you are going to be a student-athlete to play at the Division I level, wherever you are, there is a certain makeup that you have to have. There’s a certain process that’s in place, and if you are not involved in that process or don’t want to be involved, you are not going to make it,” Lewis concluded.
Sports is indeed big business
University of Wisconsin Coach Bobbie Kelsey was fired last Friday. Despite the fact that all of her players graduated, she didn’t win on the court. Kelsey became the first Big Ten coach fired this season, and now the league is down to two Black women head coaches.
Next week: More from the panelists on whether or not Black athletes connect with the local community.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.