Framing, Racial Prejudice and the Disenfranchisement of Black College Athletes

linkedin By: Taylor Christie

With the money made from college sports increasing every year, the way colleges treat their athletes has become controversial. The problem is that college sports is an immensely profitable business for everyone but the athletes. According to the Washington Post, The National College Athletic Association (NCAA) will receive $7.3 billion from ESPN for the right to broadcast the seven games of the College Football Playoffs between 2014 and 2026, and $11 billion from CBS and Turner Sports to broadcast “March Madness” over the next 14 years. Individual colleges also make out well; the Washington Post additionally predicted that each of the “Big 5” conferences would make an estimated $50 million from the college football playoffs this year; and that is not including profits made from concessions, merchandise, etc. As shown in the map below, in so many sates the best-paid public employees are a basketball or football coach.


After adding up the time spent on practice, training and games, college athletes often “work” the equivalent of full-time hours for the university they play for. How are they compensated? Most college athletes are “paid” with scholarships that cover only tuition, room, board, books and fees. The countering argument made by those who side with the NCAA argue that the opportunity to receive both an education and get the exposure to win a major professional contract more than compensates NCAA athletes for their efforts. By further researching this topic it is evident that both the framing used by the NCAA, and racial prejudice, are to blame for the disenfranchisement of black college athletes.

African American athletes now participate in many sports at a rate that equals or greatly exceeds their representation in the population; this is especially the case in intercollegiate football and basketball. How African American athletes are viewed by society is often contingent upon the media coverage they receive. Mass media, specifically sports media, has the potential to reach large audiences thus influencing the public’s view of racial stereotypes. A stereotype is a generalization about a category of people that is negative and/or misleading and that is used to predict and explain the behavior of a group of people. These stereotypes are reinforced through the use of framing in the media.

Framing is based on the assumption that how an issue is characterized in the media can have an influence on how it is understood by audiences. Eagleman defines framing as, “selecting some aspects of a perceived reality and making them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation”. These frames come from experiences and knowledge that is shared by a society and help construct reality for the public.

The NCAA has done a good job of framing “success” as receiving a degree rather than receiving the education necessary to get a job. One of the major claims made on behalf of the NCAA in argument of not paying student-athletes is “Let’s not forget that the NCAA has provided so many athletes the chance to get their degrees”. The problem is, simply getting a degree doesn’t necessarily cut it. The NCAA is ignoring the fact that some degrees are worth far more than others. Athletes are routinely clustered into majors that don’t set them up to succeed later in life, mainly because those majors are easy enough for athletes to focus on their sport.

For the majority of students, the college experience is academic, with a degree awarded after a specified course of study; it serves a fundamental preparation for a career. For far too many black males granted athletic scholarships at these schools, this degree (if it is even earned) more often is an empty one. Those on athletic scholarships are unable to experience the benefits of the education the word “scholarship” implies. The NCAA has also created its own graduation rate to paint a better picture than the federal graduation rates; they claim athletes graduate at a higher rate than the general student body, the federal rates show the opposite. A study conducted on racial inequalities in NCAA Division I college sports found that 97.4 percent of institutions graduated black male student-athletes at rates lower than undergraduate students overall. The problem is that the NCAA is framing “scholarship” as meaning so much more than it actually does, as shown by the evidence provided above.

As one could see, perhaps nowhere in higher education is the disenfranchisement of black male students more deceptive than in college athletics. In general, the percentage of black males in the student body of most universities is low but the percentage of black males participating in football and basketball is extremely high. According to a 2013 University of Pennsylvania study on racial inequality in NCAA Division I sports, only 2.8 percent of full-time degree-seeking undergraduates were black males. By contrast, black males compromised 57 percent of college football teams, on average; at some universities it was over 70 percent.


African Americans constitute the majority of student-athletes in basketball and football – the two major sports associated with college athletics. Therefore, it is not surprising that on top of framing by the NCAA, racial prejudice is also at the heart of public opposition to paying college athletes. Racial prejudice can be defined at hostility toward people of another race. In March 2015, an HBO Real Sports/Marist Poll found that 65 percent of Americans do not think college athletes in top men’s football and basketball programs should be paid. But these attitudes vary significantly by race.

This past December three sports writers conducted a study to find out whether racial prejudice influences white opinion on paying college athletes. After running a statistical analysis using the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, the authors found that negative racial views about blacks were the single most important predictor of white opposition to paying college athletes. In other words, the more negatively a white respondent felt about blacks, the more they opposed paying college athletes.

To check their findings, the authors also conducted their own experiment. Before they asked white respondents whether college athletes should be paid, the authors showed one group pictures of young black men with stereotypical African American first and last names; while the other group was shown no pictures at all. As illustrated in the figure below, whites who were primed by seeing pictures of young black men were significantly more likely to say they opposed paying college athletes.


In other words, the public discussion about paying college athletes is indirectly a discussion about race. The NCAA should consider how much it wants to base its policies on public opinion that may be tainted by racial prejudice. On the other side, the public needs to realize how the NCAA is framing “success” to mean so much more than it actually does in today’s society. The NCAA and its member schools care more about the appearance of educating athletes than they do actually educate athletes. The goal is to win, and to make winning look good in the process, regardless of the reality.

The NCAA should spend more of it’s money on tutors and internship programs and make sure athletes really are ready to enter the workforce, rather than pretend players benefit from coaches making more money. Just as Jay Bilas, an ESPN college basketball analyst and former Duke University basketball star wrote in the New York Times, “It is not immoral for the NCAA to make money off athletics. But it is profoundly immoral for the NCAA to restrict athletes from receiving compensation while everyone else profits”. Until the day when both racial prejudice and framing on the part of the NCAA is eliminated, the disenfranchisement of these black student athletes will continue to occur under the radar.


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