“In reality there is no difference between a professional and an amateur, except that one is expected to have a higher standard of honor than the other,” wrote Du Bois on September 19, 1936 in the Pittsburgh Courier. “This can easily be remedied by the law and public opinion. It is in the clear interest of negro athletes to abolish the distinction between professional and amateur in sporting competitions. “
But nobody changed how so-called amateur games treated black athletes. And nobody has changed it since then. It is an issue of equity and the most critical issue that we face the revenue generating college sports, soccer and basketball.
However, in recent months it has been suggested that some sort of seismic shift was taking place in these gaming colleges, which was only gambled for their own wages. Some elite teenage black athletes chose to play at the HBCUs where Du Bois learned and taught to play basketball or soccer – where they often had no choice but to play much of the 20th century – than the predominantly white institutions that have worked since the 1980s to generate billions of dollars. Your decision to go black has been touted as a game changer in some corners.
I was reminded of this misnomer last week when Howard University announced it was canceling their men’s basketball season because of Covid-19. This was the most anticipated forever season for the famous HBCU in DC, with Du Bois often speaking and earning an honorary title. The small historic campus on a small hill in the city’s most famous black district, LeDroit Park, where dozens of black lights such as Duke Ellington and Sen. Edward Brooke were born and raised or how Paul Laurence Dunbar lived and lived there.
Last summer, Makur Maker, a 6-foot-11 basketball prodigy with East African roots, chose it for his college basketball career rather than a predominantly white institution with a highly regarded multi-million dollar basketball program like Kentucky, UCLA, and Memphis of which he benefits of the bison is said to have spurned. Maker was so good they said he’d go straight to the NBA after a year with Howard if he wanted to. He was what we call a five-star recruit, the first highly respected basketball talent (since anyone started keeping an eye on such things) to go to an HBCU since segregation around white campuses eroded began – at least for black male athletes who could attract the TV rights fees and ticket sales that made the whites who played these sports not only winners but also rich.
His decision prompted another highly respected black high school player, Mikey Williams, to congratulate Maker and suggest that he follow Maker to an HBCU to continue the move.
Many of us have long marveled at the idea of the best young black sports talent, or selfishly campaigned to return to the HBCUs where their predecessors once starred, and together turned them into nationally relevant programs, with major state and powerful ones private athletes could compete for prestige programs and lumps of money. I said selfishly because many of us who advocate such a radical change have not made our own choice of HBCUs for college.
But it’s all pretty short-sighted unless the HBCUs will treat black athletic talent more fairly than the Marylands, Virginias, Dukes, and other predominantly white institutions.
Because the game is not about where those particular workers are going, but whether those workers can share in the wealth they create – no matter where they work.
Maker only played two games after an injury and the coronavirus, the university reported. The team lost both games and four of the only five games that existed. Covid caused its showcase game against Notre Dame to be canceled, which no doubt promised a pretty paycheck. So Howard didn’t even benefit from Maker’s novelty.
More importantly, Maker and his teammates didn’t make money either, which was the point Du Bois was all those years ago. Let’s call it a myth of black athletics.
“The excitement over Makur Maker’s decision was premature,” Joseph Cooper, professor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and author of the upcoming “A Legacy of African American Resistance and Activism Through Sports,” emailed me last week. “But it has germinated thoughts in many people’s minds that UTIs [historically white institutions] aren’t the only way to go. Given that players like LaMelo Ball, Jalen Green, and others decide to bypass the NCAA and the Fair Play to Pay Act is about to be in the pipeline, the cracks in the system are gradually widening, and ultimately the system is not be more sustainable unless it chooses to amend its bylaws to practice fairer practices with college athletes. “
But as long as and until the sporting economic model of the college is changed or HBCUs can and want to create their own new model, “the amateur athlete”, as Du Bois wrote, “is involved in fraud”.
And the actual game remains unchanged.