The Boiling Point: The NCAA’s bubble is next to burst

A red graphic used as stock for the sports section.

These past 48 hours in the sports world have made up for the monthslong hiatus. The world hasn’t witnessed such cross-league solidarity with a single social movement before. The WNBA, NBA, MLB and MLS all saw game postponements as players refused to detract attention away from the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., which left him paralyzed from the waist down.

The WNBA’s Washington Mystics wore shirts spelling out Blake’s name with seven bullet holes drawn on the back. The NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks didn’t even take to the court Wednesday night, choosing to remain huddled in the locker room in an attempt to get through to the Wisconsin Attorney General. That night, no sports outlet had new stats updates for any major sporting league. 

Across the front page of its Thursday sports section, the New York Times bolded the word “boycott.” The paper got it wrong.

This is not a boycott — it’s a strike. Players are withholding their labor to make a statement that Black people cannot be celebrated on a court of play then brutalized in society. The pros are no doubt following the lead of activists around the world, but they may be following in the footsteps of another group: student-athletes.

Less than a month ago, a conglomeration of Pac-12 football players penned a letter in The Players’ Tribune, writing about the simultaneous dependency on Black athletes and disregard for proper compensation. They refused to take the field until the commissioner addressed such issues, and the players called for a strike.

They weren’t alone, and they weren’t the first student-athletes in history to challenge the decision making of a conference and, ultimately, the NCAA. In fact, that’s really been the history of the NCAA: a board of insulated governors, commissioners and contract negotiators speaking on behalf of thousands of athletes whose input is an afterthought or completely ignored.

The force majeure 2020 is with a pandemic, protests and economic uncertainty has ripped away the decades-long PR project that makes up the foundation of the NCAA. The association has marketed itself as the powerhouse of opportunity — the only door young athletes can open to truly benefit from their talent. 

We all love the rags-to-riches stories sports provides the professional-level potential talent. University athletic programs are framed as the saviors of helpless individuals, as the only way out. This is a lie for the majority of college athletes who won’t go pro.

The association is a facade of legal loopholes and savior-complex imagery crumbling as more and more athletes stand up and speak out. It’s about damn time, and it’s the theme of this column. 

Over the next couple of months, I’ll dive into how we got to this boiling point, traveling from the Supreme Court to right here at USC, discussing what allows this shoddy foundation of an organization to still stand, and how ultimately it’s the athletes who fall through its cracks.

Sure, I’ll name drop Reggie Bush at some point, but his case was one unjust decision. I’m getting at the entire system that allowed such a case to occur. 

If you’re still reading this and have made it out to be a hit piece against the NCAA, you’d be absolutely correct, but don’t confuse it as a hit piece on college sports. There’s a difference. Competition among young talent on grand stages is a phenomenal thing. It provides countless jobs, fosters communities across universities and creates opportunities for unique growth among student-athletes. 

But we cannot depend on only one organization to dictate the rules of this process when its historic growth has failed to trickle down to the athletes who allow it to function in the first place. 

I know my plan for this column will change as college football starts back up and inevitably erupts in coronavirus cases, but I am also aware of the ever-changing state of protest that could completely flip the axis of the sports world. When considering what is the most important to write about — the history that is written in books or the history that is unfolding right now at the hands of Black activists and athletes — I choose the latter. 

Maybe the pros’ recent stance could be enough to push student-athletes in other conferences over the edge. If I’m being honest, I hope teams force the NCAA history books to close for a year. No rival game or tradition is worth the overshadowing of a momentous conversation surrounding Black Lives Matter. 

But, as we’ll see again and again in this column, it’s not those pageants or even student-athletes taking activist stances that the NCAA is worried about at the end of the day. It’s the money behind the matter.

Taylor Mills is a sophomore writing about the NCAA. She is also a sports editor at the Daily Trojan. Her column, “The Boiling Point,” runs every other Friday.