Reactions to the U-M 2020 MLK Symposium: Part II, college athletics and control

David Zirin of The Nation, notes Kenny Stills as an outspoken critic of the apparent hypocrisy that Ross displayed in hosting a fundraiser and heading the RISE nonprofit. Further, Zirin notes the fact that the “NFL is almost entirely dependent on black labor and black bodies in its pursuit of billions of dollars in annual profits.” Indeed, NFL players are reported to be 70 percent Black men. Such a statistic brings me to college athletics and the other cosponsor, the Michigan Athletics Department, I cannot help but think about the plight of the students who work as athletes for the University of Michigan and their potential thoughts.

Per 2015 GOALS study of the student-athlete experience, 60 percent[i] of those in Division I schools reported feeling positive about their ability to keep up with their classes during season[ii]. Of those Division I athletes surveyed, 74 percent of men and 79 percent of women reported feeling positive or very positive regarding their overall college academic experience and 74 percent of men and 78 percent of women reported feeling a sense of belonging at their respective school. However results differed when race/ethnicity was considered for the sense of belonging question as 78 percent of White males, 69 percent of other race/ethnicity males, 81 percent of White females, and 70 percent of other race/ethnicity females. The majority of athletes surveyed responded agree or strongly agree that their coaches and teammates have created an inclusive environment for all team members with 66 percent of males, regardless of race/ethnicity, 64 percent of White women, and 59 percent of women other than white. The GOALS study suggests that there are differences of experience between athletes based on race/ethnicity and sport. While the US is primarily White people, since 2014 our public schools population has consisted of a White student population under 50 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. However, colleges and universities, particularly those in Power 5 conferences or those considered to be elite, skew toward White persons. However, when considering certain college sports, Black persons are more likely to be seen at rates that would likely defy chance.

The most covered and highlighted revenue sports tend to be men’s football and men’s basketball, followed women’s basketball for universities and are also the ones that tend to have more Black athletes. Per 2018 figures of Division I schools in the NCAA Demographics Database: men’s basketball, 56 percent Black players and 24 percent White players; men’s football 48 percent Black players and 37 percent White players; and women’s basketball 47 percent black players and 32 percent White players. Across the NCAA’s Division I sports, it breakdowns to 20.8 percent Black athletes, 57.1 percent White athletes, 5 percent Latinx athletes, 2.2 percent Asian athletes, 0.4 percent American Indian/Alaskan Native athletes, and 4.7 percent multi-racial athletes. However, those figures are slightly different for the Big Ten Conference where men’s basketball, 48 percent Black players and 33 percent White players; men’s football 40 percent Black players and 45 percent White players; and women’s basketball 43 percent black players and 34 percent White players. Across the Big Ten’s Division I sports it breakdowns to 14.8 percent Black athletes, 66 percent White athletes, 3.2 percent Latinx athletes, 1.6 percent Asian athletes, and 5.1 percent multi-racial athletes in comparison the rest of the Power 5, excluding the Big Ten, 20.7 percent Black athletes, 54.7 percent White athletes, 4.7 percent Latinx athletes, 3.1 percent Asian athletes, 0.7 percent American Indian/Alaskan Native athletes, and 4.4 percent multi-racial athletes.

The figures matter as universities across the country commit to issues of diversity and equity. These statistics matter as the sports with the most Black bodies tend to be those that universities use to support all collegiate sports programs. Such data provides notice that the Big Ten is less racially diverse than the entire Division I and the other Power 5 conferences. In general, the University of Michigan college athlete population “is less racially diverse than both the Big Ten conference and the Power Five conferences combined” per Athletics Diversity Equity & Inclusion Committee findings[iii]. There is the potential positive reframe that the University of Michigan is not heavily relying on the exploitation of Black athletes as much at their Big Ten colleagues or other NCAA schools. Make no mistake, these numerical differences are troublesome considering national trends of greater representational racial/ethnic diversity. Considering the university athletic department’s consistent boosting of being one of a dozen universities whose football program and athletic department is financially self-sufficient and sustaining, the university has the potential to have greater racial/ethnic diversity across all sports.

The NCAA and its universities place a high focus on its athletes being students first above athletics or their sport with protections to support their class time. Further, its coaches are championed as producers of inclusive climates and leaders of men and women. The Michigan athletic department committee also surveyed its athletes who expressed a desire for more diversity, equity, and inclusion training opportunities, events, and education for coaches. This suggests, that at least at Michigan, there is a need for growth among its coaching staff to more appropriately support its athletes to be students first. Across the Big Ten, per 2018 figures, there were 28 (7.8 percent) Black head coaches and 292 (81.1 percent) White head coaches. This result potentially suggests that Michigan coaches have room to grow in terms of issues related to social justice and representation. Perusing profiles across MGoBlue, of the 29 currently persons serving as head coach, 26 are White persons (10 women and 16 men) and 3 are Black men[iv]. Representation across difference matters and may assist produce systemic environments that allow for greater inclusivity.

I have had the opportunity to work with college athletes at the University of Michigan and the University of California Los Angeles. Through these circumstances, I know some things that are most certainly true across all institutions and most certainly University of Michigan. There are athletes who feel their coach or teammates are racist or bigoted, but choose to keep quiet to prevent negative information from being spread about them that might impact their future opportunities. There are athletes who do not like their teammates, coaches, etc. solely because of their race/ethnicity and choose to be openly antagonistic or keep their true beliefs to themselves. There are athletes who become starters in their sport and begin slipping in their classes due to increased pressure or responsibility from their coaching staff. There are athletes who are in sports because they tend to racially/ethnically homogenous for the sake of comradery or to avoid undesired ethnic/racial groups. There are athletes who identify as LGBT but make the choice to attempt to hide it, for the sake of their career. Ultimately, there are many athletes, particularly in team sports, who feel that they must trust and depend on their teammates as their success is tied. These statements are not inclusive to athletes though. And given a historical, and largely continued, inclination for institutions of higher education and sports to be a bastion for wealthy White men, there is a need to address whose needs are met by current structures in place.

While the Michigan Athletic Department is wise to speak to its athletes. It would be more wise to put athletes in positions of influence, power, and authority. Otherwise, it continues to provide the appearance that money is more important than those who are impacted by decisions. Stephen M. Ross is a large contributor to the Michigan Athletic department and whose name is graces the entire athletic campus[v], yet this alone does not appropriately account for the relationship between the two bodies. Ultimately, it might be even the Athletic Department’s Diversity Equity & Inclusion Strategic Plan that explains why Ross might be given a pass given a commitment to diversity in a myriad of forms including political perspective. For if those with the financial power are still more able to shape decisions without having to fully answer for their actions, our ability to create meaningful change becomes stunted. Toward the end of Dr. Angela Davis’ talk, she mentions how those who are critical are noticing how the economic elite are taking up the language of resistance. Davis positions this as positive as activists are making them pay attention. I sense there is some benefit, but there is cause for concern when Persons of Color, often Black and Brown bodies, continue to be used as shields to display a commitment to social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion, while backers may continue to engage in behavior that actively undermines those interests in the name of profits, revenue, and social esteem.


[i] 59% of men and 61% of women

[ii] Men’s baseball 56%, Men’s basketball 62%, FBS football 60%, Other men’s sports 60%, Women’s basketball 56%, other women’s sports 61%

[iii] Page 2, Section III. Data and Analysis: Key Findings. I have reached out to the Athletics Department for precise numbers.

[iv] Across the sports there is some increased race/ethnicity representation in quantity when including all coaching staff positions

[v] The Stephen M. Ross Athletic Campus includes Michigan Stadium, Crisler Center, and Yost Stadium per