The semipro part of the college sports season is over.
Big-time football, college sports’ billion-dollar franchise, crowned a national champion in January. Men’s Division I basketball, the NCAA’s golden goose, anointed a national champion Monday when Baylor upset unbeaten Gonzaga.
In the aftermath of a COVID-19-ravaged season, the college sports industry faces a long overdue reckoning as it attempts to reconcile its commercial, exploitive self with its benevolent self.
Earlier this week, I met with UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond. Jarmond, UCLA’s first African American athletics director, laid out his vision for a reimagined college sports landscape, one that accommodates social activism, diversity, and gender and racial equity.
“There’s a lot of change in college athletics right now,” Jarmond said. “What I’m looking at in the next 12 to 18 months is how does UCLA come out of this as a leader and come of out this stronger, because it’s going to look totally different.
“There’s a shift going on right now and you’ve got to make sure that you see what’s coming.”
What’s coming is long overdue:
- female athletes demanding equal treatment.
- players at high-profile programs in revenue-producing sports demanding some form of compensation.
- athletes inserting themselves and their institutions in various social justice movements.
Athletics administrators — usually white, usually male, often conservative — are being forced to have conversations that in the past they have been able to avoid.
Administrators like Jarmond are forcing a new agenda. “There is an awareness and consciousness in our business that has not been there before,” Jarmond said. “This is part of the discussion and there’s no putting it back into the tube.”
“I don’t know what it’s going to look like a year from now, 18 months from now. What I do know is that it’s going to be part of the fabric of decisions that are made in intercollegiate athletics at the highest levels.”
The commercialized college sports industry — the part that runs on big-time football and Power 5 basketball — finds itself in the same predicament Major League Baseball found itself in 1970. That year, Curt Flood, a star outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, challenged baseball’s restrictive, long-standing reserve clause. Flood lost his case before the Supreme Court but his challenge severely wounded baseball and let the owners know that player freedom was inevitable.
Similarly, the conference commissioners, athletic directors and university presidents know that their hustle — passing off bowl championships and Final Fours as educational enterprises — have run their course.
There has to be a new model. “How does that look? You’ve got to work through it, and that’s what you’re seeing now,” Jarmond said.
The most persistent issue facing the college sports industry is the institutionalized racism and a division of labor in the revenue-producing sports of football and basketball.
The challenge has been trying to convince mostly white men who have handed power to each other generation after generation that diversity is good for business.
Diversity has been great for business, especially in the blood sports of college football and basketball.
Baylor did not recruit its first Black basketball player until 1966. The same is true of teams in the Southeastern Conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big 12.
Fast-forward 55 years. Baylor won its first men’s national basketball championship on Monday night with a team of mostly Black players.
In the lucrative landscape of big-time college football and basketball, Black players are an overwhelming presence, they are the engine that powers the machine.
This dynamic gives college sports a troublesome plantation veneer. Nonrevenue, what I call country club sports, overwhelmingly populated by white athletes, are supported by football and basketball programs with a predominance of Black players. More troubling is that Black players, despite having formed a substantial talent pool over the last three decades, have been hard-pressed to be reabsorbed as head coaches and administrators.
It’s not a good look. But how to fix it?
“That is a question that college athletics has to ask over the next couple years,” Jarmond said. “The business model of football and basketball carries so much significant financial resources. How those resources are dispersed across the sports landscape is a question that needs to be asked and looked at.”
Jarmond has been at UCLA since May 2020. He followed Dan Guerrero, who led the UCLA athletic program that won 32 NCAA championships in 15 different sports during his 19-year tenure. Before going to UCLA, Jarmond was the athletics director at Boston College. Before that, he spent eight seasons at Ohio State under athletic director Gene Smith, one of the most powerful figures in college sports.
He learned a fundamental lesson: “The best thing I can do is to help minority hiring at administrative levels and coaching, and do a damn good job. That’s what I learned from Gene Smith.
“What I need to do is do a great job so the president and the AD feel comfortable with a Black guy being in charge.’’
At the same time, Black executives face pressure that their white counterparts do not have to even think about. It’s the Jackie Robinson burden.
Shortly after Jarmond took over as the UCLA athletics director, a famous former UCLA basketball player called to offer his support. “He said, ‘You’re coming to my alma mater, I’m going to root for you. I don’t know you, but I need you to be successful, because if you’re not successful, nobody at UCLA, Black, is going to get a leadership position.’ ”
Jarmond’s white male counterparts are not under the same type of pressure. Yes, there is intense pressure to succeed. But if a white man is not successful, the institution will not refuse to hire white men for the next 20 years.
“That pressure’s real. They’re not going to bed thinking about that,” Jarmond said, referring to his white counterparts.
The pressure should be on everyone to hire a diverse staff. “Just don’t look at me to hire, look at everybody else. My white counterparts need to do that, too,” he said. “Don’t put it just on me.”
The recent coaching cycle of hiring in basketball has been promising. The most prominent was Hubert Davis being hired at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Davis becomes the first Black men’s basketball coach in UNC history.
But in 2021, is it really a cause for celebration? As Houston’s Kelvin Sampson told me last week: “Hiring Black coaches, that’s not a great thing, it’s the right thing. I mean, we shouldn’t be sitting here applauding it, we should be going, ‘That’s what they should be doing.’ “
Is this a permanent cycle or are the hirings a Black Lives Matter interlude?
If the recent hiring cycle is any indication, athletic directors are listening — listening to players, listening to critics and reading the tea leaves.
Change is coming and young administrators like Jarmond are leading the charge.