The Money Jungle The cost of big-time sports in the United States.

The average American household income is around $50,000. The average National Basketball Association (NBA) player’s income is around $5,000,000. It is hard to shed a tear for many professional athletes and has been for quite some time.

Take the case of retired NBA swingman Latrell Sprewell, best known for choking his coach in Golden State during a 1997 practice. A talented scorer, Sprewell revived his career in New York before landing in Minnesota, where he provided a long-awaited perimeter complement to Kevin Garnett.

Sprewell entered the final year of his contract after a successful 2003-04 season, in which he was owed a salary of $14.6 million. Minnesota offered to extend his contract at a rate of approximately $7 million per year. Offended at a proposal that would cut his income in half, Sprewell sounded off.

“I’ve got a family to feed,” he quipped—the six words that compete with assaulting his coach as the most memorable moments from the five-time All-Star’s career.

“On the official Ten Most Selfish, Greedy, Spoiled to the Spleen, Multimillionaire Athletes You’d Most Like to See Thrown to a Dieting Lion list, you’d have to rank Latrell Sprewell one through at least eight,” 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year Rick Reilly declared in his Sports Illustrated column.

“Don’t you think a lot of families would like to live off the .6 in Sprewell’s contract?” college basketball commentator Dick Vitale, better known as “Dickie V.,” opined on ESPN.com. “Come on, are you kidding me, $600,000 a year can get you lots of groceries and lots of fine meals out.”

To be sure, high-profile American athletes are far from being the only greedy people in popular culture or the only greedy people in our country. Nor can it be said that corporate America, which manages most professional and high-level amateur sports, is the inventor of greed.  Indeed, capitalism itself, the conceptual engine that invented spectator sports in America, is not the inventor of greed either, although capitalism has found extraordinarily innovative ways to express greed. Yet there is a not-so-pretty tale to be told about sports, corporate America, and greed, a tale about how American sports have been tarnished even as revenue streams have increased dramatically and athletes, on the whole, are treated better than they used to be. To paraphrase an old saying, money corrupts; absolute fixation on money corrupts absolutely. That is exactly what has happened with big-time sports in the United States. Its corruption is shown in its bloated structures oversaturating the market; in its astonishing salary inequality; in its overpriced admission tickets, expensive cable prices, and relentless, tasteless merchandising; in how it has undermined our system of higher education.

What follows are some chapters from that tale.

 

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Major League  Baseball (MLB) brought in nearly $10 billion of revenue last year. The NBA and National Football League (NFL) have both signed national media rights deals in excess of $20 billion. The NFL Dallas Cowboys franchise alone is worth $4 billion. Baseball’s New York Yankees are worth $3.2 billion on the open market.

The dollars and cents behind American sports have become entire cultural fascinations unto themselves. The sports business reporter for ESPN, the self-proclaimed worldwide leader in sports, has 1.5 million followers on Twitter. The Sports Business Journal is a major weekly publication with over 80 reporters, editors, and guest writers that also offers its reader a daily online newsletter. Ever since a group of baseball fans dining on French food crafted the idea of fantasy sports, the dollars that have traded hands through gambling on it tally in the billions (ESPN also employs a reporter whose beat is sports betting).

In both Ancient Greece and Rome, politicians and princes found it useful to be associated with popular athletes and to promote circuses and athletic games. From the earliest extant records of organized, competitive sports, successful athletes have been seen by the public as heroes;  and they also had sponsors and supporters among the wealthy and politically connected.

And since the 2003 release of Michael Lewis’ bestselling book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game—later adapted into the 2011 Oscar-nominated movie starring Brad Pitt—the rise of advanced statistical analysis (also known as sabermetrics, invented by baseball writer Bill James) has inspired math and economics PhDs from elite universities like Washington University to pursue careers as executives for professional teams. On any given weekend, you can find the author of this piece (though far from a PhD) playing armchair general manager on his laptop—scouring through the earnings of Major League Baseball players on Baseball Prospectus’ contracts page or NBA players on the ESPN NBA Trade Machine.

But for as much money as sports generate, they have been about power. From their early history in the Olympic Games of Ancient Greece, athletic competitions represented opportunities for participants to physically dominate their opponents and demonstrate the might of their city-states or nations. And in both Ancient Greece and Rome, politicians and princes found it useful to be associated with popular athletes and to promote circuses and athletic games. From the earliest extant records of organized, competitive sports, successful athletes have been seen by the public as heroes;  and they also had sponsors and supporters among the wealthy and politically connected.

In 19th-century America, schools institutionalized athletics as a means of developing well-rounded men, who fulfilled the ideal of mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a sound body). Those who pushed sports thought it would give children character and teach them team spirit and the importance of succeeding in a competition.  The rise of organized sports coincided with America’s growth as an imperial power. As Spanish-American War hero and 26th president Theodore Roosevelt said, “I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports. I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal so long as it is not fatal.” The ideology of sports also developed during the age of Social Darwinism, which explains why sports so sanctified the idea of competition. For many at the time, especially whites, life itself was a competition for survival and dominance.

Roosevelt could even be considered a founding father of modern college football—or at least an instrumental figure in its survival. When college football found itself on the verge of extinction due to numerous deaths suffered by players, Roosevelt convened a reform summit between the presidents of Harvard, Yale and Princeton, the dominant football schools at the time, as John J. Miller and historian Taylor Branch have documented.

Thus originated the predecessor to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which was actually a toothless organization for many years until longtime executive director Walter Byers transformed it into a centralized governing body. Meanwhile, college football was morphing into a commercial behemoth far exceeding its original domain of Ivy League bragging rights. The story of college football is, in part, the story of how a rough game that was similar to rugby that bourgeois college boys liked (see Thomas Hughes’s famous 1857 novel Tom Brown’s School Days to learn how much sports and upper-class manhood were indelibly entwined in England) became a multi-billion dollar business that has become the tail that wags the college dog.

Branch’s 2011 opus in The Atlantic is titled “The Shame of College Sports,” arguing that the NCAA and its conception of athletes as amateurs became an edifice for extracting revenue on the backs of unpaid laborers. The idea of the amateur was all right in the early days of football when it was a “gentleman’s game” of a sort. It has long ceased to be that. Amateur status is an antiquated, class-centric idea. Amateur sport is all about the Benjamins now.

Indeed, the NCAA and its member schools now collect $1.1 billion per year from a March Madness media rights contract. ESPN airs the new college football playoff for a comparably modest $470 million per year, though that excludes dozens of other bowl games with their own media deals. But college athletes, despite receiving scholarships, are forbidden from sharing in the profits that they produce.

It is worth noting that “Dickie V.” Vitale, who penned a column bashing Sprewell, has attained broadcast fame through his two-word catchphrase: “Awesome, baby!” When not calling college basketball games, Vitale has pitched everything from Wendy’s hamburgers to Taco Bell burritos, Kentucky Fried Chicken wings, Hooters’ cheeseburger special, Bridgestone tires, DisneyWorld vacations or your local car dealer’s Chryslers as awesome, baby. The players themselves, however, could be suspended or even kicked off their teams for accepting the “improper benefit” of a free Taco Bell burrito.

The idea of the amateur was all right in the early days of football when it was a “gentleman’s game” of a sort. It has long ceased to be that. Amateur status is an antiquated, class-centric idea. Amateur sport is all about the Benjamins now.

In 1995, standout forward Ed O’Bannon led the UCLA men’s basketball team to its first national championship victory since the John Wooden era (1963-1975, ten national championships in 12 years; Wooden was at UCLA from 1948 to 1975). While O’Bannon lasted only two years in the NBA, the NCAA continued to profit from that championship season with commemorative DVDs and video games featuring O’Bannon, who did not see any of the money. O’Bannon and 20 former college athletes, including NBA legends Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson, filed a class action lawsuit against the NCAA.

The O’Bannon case sent ripples through the press, but the payout to ex-college athletes was ultimately insignificant—and the concept of amateurism remains intact. Two years ago, the National Labor Relations Board declined jurisdiction on a ruling that could have allowed Northwestern football players to unionize. However, the O’Bannon case and its challenge to amateurism may wind up before the Supreme Court, and related cases are currently making their way through the courts.

The two biggest cash cows among collegiate sports are men’s basketball and football. In those sports, more than half of the athletes are black. Meanwhile, 87 percent of Football Subdivision athletic directors are white and 90 percent of university presidents are white, according to a 2015 study by the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. Eighty-eight percent of football coaches, many of whom are the highest-paid state employees (for instance: Alabama’s Nick Saban rakes in approximately $7 million annually), are white. As sports agent Don Yee noted in the Washington Post, every NCAA president or commissioner of the five major collegiate athletic conferences ever has been a white man.

Branch remarks in his Atlantic piece that while slavery analogies must be pursued with caution, NCAA patriarch Byers himself made the comparison. Branch describes a meeting with lawyer Michael Hausfeld, who represented O’Bannon, in which Hausfeld quotes from the memoir of Byers:

 

The college player cannot sell his own feet (the coach does that) nor can he sell his own name (the college will do that). This is the plantation mentality resurrected and blessed by today’s campus executives.

 

Professionally compensated players have also invoked slavery to describe the economic relationship between the athletic labor force and its overseers. In 1970, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood, suing MLB for its use of a reserve clause that essentially bound a player to the team that drafted him in perpetuity, told broadcaster Howard Cosell that a “well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave.” The analogy is not precise as slavery, properly understood, is a system which does not compensate its victims at all. It simply permits them to live in exchange for their labor. But nonetheless, Flood’s comparison has a kind of dramatic power, especially considering the fact that he brought his case during the tremendous racial upheaval that America was experiencing in the late 1960s, the era of black militancy, Black Power, and cries of black self-determination. It must be understood that Flood was not challenging MLB about his pay, but rather about the fact that he could be traded from one team to another without his having any say about where he could work. He thought this reduced him to the status of property.

Flood’s case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where it lost in a 5-3 decision. Justice Harry Blackmun wrote one of the more infamous majority opinions in the history of the high court, dedicating an exhaustive portion of the decision to a rundown of notable baseball players from his childhood.

The one-year layoff from the game, the deterioration of his skills, the controversy he generated made a successful return to the game impossible for Flood, although he tried. But the case itself laid the groundwork for the development of a powerful MLB players’ union—plus the eventual abolition of the reserve clause and ability for players to pursue free agency. Three decades later, Alex Rodriguez would sign a then-record-setting 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers. But the escalation of players’ salaries meant that owners and management would have to be constantly on the hunt to generate new revenue streams in order to support this significant economic change. If the players pressed their advantage to get the highest guaranteed salaries the market would bear, the owners pressed their advantage to get as much money from the public as they could in order to insure that not only would their investments remain profitable but would in fact increase in value. It was all about the money and all about reducing the risk associated with investing in a sports team.

Labor rights struggles engulfed other professional sports as well. NBA players staged a near-boycott of the 1964 All-Star Game in protest of better working conditions. Robertson filed a lawsuit of his own around the same time as Flood, and NBA players were actually the first in major pro sports to gain free agency rights.

Flood, Robertson and others have understood that the monopolistic structure of professional sports leagues creates a logically inverted power dynamic between franchise owners and athletes. “There would be no money if not for the players,” Michele Roberts, executive director of the NBA players’ union, told ESPN in 2014. “Let’s call it what it is. There. Would. Be. No. Money.”

The athletes are the attraction, no question. But what the owners provide is not simply the athletes and their abilities but a structure of competition with leagues, appropriate playing venues, playoffs, championships, press and media coverage, and an image of heroism. The athletes by themselves could not provide these things for themselves. In the past, they have, on occasion, tried. But even in a sport as individualistic as professional boxing, a fighter as famous and independent as Muhammad Ali saw that he could not manage or promote himself. He needed a manager and a promoter. What management provides the athlete is the ability to play the sport without having to be concerned about anything concerning the management of the sport. That is important. In the end, the athletes need the owners as much as the owners need the athletes. But, as Matthew Futterman notes in his 2016 book Players: The Story of Sports and Money, and the Visionaries Who Fought to Make a Revolution, the athletes have successfully challenged the hegemony of the owners in the last 40 years to get their proper share of the pie.

Unions now protect from rapacious management the minuscule percentage of athletes fortunate enough to realize their MLB, NBA or NFL dreams.  In fact, they have charted a trajectory relatively opposite to the broader labor movement in America, which has been in decline for decades. But for college athletes and those who miss the pro mark, struggles to maintain even a basic income persist.

As seasonal employees, minor league baseball players angling for their big league dreams earn sub-minimum wage salaries of $1,100 to $2,150 per month—with no overtime. (This is excluding minor league players who were high draft picks and received substantial bonus money for signing professional contracts.) Yet in response to a lawsuit alleging that the players are paid poverty wages, Congress introduced in 2016 the “Save America’s Pastime Act,” which would exempt Minor League Baseball from the Fair Labor Standards Act (one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Cheri Bustos, did disavow her own legislation within a week of introducing it).

 

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The late 19th-century ideal of mens sana in corpore sano—plus similar ideals that extend back centuries—truly only applied to a select portion of the population. A combination of peak physical fitness and intellect was an expectation for men. As in the workplace, at the ballot box and in other domains of public life, space for women in athletics was limited or nonexistent.

Women’s sports did have several notable standouts in the early and mid-20th centuries, including multi-sport star Babe Didrikson Zakarias, tennis player Althea Gibson and sprinter Wilma Rudolph. Not until the 1972 advent of Title IX, however, did the floodgates truly open for women in sports.

And in 1973, tennis star Billie Jean King, who was in the midst of a crusade for equal pay for women’s and men’s players, captured America’s attention with her highly promoted “Battle of the Sexes” Game against men’s tennis player Bobby Riggs.

The late 19th-century ideal of mens sana in corpore sano—plus similar ideals that extend back centuries—truly only applied to a select portion of the population. A combination of peak physical fitness and intellect was an expectation for men. As in the workplace, at the ballot box and in other domains of public life, space for women in athletics was limited or nonexistent.

Four decades later, prize money for Grand Slam tournaments is now equal, but most smaller tournaments offer more substantial prizes to men—plus endorsement dollars for the top women’s players lag behind. For instance, with 22 Grand Slam titles in singles and 14 more in doubles over nearly two decades, Serena Williams is the greatest tennis player in modern history. Yet in 2015, she accumulated less than a quarter of the endorsement dollars as did Roger Federer. The comparison is not intended as a criticism of Federer, arguably the greatest men’s player in the history of the sport. However, Williams’s illustrious resume would seem to put her at least within range of Federer’s off-court earning power.

As a matter of fact, Williams is not even the most marketed player on the women’s circuit, although she is the highest paid woman athlete. The distinction belongs to Maria Sharapova, against whom Williams owns a 19-2 lifetime record. Sharapova’s comparative marketing prowess raises another specter of lingering sexism in the tennis economy. The physique of an athlete is, of course, important across almost any sport, where peak fitness is a required trait to maintain dominance. Thus, the spectacular condition of athletes’ bodies is a critical component of advertising appeal—the target viewer for corporations dreams of being in LeBron James shape. No one would question that Williams is likewise at the summit of physical fitness, but marketing for women’s sports remains built on sexist conceptions of ideal body type—conceptions that have historically discriminated against black women.

Meanwhile, athletes in women’s soccer, women’s basketball and more are still battling unequal pay. A lawsuit filed by the U.S. Women’s National Team contends that members of the squad, which has outclassed the men’s national team in both revenues and performance for years, are paid approximately a quarter each to the men’s dollars. (U.S. Soccer has countered that “for the 25 top-earning U.S. national team players over the past four years, 14 of whom are women, the average compensation is $695,269 for the women over that span, compared with $710,775 for the men, a difference of 2.2 percent”).

Player salaries in the women’s National Basketball Association are wildly out of line with those in the NBA, as economist David Berri describes for VICE Sports.

Diana Taurasi made the All-Women’s National Basketball Association First Team in 2014 and helped the Phoenix Mercury win the league’s championship. That season, she was paid the WNBA maximum salary of $107,500. In 2013-14, the Phoenix Suns employed Dionte Christmas for 198 minutes. For those minutes–the only minutes Christmas has ever played in the National Basketball Association–he was paid the league minimum of $490,180.

The difference is not solely explained by a significant revenue gap between men’s and women’s basketball. While the NBA pays players approximately 50 percent of overall league revenue (a proportion as high as it is only due to the pressure of collective bargaining), WNBA players amass, at most, 33 percent of league revenue.

The revenue gap is still a major sticking point for explaining why women’s leagues do not pay nearly as much to their athletes as men’s leagues.

While opportunities for women to play sports have surged over the past four decades, attracting year-round attention simply for the purpose of watching the athletes excel at their craft has remained an elusive goal. Despite the success of the U.S. women’s soccer team for years on the international stage, two professional leagues have folded within the last 13 years. The current National Women’s Soccer League, while featuring national stars like Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe, depends upon a handful of unpaid amateur players.

Beyond the nature of coverage, the scope of promotion for women’s sports is also inadequate. “Women’s sports are caught in a vicious cycle,” Louisa Thomas writes in The New Yorker. “The demand is so low partially because there’s so little mainstream coverage, but there’s so little coverage because there’s so little demand.”

There is certainly nothing wrong in recognizing and acknowledging that women spectators may be attracted to sports for strikingly different reason than men. But it should be noted that no similar expectation or supposition exists for men’s sports.

Television officials, corporate executives and many fans carry the implicit bias that an overriding factor must motivate potential consumers. John Miller, chief marketing officer for NBC’s 2016 Olympics production, exemplified the philosophy with his explanation for broadcasting the dominant U.S. women’s gymnastics team on tape delay. “They’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey,” Miller said of women fans. “It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and miniseries wrapped into one.”

Presumably, Miller’s comments are based on extensive market research and not simply his impressions. There is certainly nothing wrong in recognizing and acknowledging that women spectators may be attracted to sports for strikingly different reason than men. But it should be noted that no similar expectation or supposition exists for men’s sports. Male Fans attend Chicago Cubs games to see the Cubs outhit and outpitch the Cardinals, not for soap opera. Or so we suppose.

 

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Perhaps the most consequential money issue in sports is the control of public resources by private interests, including franchise owners, corporate sponsors, and real estate developers.

Professional sports leagues have long pit cities and their usually cash-strapped governments against each other for a limited supply of franchises. As deindustrialization, white flight and poor urban planning pummeled Rust Belt economies in the mid-20th century, sports provided fleeting sources of pride. Indeed, athletics have always served in some form as a respite from the toils of work life, family life and political life—fostering communities where fans can forget differences for three hours and pour all their energy into rooting for the home team.

Perhaps no better team fulfills this function than the Cardinals, a St. Louis mainstay for generations. Amid the national tumult of the 1960s, to which St. Louis was certainly no stranger, the Cardinals won three national league pennants with one of the most diverse rosters in the majors (a roster that included Curt Flood).

Economic studies have repeatedly shown that stadiums do not provide a return on their investment, and the horror stories are ample. But there is a larger question here about whether a major sports franchise is, in fact, an economic benefit to the city where it is located. This is a highly disputed issue but one that virtually no politician or city leader questions.

A quarter-century later, the St. Louis economy had struggled through years of economic decline and population hemorrhaging. St. Louis had also lost its original football franchise (also named the Cardinals) to Phoenix in 1988. Sensing an opportunity to rejuvenate its moribund downtown, St. Louis lured the NFL’s Rams from Los Angeles, a much larger media market, with a fully publicly funded stadium.

The deal included a clause that would allow the Rams to opt out of the stadium contract at any point if it fell from the NFL’s top tier of facilities. Sure enough, the Edward Jones Dome was already considered one of the least desirable NFL facilities just 20 years later. The Rams ditched St. Louis for a Los Angeles homecoming last year. While municipalities in the St. Louis region raise revenue through racially predatory systems of traffic ticketing and debtors prisons, the city, county, and state will continue to pay off millions in debt through 2021 for the abandoned Jones Dome.

Since 1990, over $30 billion in direct money has been transferred from public budgets to professional sports stadiums in the United States,[1] whether in the form of direct payment, forfeited property taxes or a variety of other schemes. Economic studies have repeatedly shown that stadiums do not provide a return on their investment, and the horror stories are ample. But there is a larger question here about whether a major sports franchise is, in fact, an economic benefit to the city where it is located. This is a highly disputed issue, as the 2011 documentary Battle For Brooklyn chronicles, but one that virtually no politician or city leader questions. No mayor or city council wants to be blamed for the departure of a major sports franchise, which is often why cities submit to the demands of franchise owners for partially public-funded venues and stadiums. The franchises offer jobs, they attract visitors to the city and thus leisure dollars, and they also are a point of pride. Tourism is a major business these days for most cities and a major sports franchise is a way to attract tourists.

Detroit, a city in bankruptcy that has shut off water to thousands of residents, has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to Mike Ilitch, the billionaire founder of Little Caesar’s pizza and owner of the Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League and baseball’s Detroit Tigers. Miami, a city that may literally be underwater within decades due to climate change and rising sea levels, has a $1.2 billion stadium loan to pay off.

On the same day Donald Trump was being elected to the presidency, a majority of voters in Arlington, Tex. cast ballots to spend at least $500 million on a new air-conditioned baseball stadium for the Texas Rangers which is set to open in 2020. (The Rangers’ current stadium opened in 1994.) Billionaire oil barons, one of whom cofounded the company building the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, own the franchise. Well, at least voters in Arlington were given the opportunity to reject the proposition on a ballot. In many cities, like St. Louis, for instance, questions about building new stadiums or pursuing a major sports franchise, is not even put before the people for a vote.

Cities benefit from the pulsing enthusiasm and vibrancy that multi-thousand person sporting events deliver. But when the game clock strikes zero and many fans return to a workweek of underemployment and underfunded schools, they are stuck with the bill for projects that line pockets of the wealthy. Of course, the question arises, if this assessment is accurate, why the fans, or the public in general, tolerate the situation as it is.

Among the worst cases may be Las Vegas, where the individual behind a $750 million handout in public money to stadium development, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, (full disclosure: I have been actively involved in an effort to stop Adelson’s proposal) possesses a net worth nearly three times the size of Nevada’s budget for the 2015 fiscal year. Though mental health and education services in Nevada are among the nation’s worst, both houses of the state legislature overwhelmingly approved the stadium bill in October. The Raiders have sought out Sin City because Oakland, still clawing out of over $100 million in debt on its stadium, refuses to fall into another public funding trap.

Cities benefit from the pulsing enthusiasm and vibrancy that multi-thousand person sporting events deliver. But when the game clock strikes zero and many fans return to a workweek of underemployment and underfunded schools, they are stuck with the bill for projects that line pockets of the wealthy. Of course, the question arises, if this assessment is accurate, why the fans, or the public in general,  tolerate the situation as it is.

 

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Contempt for money in sports has always accompanied the perception that dollars and cents corrupt the purity of the games. Consider the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, when the dominant Chicago White Sox intentionally lost the World Series at the behest of gamblers—a story immortalized by the 1988 John Cusack film “Eight Men Out.” In the 1950s, point-shaving scandals rocked college basketball, opening the door for Walter Byers and the NCAA to consolidate their authority. All-time MLB hits leader Pete Rose remains banned from the Baseball Hall of Fame for betting on games while he managed the Cincinnati Reds.

Surely, money has always corrupted in one way or another, but it is the unequal and illogical distribution of power that most plagues our cherished games. In his acclaimed piece for The Atlantic, Taylor Branch wrote of a young quarterback named Cam Newton, at that time a Heisman Trophy winner for Auburn University.

Last season, while the NCAA investigated him and his father for the recruiting fees they had allegedly sought, Cam Newton compliantly wore at least 15 corporate logos—one on his jersey, four on his helmet visor, one on each wristband, one on his pants, six on his shoes, and one on the headband he wears under his helmet—as part of Auburn’s $10.6 million deal with Under Armour.

None of the revenues from the Jackson Pollock-like display of corporate branding across Newton’s uniform could accrue to him. Speaking out could endanger his livelihood.

Newton is now the starting quarterback for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and the defending league Most Valuable Player. Last year, he became a source of both perplexing and completely expected polarization for his flamboyant (read: too black for many) style of play. According to a Sports Illustrated report, Newton met in the offseason with ex-George W. Bush communications maestro Frank Luntz about how to effectively deracialize his image.

Newton entered the 2016 season deflecting difficult questions about race, which contrasted noticeably with the nationwide national anthem protests spearheaded by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Charlotte, the city where the Panthers play their home games, has also been engulfed by protest after the police killing of unarmed Keith Scott—filmed by his wife as she pleaded with officers not to shoot him.

Kaepernick has spoken bluntly about his rage at ongoing police brutality in America. In a different era, taking such a stand may have adversely affected his career, as it did for 1968 Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who were suspended by the U.S. Olympic Committee for giving a clenched fist salute during the playing of the national anthem after they were awarded their medals —or as battling the status quo of inequity within pro sports did to Flood. Both Carlos and Smith went on to brief careers as professional football players.  Flood retired after playing 13 games for the Washington Senators in 1971, unable to recapture his previous form as a star athlete. Flood, Smith, Carlos, and Harry Edwards, who spearheaded the unsuccessful Olympic boycott movement of 1968 were all inspired by the chief athletic dissident of the era, heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who was convicted of violation of the U.S. conscription laws in 1967, when he refused to enter the army after he had been drafted in 1965. Kaepernick may be inspired by Ali’s example as well but probably other more recent influences play a role as well. Jersey sales for Kaepernick, who has struggled on the field in the last couple seasons and is no longer a starter for the 49ers, have soared, indicating that, like Ali, despite fans going to sports to escape politics, he has become something of a rebel with a cause that some people admire. Ali went on to become one of the most famous and richest athletes of his era during the 1970s.

Indeed, sports look much different than they did in 1972, the year Title IX was implemented and Flood lost his Supreme Court case. Before Kaepernick’s protest, University of Missouri football players joined a protest against racial injustice on their campus—threatening to sit out an upcoming game at the cost of millions of dollars to the school. Within days, university president Tim Wolfe stepped down.

Alas, we live in Donald Trump’s America. Kaepernick, the Missouri football players and any athletes who speak against injustice will always be jeopardizing their safety and security by doing so. Even with Title IX in place, fair pay for women athletes is not protected, and neither are their bodies from the judgment of marketing executives or physical violence from their male counterparts.

Economic privilege does not make racial or gender marginalization disappear. Even the stars who have benefitted from athletic trickle-down remain subject to the whims of the white men writing their checks.

As for the vast majority who do not last long in the pros or reach the pros at all, well, they may legitimately be struggling to feed their families—just like everyone else.

[1] Judith Grant Long, “Public-Private Partnerships for Major League Sports Facilities,” 82.