Will the NAACP’s Call to Athletes Start a Mass Exodus?


Photo by Sean Benesh | Unsplash

It may have slipped many readers’ attention, but last week the NAACP called on professional athletes to not sign with teams based in Texas. There was a myriad of reasons, mostly boiling down to new voting laws.


Frankly, they may have missed the mark or may want to add another target – college football and basketball. College athletics is an $8.5 billion industry with 58% of that revenue coming from these two sports. Winning sells tickets. In order to win, you need talent.


Winning also helps with alumni contributions. Many professional teams help pay for their stadiums with a personal seat license – a free the season ticket holder pays on top of the cost of the tix. Alumni contributions and endowments are the original seat license. Want seats on the 50-yard line or courtside? Contribute. Want to rub elbows with the coaches? Pull out the checkbook.


What if there was a boycott of schools in states that restrict voting by “Blue Chip” athletes? Activists think that this could be the most effective way to get these states to change their ways. Don’t believe this, look at history.

Many say the most significant date in the integration of our universities happened on September 12, 1970. After a couple of lackluster seasons and feeling the need to integrate the University of Alabama football program, coach Paul “Bear” Bryant scheduled a game to be played in Birmingham against the University of Southern California.   


With an all-African American backfield, the Trojans of USC slaughtered Bama 42-21. Sam Cunningham, in his first game for Southern Cal, ran for 135 yards and scored two touchdowns. In the aftermath, Alabama assistant coach Jerry Claiborne was quoted as saying “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King Jr. did in 20 years.” By the next year, an integrated Crimson Tide team was 11-1.


At the beginning of this season, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Texas announced that they were leaving the Big 12 for the SEC. Why? Money. Also, some believe that winning the SEC football title means that your team automatically goes to the College Football Playoff. This is an event that has been dominated by Alabama and Clemson recently.


What if all these teams could not get the talent necessary to make it to this big stage? What if Texas and Oklahoma, instead of having teams that could compete in this talent-packed conference had hapless squads?


These days the unveiling of where the Blue Chipper is going is a pretty big deal. All you need to do is go on to YouTube and you’ll see a talented athlete, with a bunch of hats in front of him, revealing his life-changing choice. Imagine this scene if the hats that go on the heads are from schools where access to the ballot is not as restricted. Furthermore, imagine the athlete saying the determining factor was the ability to exercise their rights as a citizen.


Oh, and this movement would not just be limited to the incoming freshman. Recently the NCAA made changing schools much easier. By entering the “Transfer Portal” an athlete can change schools and immediately play the next season. Several athletes have taken advantage of this and had success on the field – notably Jalen Hurts, who transferred from Alabama to Oklahoma and finished runner up in the Heisman Trophy balloting.


Envisage the migration of athletes stating that one of the main reasons for their transfer was that they did not like how voting, or any number of hot button issues, are being handled. Would you see coaches begin to either subtly or overtly put pressure on state governments to change the rules?


And how many athletes would it take to change people’s minds and how quickly? It would have to be more than a handful and it probably would lead to changes not in time for the 2022 mid-terms but for the 2024 Presidential election.


Who and how would this get done? You are looking at an organizational effort that has to be more than one organization writing a letter and releasing it to one media outlet. It’s probably going to have to be on the order of what LeBron James and several athletes did to turn stadiums and arenas into polling places.


One other factor to consider is the most recent development in what is called Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL). Prior to this year businesses, from your local used car lot to the mega brands, could not hire college athletes as spokespeople for their products. This past June, the Supreme Court opened that door wide open in a unanimous decision in NCAA v. Alston. With their prowess on the court and their savvy on social media, college athletes are now valuable endorsers and can make money off their personal brand.


Powerful execs with companies on the west coast, upper Midwest, and eastern seaboard could easily reward those athletes who transferred in the name of social justice. One can imagine USC and UCLA alumni in Southern California bankrolling efforts so that their schools and the Pacific 12 Conference, in general, is once again a power in football and basketball.


Democracy and participating in democracy seem to be catching on amongst college-age Americans. According to a Tufts University study, there was the turnout for citizens aged 18-29 went from 39% in 2016 to 50% in 2020. One cannot say, with confidence, that current events do not affect the attitudes of college students or that this crowd is apathetic.


There is plenty of fuel out there and with the proper spark, you could see a fire sweep the country. Schools that are safe atop their respective perches will be scrambling to make sure they can get the talent to compete. If it gets too hot, look for coaches and wealthy alumni to be burning up the phone lines of state legislators and Governors.

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