They wanted recognition of their right to unionize, which they had done. They wanted their labor commensurately compensated rather than leaving them at or below the poverty line.
They wanted what compensation they did receive protected against the whims of bosses who often took it away at the slightest perceived transgression. They wanted health-care benefits, pensions and vacations.
So most of the 1,300 black men who buttressed the Memphis sanitation department went on strike in February 1968. A month later, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. joined them. In April there, King was shot and killed.
Our newest college football championship coach, Dabo Swinney, didn’t sound aware of King’s last stand when he invoked King’s name at the start of the season to criticize San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s method of protesting police brutality against black men — kneeling during the national anthem. Swinney, the Clemson coach, recalled King, whose birthday this nation recognizes Monday, changing the world through “love . . . peace . . . education . . . Jesus.”
But as we all know, King altered the course of history through what King called — with credit to Mahatma Gandhi — direct action, exactly what Kaepernick exercised and others in the NFL and on college and high school football fields emulated in past months.
And I would wager that King not only would have supported Kaepernick’s protest but also would have opposed the stance of Swinney and others on the treatment of the college athletes who helped Swinney earn a $700,000 gratuity for winning the title, making the four-team playoff and finishing in the top five — all on top of his $5.1 million annual salary.
“As far as paying players, professionalizing college athletics, that’s where you lose me,” Swinney has said . “I’ll go do something else because there’s enough entitlement in this world as there is.”
It was that sentiment by white management about mostly black laborers in Memphis almost 50 years ago that caught King’s attention and brought him to attempt a rescue. What roils college sports today, when mostly well-paid white management lives off the sweat and blood of poorly remunerated, predominantly black male labor, echoes the concerns of those striking Memphis sanitation workers King embraced early in 1968.
Take, for example, a study from Drexel University several years ago that estimated how much college football and basketball players are worth to their institutions and how poorly the remuneration they do get allows them to live. The Drexel study estimated that college athletic scholarships left well over 80 percent of recipients living below the federal poverty line despite having an average fair market value to their schools between $120,000 and $265,000. Since then, some colleges and conferences have increased the true value of full athletic scholarships to offset such a shortfall.
But fans often confuse what college athletes get in return for playing their games as “free education,” as evidenced by the many responses to my tweet last week in the immediate aftermath of Clemson’s 35-31 victory over Alabama for the national title.
There is nothing free about an opportunity for an education provided only if you sprint, lift weights and perform publicly for the institution on scheduled nights and weekends in accordance with a for-profit TV schedule.
But the lack of equitability in college sports is beyond a mere paycheck. Like the workers tasked with keeping Memphis clean, the brief livelihoods on college campuses by athletes often are not protected against managers — i.e. coaches — who control their scholarships, influence which classes they can take and can refuse their wish to transfer to another school if they decide the one they attend no longer is in their best interest. The past few years, some colleges and conferences, such as Maryland and its Big Ten association, began guaranteeing athletic scholarships for all athletes as long as they stay in good academic standing.
That was one of the main reasons college football players at my alma mater, Northwestern, tried to get recognized as a union a few years ago. Though the National Labor Relations Board ultimately denied them, that same board last summer reversed an old ruling on its part from a Brown University case. It had used that decision to reject Northwestern’s unionization attempt. But now it recognizes that graduate students who do research and teach — contributing to the higher education corporation — should be treated as university employees, removing the argument of education as remittance for the reason college athletes can’t be viewed as the same.
And among the primary demands of the Northwestern unionization effort, as borrowed from the National College Players Association that has been advocating for college athletes for years, are better health-care benefits, just like the Memphis trash collectors around whom King rallied. After all, CTE, the brain disease costing so many professional football players the ability to live post-sports lives in good mental and emotional health, doesn’t start with the first NFL practice. College athletes suffer it, too. They suffer broken bones. And worn-down bodies. They don’t deserve to have to pay out of pocket for the sports-related injuries that linger throughout their lives when those who manage the college games rake in hundreds of millions off their toil and have health care for life. Colleges should pick up those tabs out of requirement and not option from the heart.
Sports were little more than a footnote in King’s life. He met with Muhammad Ali in March 1967 in Ali’s home town of Louisville during Ali’s forced exile from the boxing ring because of his strident opposition to the Vietnam War and, not coincidentally, gave his seminal public speech denouncing the United States’ incursion in southeast Asia shortly thereafter.
In December 1967, King joined a meeting in New York organized by black sociologist Harry Edwards and several black aspiring Olympians who demanded that Ali’s boxing license be restored, that U.S. Olympic boss Avery Brundage be sacked because of his dictatorial style and bigoted pronouncements, and that the U.S. Olympic team hire more black coaches.
King didn’t support those struggles because they were in sports any more than he turned up for the Memphis sanitation workers because they were public employees. He engaged with them because of his oft-repeated belief that injustice anywhere was a threat to justice everywhere. Not recognizing college athletes as other labor is just that.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for the Post.