College Sports Can Be Exploitive. They Can Also Be a Lifeline.


I’m no fan of such restrictions.

In 1984, with the help of Arthur Ashe, I attended the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla. My first roommate was Andre Agassi, then the world’s best 14-year-old player, who struck each ball with a clean heaviness I’d never seen before. Two years later, that spry teenager turned pro. You know the rest.

But that’s tennis, a sport in which players as young as 14 can begin playing professionally. It’s also, of course, a sport known for its whiteness and wealth. The desire to control opportunities in sports dominated by Black athletes, to take advantage of Black labor and skill, is a whole different deal.


It’s fair to worry about what deep change would look like for N.C.A.A. sports. What will happen if we give star players more freedom, allow them to earn what they’re worth, and give all athletes labor protections? The collegiate powers that be predict doom for the entire undertaking. Don’t buy it. Doom was also predicted when athletic departments were forced to follow Title IX, finally giving equal opportunities for women’s teams.


Real transformation is more than justified right now, but it makes sense to proceed carefully. For all of the flaws in the college athletics model, there is an upside to the experience that is sometimes overlooked by those who want to take a hammer to the system.

Playing a sport, so vital to the fabric of life on most campuses, can boost an athlete not just for a few years, but for decades. I felt that lift in powerful ways as I shifted from tennis to the working world. The combination of Cal tennis on the résumé and alumni who had watched me play didn’t exactly hurt.

Years later, whenever I go back to the Berkeley campus, I’m still remembered and supported. I speak to the team. Retired professors come up and share memories of days when the stands were packed for matches against Stanford and U.C.L.A. Our indoor national championship trophy from 1989 has long been on display.

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