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Excerpted From: Timothy Davis, America's Race-based Caste Structure: its Impact in College and Professional Sports, 9 Texas A&M Law Review 599 (Spring, 2022) (440 Footnotes) (Full Document)

TimothyDavisThe year following the death of George Floyd was accompanied by demands for American institutions and citizens to eradicate racial injustice and inequities in the United States. In sports, such demands resulted in varied reactions, including NASCAR banning Confederate flags from its events and properties, the National Basketball Association's (“NBA”) Milwaukee Bucks's refusal to play a game in protest of a police shooting, and the National Football League's (“NFL”) Washington Redskins dropping its 88-year-old name and logo depicting a Native American. Initiatives undertaken by the major sports leagues include the 30 NBA teams' cumulative pledge of $300 million and the NFL's pledge of $250 million to initiatives seeking to achieve greater social and racial justice in America.

Although the above-referenced changes and initiatives are welcome, they fail to adequately address persistent and structural racial inequities in college and professional sports. At both levels, race-related impediments contribute to limiting opportunities for Blacks to ascend, consistently over time, to coaching and other positions of power. In college sports, Black Football Bowl Subdivision (“FBS”) players and Division I men's basketball players disproportionately generate the revenue that funds the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) and college athletics programs. This transfer of wealth from Black college athletes in revenue sports to primarily White NCAA administrators, university athletic directors, coaches, and the White athletes who predominate non-revenue producing sports is exacerbated by the academic marginalization of Black athletes. Practices such as clustering athletes in academic majors of dubious value deprive Black college athletes of full access to an educational opportunity and thereby undermine the essence of the bargain between colleges and their athletes--playing intercollegiate sports in exchange for genuine opportunities to acquire a quality education. In addition, in both college and professional sports, Black athletes are subjected to race-based indignities that diminish their humanity.

Although college presidents, athletic directors, coaches, and team owners are in the position to effectuate change, they choose not to do so notwithstanding varying levels of awareness of the inequities and indignities experienced by Blacks in American sport. Awareness coupled with an absence of meaningful and consistent actions to address race-based inequities raises the question of why. Isabel Wilkerson's caste-system framework explained in her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent offers insight into why racial inequities in sport remain prevalent and persistent.

In Part II, this Article describes the major pillars of America's race-based caste structure. This socially constructed system, which uses race as its metric, creates a hierarchy in which Whites reside at the top as the dominant class and Blacks reside at the bottom as the subordinate class. America's race-based caste system embeds within the consciousness of members of each caste stereotypic beliefs and presumed societal roles.

Part III discusses how the caste-system mindset contributes to barriers that artificially limit the ability of Blacks to attain positions of leadership within college and professional sports. After discussing the limits of anti-discrimination laws to achieve greater racial diversity in sports leadership, this Article offers specific recommendations for achieving greater diversity. Part IV discusses the manifestation of caste-system mindset and its adverse impact on Black college athletes, including the transfer of wealth that they disproportionately generate in the primary revenue producing sports. Part IV addresses policies and practices that diminish the ability of Black athletes in these sports to obtain a meaningful education. It then examines legal and nonlegal strategies to protect the economic and academic interests of Black athletes. Part V discusses the dehumanizing indignities that Whites inflict upon Black athletes that are a consequence of the caste system. Once again, specific recommendations are made to address these behaviors. In Part VI, this Article concludes that in addition to the adoption of specific policies and practices, a necessary step in moving toward greater racial equity in college and professional sports is honest recognition that systemic racial inequities are, in part, a product of a caste-system mindset.

At the outset, it is important to be mindful of what caste is and is not. Caste is structure. It is not about feelings. Therefore, actions engaged in by White individuals are a product of an embedded caste-system mindset, which by itself does not make someone a racist who harbors and acts with racial animus toward Blacks. Rather, such conduct reflects the insidiousness of the caste system, its accompanying mindset, and profound influence on behavior. As Wilkerson states, the power of caste and its hierarchy is that it is not to be confused with feelings or emotions or morality. “It is about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence--who is accorded these and who is not.” Therefore, practices engaged in by White people acting without conscious racial animus but which adversely impact the lives and well-being of Black Americans demonstrate that none of us “escapes [the] tentacles” of America's caste system.

[. . .]

This Article has sought to demonstrate that although caste may not be the sole reason for racial inequities in sport, the caste-systems mindset reverberates throughout many of the policies and practices that negatively impact Blacks in sport. Because of caste's undeniable centrality in producing such inequities, overcoming them will not be easy. This Article has attempted to offer specific recommendations on addressing the negative manifestations of America's race-based caste system. As Wilkerson states: “The caste system in America is [400] years old and will not be dismantled by a single law or any one person, no matter how powerful.” A first step in achieving greater racial equity in sports must begin with acknowledgement by Whites, who are in positions of power within sport, of the role that caste plays in creating the assumptions that underlie the policies and practices that result in denying full participation and opportunities for Blacks in college and professional sports. Recognition and doing the hard work required to overcome the caste mindset will set the stage for developing the knowledge and empathy that will lead to policies and practices that will produce greater racial equity in sport.

Diminishing the impact of caste in sports could reverberate beyond sport. Because of its high visibility in American society, sport can model ways to eradicate the stereotypic assumptions embedded with the caste-system mindset. At the same time, it is important that Black athletes use their platforms to denounce race-based practices in sport and to call for racial equity. Wilkerson reminds us that historically individuals have taken the steps to overcome the effects of the caste mindset. “From the start of the caste system in America, people who were lowest caste but who had managed somehow to rise above their station have been the shock troops on the front lines of the hierarchy. People who appear in places or positions where they are not expected can become foot soldiers in an ongoing quest for respect and legitimacy in a fight they had hoped was long over.”

Professor Davis gratefully acknowledges the research assistance of Jonathan Carter (Wake Forest University School of Law, Class of 2022).

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