Child’s Play? Black Labor in the Sports Industrial Complex

By Theresa Runstedtler

February 20, 2012

[Author Note: The voluminous press on “Linsanity” has not only exposed the “orientalist” visions of American society but it has also laid bare our basest racial assumptions about black athletes. This blog post (originally part of paper for the 2011 American Studies Association meeting) is an effort to build on William C. Rhoden’s analysis in “Breakout Stars Shine a Light on Those Left Out,” New York Times, February 19, 2012. Rhoden argues, “African-American athletes faced and continue to confront negative stereotypes that militate against being invested with the type of universal character traits that are at the root of the Tebow and Lin phenomena.” In what follows, I look at why these “negative stereotypes” persist, and to what political, social, and economic ends.]


“On the floor of Shoemaker Center and other camps, hoop dreams flourish and youthful bodies are inspected and assessed in an atmosphere more meat market than training ground. It’s both the good (say defenders) and the bad (say critics) of our national sports obsession. It’s also big business, American style: a world where kids are the product, coaches the buyers, and event directors and hangers-on the middlemen who must work the system, know the right people and outhustle their opponents to succeed.” –Josh Chetwynd, “The Hoopster Supershuffle,” U.S. News & World Report, November 11, 1996.


How is it that a people who labored for hundreds of years as chattel slaves have now become the ultimate paragons of laziness in the eyes of mainstream America? At least some of it has to do with the hypervisibility of African Americans in certain types of employment that have been cast as “play.” Their disproportionate representation in sports (both amateur and professional) has become a frequent point of critique for white conservatives and certain members of the black middle class. There has been a tendency to blame black youth, particularly those from poor and working-class backgrounds, for their pathological “sports fixation.” Yet this narrow, individualist perspective ignores the structural forces driving black overrepresentation in the sporting industries.

The case of African American NBA hopefuls exposes a fundamental paradox. Young black boys from the urban ghettos, criticized by mainstream society for being shiftless and sports-obsessed, form the highly disposable, largely unpaid, and ironically “invisible” labor force that drives the profitability of the sports industrial complex. Although many have critiqued the child and sweatshop labor involved in the manufacturing of sporting products overseas, few have considered the laboring of African American youths as they climb the athletic ladder. And yet these phenomena are essentially two sides of the same coin.

The expansion of neoliberal globalization, and the concurrent rise of the sports industrial complex and the prison industrial complex have been (and continue to be) intimately interconnected. In the case of the sports and prison industrial complexes, both involve mutually favorable relationships between public/non-profit and private entities that benefit from the continual flow of bodies through the system. According to popular wisdom, sports and prisons are practical solutions to the complicated economic and social problems associated with the United States’ “surplus population.” (For example, we can reduce violence and keep our communities safe if “at-risk” youth get involved in sports, and if that fails we can always lock them up in prisons.) In this way, the commodification and criminalization of young black bodies goes hand-in-hand. It is no accident that these two industrial complexes arose at the very same moment that the nation began to deindustrialize (as transnational conglomerates moved their production sites overseas), the government started cutting back/privatizing social programs, and the mainstream media/entertainment industries became increasingly corporatized and consolidated. As Patricia Hill Collins notes, “Athletes and criminals alike are profitable, not for the vast majority of African American men, but for people who own the teams, control the media, provide food, clothing and telephone services, and who consume seemingly endless images of pimps, hustlers, rapists, and felons” (Collins, 2006, p. 311).

A number of interlocking political, economic, and social imperatives are driving the expansion of the sports industrial complex on the very backs of black bodies at the turn of the twenty-first century. Not only are public and private entities profiting from the mass movement of black talent through the system, but as David J. Leonard and C. Richard King argue, the commodification of black athletes “also functions as an ideological and discursive commodity used to sell the American Dream and color blindness in post-civil rights America” (Commodified and Criminalized, p. 9). Arguably, maintaining the prison industrial complex and other types of racial caste systems in the United States (i.e. unequal education, healthcare, etc.) relies heavily on black hypervisibility in the sporting realm. On the one hand, individualist and sanitized stories of black success in professional sports are offered up as proof that race no longer matters. On the other hand, the overrepresentation of black athletes at play (especially those who do not follow the prescribed “rules” of sporting etiquette, both on and off the court) reinforces the notion that black people must be properly managed, and if necessary, caged.

So, how does foregrounding questions of labor – particularly the unpaid, physical, and often injurious labor performed by marginalized black youth in the hopes of “making it” – change our understandings of the significance of the sports industrial complex in the construction and reproduction of contemporary racial and class inequalities? To begin to answer this question, let’s look at the 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams alongside the increasingly aggressive recruitment of black basketball players at younger and younger ages.

Although now considered a classic, Hoop Dreams remains relevant as a window into the increasingly corporatized and industrialized mining of the black ghettos for basketball talent. The film follows two black teenagers from inner-city Chicago from their recruitment to play basketball for a private, suburban, and predominantly white high school in 1987 to their college freshman year in 1992-1993. It is important to remember that the production of the documentary and its release coincided with a number of intersecting shifts in U.S. society: continued deindustrialization and the movement of production sites overseas; President Bill Clinton’s welfare to workfare reforms and growing disinvestment from public housing and public schools; the crack epidemic and the intensification of the War on Drugs; and the rise of an information and service economy, all of which had a disproportionately negative impact on the lives of poor and underemployed people living in the cities.

We encounter William Gates (Cabrini-Green housing project) and Arthur Agee (West Garfield Park) as they struggle to adapt to the largely foreign academic and social environment of St. Joseph High School in Westchester, Illinois, the alma mater of former NBA star Isiah Thomas. Incidentally, St. Joseph’s uses Thomas as a recruitment tool, holding him out as an example of black success for the likes of Gates and Agee to emulate. The two recruits quickly learn that shooting hoops for St. Joseph’s is more than just child’s play. They face 90-minute commutes to and from school on public transit. They must always perform their best during the team’s long and difficult workouts and practices. They must also live up to the high expectations of their families, who are just as invested in their journey to the pros. Every day and every game, they fight to remain relevant in what amounts to a highly competitive job market. According to a 1996 report, “out of 540,000 kids who play in high school, only 4,500 go on to play Division I basketball – a teenager has a better chance of getting accepted at Harvard.”

What do Gates and Agee get for their efforts? The school offers them scholarships and medical care for sports-related injuries, and not much more. Their struggles at home continue. In one scene we see the Agee family living in darkness after Arthur’s mother is unable to pay the electric bill (the filmmakers paid for it to be turned back on). We learn of his father Bo’s battles with drug addiction. When Arthur’s parents are unable to keep up with his increasing tuition (he has a partial scholarship), he must leave St. Joseph’s. Although Gates has a full scholarship, he nearly loses it all when he suffers a serious knee injury that limits his playing time and therefore his opportunities to be seen by college recruiters. Even with an offer from Marquette University on the table, he barely makes the required score of 18 on the ACT exam to ensure his eligibility to play. In the meantime, St. Joseph’s relies on the strength of its basketball team to pull in greater sums of alumni money for the school.

In looking at basketball recruitment in the years after Hoop Dreams, it’s clear that the mining and refinement of black talent has opened up new streams of revenue in the sports industrial complex – all of which hinge on a steady flow of black sporting labor. The business of recruitment works best when it has an ever replenishing pool of desperate young men without access to quality education and facing diminishing job prospects. Although fashioned as a charitable, even humanitarian exercise that will teach young men character and give them a chance to lift themselves and their families out of poverty, in reality this aggressive recruitment runs on a transactional logic. At the Sprite Super Six in 1997, an event showcasing New York’s high school basketball talent at Madison Square Garden, Don Crenshaw, a former USC basketball player and an executive in Nike’s basketball division, claimed that such tournaments were about fostering “Nike values.” As Crenshaw told New York magazine, “For us, it’s not about money . . . It’s about being there for the kids. We want to feel that we are involved and giving back to some of the kids, the very kids who support us. We’re helping advance the sport” (Chris Smith, “Sneaker Wars,” New York, March 1997, p. 42).

As far back as 1978, Nike had already been courting the allegiance of college coaches and players, using brokers like the now infamous Sonny Vaccaro to secure teams and talent for sponsorship deals. Since then, top college coaches have gone from making a few extra dollars on the side through informal agreements to garnering huge deals. Even Vaccaro, now the head broker for Adidas basketball, acknowledged the “incredible hypocrisy” involved in this exploitative system: “The networks, the colleges, the sneaker companies, the coaches, the NCAA – they all make tons of money. The only ones who don’t make money are the kids, and they’re the only ones who get punished when something looks bad” (Smith, p. 42). (Vaccaro was likely referring to the rumors that surfaced in 1997 that he bought some clothes for his protégé and then high school senior Lamar Odom. While the NCAA could do nothing to Vaccaro, it threatened to take away Odom’s eligibility to play.)

With rising financial stakes, the penetration of corporations into “amateur” sports has gone to lower and lower levels of the food chain. In the 1990s when physical education, athletics, and after-school programs were all experiencing sharp budget cuts, sporting conglomerates like Nike and Adidas quickly moved into the gap. As a Nike spokesperson acknowledged, “The fabric of high-school sports is changing . . . and more schools are becoming dependent on us” (Smith, p. 42). There are strong economic incentives for high school coaches to seek out corporate sponsorships. In 1997 the coach of St. Patrick’s in Elizabeth, New Jersey received a $20,000 bonus for his high school after switching his team’s allegiance from Adidas to Nike. Even in states where cash payments are prohibited, companies are still able to give out free gear in exchange for a school’s brand loyalty. In effect, the players become walking billboards as their performance on the court acts as an extension of conventional advertising campaigns.

In 1993 when the NCAA put limits on the amount of college recruiting that could be done during the high school basketball season, Nike and Adidas once again saw an opportunity to expand their marketing efforts and market share. In effect, the new NCAA restrictions led to an explosion of corporate sponsored summer camps, clinics, tournaments, and leagues. Josh Chetwynd of the U.S. News and World Report described the summer circuit as “a cutthroat, virtually lawless environment” and a “crucial link to the sneaker companies.” The shift to summer play has only elevated the importance of brokers like Vaccaro and their extensive networks of mostly white coaches, clinic coordinators, and camp directors, who work together to organize events based on maximizing profits and cross-promotional opportunities for themselves and their corporate employers. Summer camp directors not only control the flow of information about players to recruiters but they work to ensure a large and loyal talent pool for their corporate sponsors. They also make a nice living. In 1996, Bobby Korsten, the director of the Adidas ABCD camp made more than a top college assistant’s $100,000 yearly salary.

The NCAA has vowed to clean up summer league basketball. However, it is more than just a simple matter of reform. After all, the rush for the bottom in search of new markets has only accelerated in recent years. Now that players can go straight to the NBA out of high school, an elaborate system of recruiting and ranking, along with extensive media coverage, has even ensnared children as young as sixth graders. It is no wonder that an increasing number of student athletes already have bodies battered with overuse injuries by the time they arrive on college campuses.

The line between amateur and professional basketball has become incredibly blurred. The very same products manufactured in the sweatshops of the global South are being marketed on the backs and feet of young black boys in the United States. And, the mining of basketball talent in the ghettos has opened up new streams of revenue for the sports industrial complex, all of which are built on the eager, unpaid labor of black youth. Those who want to work on these issues already have a host of potential allies, for the problems of race and class in the sports industrial complex overlap with many of the same issues facing prison abolitionists, anti-globalization activists, and the anti-sweatshop movement. One way to begin to draw this connection is to make the work of young black athletes visible.

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