Two cultural moments converged this month in American sports that bear thinking about.
The first was the scandal that erupted around Rutgers college basketball coach Mike Rice, who was filmed physically, verbally and emotionally abusing his players.
The other was unveiling of the new film “42” about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, opening professional baseball and American sport to non-whites.
Robinson helped to shift the national dialogue about race and human decency.
Here’s how these two moments connect. In professional sports, players — black, white, male and female — now possess enough power and influence to protect their basic interests.
They have a seat at the table. Their dignity, their financial security, their physical safety are all at least given reasonable shrift in negotiations.
But in college sports, we remain locked in a pre-1940s cultural bubble, where mostly white sports professionals like Coach Rice retain all the power and players are prohibited by the NCAA from retaining even the most basic legal or professional counsel.
The abuse that went on at Rutgers was allowed to continue not because college officials were complacent — though that’s true as well.
No, the main culprit here is a fundamental, systemic and institutionalized powerlessness on the part of those young men who were being abused.
They knew when those balls were being hurled at their bodies, when they were being kicked and punched and shoved, that there was literally no one with any authority whose primary job was to represent and protect their interests.
This is nothing new. College sport has long been a shameful enterprise.
It is predicated on the idea that a mostly white community of university employees will enrich themselves fabulously, while a largely black cadre of players — along with often rural, poor white athletes — will play for free.
The lipstick on this pig is the pretense that these “student athletes” are receiving good educations (a fiction in most cases) or that a significant percentage of them have a shot at professional careers (a fiction in the vast majority of cases).
When Rice hurled those balls at those young men — when he blasted them with profanity and vicious homophobic slurs — he was acting out physically a much larger institutional system.
It is a system in which coaches and athletic directors and college presidents control everything. Players, meanwhile, are powerless pawns, often subjected to astonishing physical risk and chronic head trauma.
Jackie Robinson shattered the color barrier.
One wonders when a student athlete will be empowered to shatter the college sports cabal that has disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of athletes while generating billions of dollars for the people who manipulate and exploit them.
One wonders when universities will begin to break with the shameful tradition of running a massive sports and media empire on the backs of poor, underprivileged and powerless young people.
So tonight when the NCAA men’s basketball championship game is played, I won’t be watching. The system is too broken, too ugly, in much the way that professional baseball was shamefully broken before Robinson’s groundbreaking time.