College sports have long functioned to mark the difference between being on campus and belonging there. For the first fifty years of its history, the NCAA enforced the principle of amateurism, a principle borrowed from the British tradition of the sporting gentleman who competed for moral edification and nothing more. Instituted at the height of Jim Crow, amateurism primarily functioned to police the class composition of the white student body. Any excessively gifted or competitive athlete could not be a gentleman. Any working-class student was suspected of being a recruited athlete––a hired hand, a ringer. In 1956, the NCAA formally established the athletic scholarship under the banner of the “student-athlete.” Introduced amid the mass integration of football and basketball, the concept of the student-athlete primarily functioned to police the racial composition of the integrating student body. Any scholarship athlete was suspected of being academically unqualified. Any Black student was assumed to be a scholarship athlete. For a time, southern universities used athletic scholarships to keep their football and basketball squads white, by recruiting the best white athletes from the North. Then they, like their northern peers, used them to dictate the terms of a slow, uneven integration. College sports offered then, and offer now, a way of talking about class, race, gender, and belonging on campus without disturbing our faith in educational merit and the inequalities it justifies.
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