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Just Do It: Sport, the Culture of Punishment, and Status Coercion


Billy Hawkins is a Professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance at the University of Houston and author of The New Plantation: Black Athletes, College Sports, and Predominantly White NCAA Institutions.

This post introduces a symposium on Coerced: Work Under Threat of Punishment. Read the rest of the symposium here.


In Coerced, Erin Hatton describes the status coercion of colleges athletes and the contradictions perceived in their “privileged” positions on university campuses. For example, Hatton notes how NCAA and University officials use language to construct a narrative of privilege. Officials refer to athletic performance as an “avocation” rather than labor, reference playing for the “love of the sport,” and proclaim the benefits and opportunities afforded to collegiate athletes; in so doing, they strategically employ their marketing apparatus to craft this narrative of privilege and paint a picture of amateurism in the minds of college sport fans.

But inherent in the culture of sport is a culture of punishment and coercion. Physical and verbal abuses inflicted on players, and forcing athletes to play through pain, allow the industry to produce its desired end – a better athlete, a better performance, a win, a championship. Ultimately, wins and championships translate into revenue for professional athletes, coaches, and owners, and for university athletic departments and schools, in the case of intercollegiate and interscholastic athletes. Hatton exposes how college coaches employ their coercive power using three techniques: cutting playing time, cutting scholarships, and limiting a player’s ability to transfer to another school. Although the NCAA has tried to address the power coaches have in cutting scholarships (at least with Power 5 or autonomy conferences) or preventing athletes from transferring, coaches still have the ultimate power in controlling athletes’ playing time.

Furthermore, the culture of sport is fortified with idioms like “Just Do It,” “No Pain, No Gain,” and “Finish the Drill,” which reflect psychologically manipulative practices and coercion by coaches. Athletes are socialized into this culture of punishment, and they seldom question this language or the behaviors it engenders. It is a culture where physical training is used as a form of punishment to encourage conformity, and athletes are inspired to and sometimes rewarded for playing through pain and injuries to express their dominance. Meanwhile, playing time is a form of capital coaches employ to secure obedience. These practices are disguised under the mask of paternalism – the iron fist in the velvet glove, or what Hatton refers to as “paternalist uplift.” Without these mechanisms in place, how else could a 5’10” 180 lb White male football coach control a 6’5” 380 lb Black offensive lineman? These mechanisms have also prevented athletes from effectively organizing and creating a collective political voice and force.

Indoctrinated into this culture, I have been a victim and a perpetrator of these practices as an athlete and a coach. I took it for granted until, as a researcher, I began to interrogate Black athletes’ experiences at predominantly white National Collegiate Athletic Institutions. The imbalance in political power and wealth transfer created a relationship that resembled a plantation or an internal colonial relationship, where the colonized are at the mercy and disposal of the colonizer. The athletic Black body and the labor it produces have become a resource that undergirds a multi-billion-dollar athletic industry. Thus, I am extremely sensitive to a predominantly Black athletic labor force in the revenue-generating sports of men’s basketball (in 2021, 50%) and football (in 2021, 45%) being controlled by a predominantly white coaching staff (80% and 78% respectively) at the NCAA Division I FBS Autonomy conferences. Within this context, given this racial demographic gap, the use of punishment and coercion is strangely reminiscent of an unpopular history and persistent tension between Black and White men—i.e., a history that includes lynching, maiming, and other forms of punishment and coercion to control Black men.

I have seen these exploitative dynamics at work as a professor, as well. In one of my courses as a professor at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI), for example, I taught a number of student athletes who were reluctant about giving their best in this class due to their spotty attendance and class participation. After one class, concerned about their academic performance, I pulled them to the side and informed them that I would be telling their coach about their performance. They immediately snapped to attention and begged me not to contact their coach, who would have them up the next morning at 5 a.m. running stadium steps if he heard from me.

In another instance, I had a student and first-round NFL draft pick come to class when it ended to explain his absence. He had a slight grimace of pain on his face, and he noted that he had just left treatment due to an injury he suffered the previous game. He noted that he had been heavily sedated, and hoped I would excuse his absence. I extended the courtesy, and I informed him to make sure he thought hard about the physical sacrifice he was making and the toll it was taking on his body. Regardless, on Saturday evening, he was suited up and played the entire game.

Playing through pain or while injured is a common practice in sport, and it incorporates both elements of punishment and coercion. Stepping on the field or in the arena while injured is self-inflicted punishment that results from the fear of losing one’s position in the draft—not to mention the social mobility that college sport can make available. Players are coerced into “just doing it,” surrendering their agency to practices that border on deviant, both physically and psychologically.

These are examples of the employment of punishment and coercion in the collegiate athletic context. Players’ agency is minimized by the cultural constraints of losing playing time or being labeled weak or un/coachable if they exert their agency. Both are labels that can make it extremely hard for players to overcome and be successful during their years of intercollegiate eligibility, or, if they are talented enough to get to the professional level, these labels could follow them and damage their success and the length of their tenure as professional athletes. Therefore, agency is an illusion in the sport culture, which enables the employment of punishment and coercion to be without restraint.

Of course, the logics of status coercion and punishment also play out in the realm of professional sport. A salient example of these logics at play is National Football League (NFL) owners’ retaliation against quarterback Colin Kaepernick. During the 2016 season with the San Francisco 49ers, Kaepernick took a knee during the playing of the national anthem to draw attention to racial injustices and police brutality against Black people. This protest evolved into a movement, ultimately costing Kaepernick his job in the NFL. Through their use of status coercion and punishment, NFL owners have illuminated the message and unwritten policy of, “shut up and play ball.” Despite their status and perceived privilege, professional athletes are still subject to the will of owners, who can deny them access to work.

The historical presence of punishment and coercion is endemic in the fabric of this nation, especially in terms of the colonizers’ relationship with indigenous people and enslaved Africans. Thus, settler-colonialism and slave-master practices incorporated punishment and coercion in the dispossession of land from its original owners and depriving individuals of their ability to self-express, all in the name of securing and preserving the legacy of white privilege. They are common dictates within a corporatocracy.

In its current configuration, the athletic-industrial complex is a corporate venture where the settler-colonialists’ and slave masters’ practices of punishment and coercion are replicated and deemed a necessary means to achieve desired ends. Whether at the youth, collegiate, or professional levels, knowingly and unknowingly, athletes surrender their agency, subjecting themselves and being subjected to punishment and coercion.

Can sport evolve, incorporating competitiveness and cooperativeness without relying on punishment and coercion? More broadly, can this nation evolve as a world leader without the use of punishment and coercion within its borders and throughout the global community? What is it about the white psychosis that induces these practices throughout social institutions, like collegiate sports? Is it the fragility of white supremacy and the desire to sustain white privilege? As this nation moves to de-center whiteness and its reliance on punishment and coercion to survive, it is worth underscoring, in the words of Frederick Douglass, that “the limit of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”