Large majority opposes paying NCAA athletes, Washington Post-ABC News poll finds


“We have long heard from fans that there is little support for turning student-athletes into paid employees of their universities,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said. (Michael Conroy/Associated Press)

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that a large majority of the general public opposes paying salaries to college athletes beyond the scholarships currently offered.

Only 33 percent support paying college athletes. At 64 percent, opposition is nearly twice as high as support, with 47 percent strongly against the idea. Nearly every demographic and political group opposes it except non-whites, for whom 51 percent support. The breakdown among whites (73 percent oppose, 24 percent support) tilted strongly in the opposite direction, echoing the perspective of NCAA President Mark Emmert.

“We have long heard from fans that there is little support for turning student-athletes into paid employees of their universities,” Emmert said in a statement. “The overwhelming majority of student-athletes, across all sports, play college athletics as part of their educational experience and for the love of their sport — not to be paid a salary.”

Still, advocates of a “pay-for-play” model remain the most vocal, pointing to the discrepancy between a free-market employment system within athletics departments, in which universities can hire coaches and administrators for salaries reaching millions of dollars, to a capped economic system for athletes, whose earnings are limited to the value of scholarships, no matter how much money their success — and likenesses — may generate for the schools they represent.

Over the past two months, the NCAA has been sued in an antitrust claim that called the organization an “unlawful cartel” and has encountered the attempted formation of a student-athlete union by members of the Northwestern University football team, all while defending the longstanding concept of “amateurism” as essential to the college academic experience.

“It’s laughable, but it’s not funny,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “They pay the scholarship, which is the amount the school pays to itself. They’re not out a nickel. The athletics department pays the school. Then they claim that they’re poor. Then they pay themselves these outrageous salaries that are market-based, but they say they don’t have any money to give to the players, but they have $8 million to give to a football or basketball coach and $1 million to give a baseball coach.”

According to the poll, critics like Bilas are in the minority. Only 19 percent indicated they strongly support paying salaries to college athletes. No demographic or political group, except for non-whites, had more than 25 percent expressing strong support for the idea . Though some groups were more supportive overall than others, most rejected the proposition. Just 40 percent of men, for instance, are in favor vs. 27 percent for women. Among self-professed fans of college sports, 37 percent support paying player compared with 27 percent of non-fans.

The public, however, was split evenly when asked about the proposition of allowing college athletes to form a union to negotiate their rights and working conditions, with 47 percent supporting and 47 percent opposing.

The racial contrast was more pronounced on the issue of unions, with 66 percent of non-whites supporting the idea but 56 percent of whites opposing it. Nearly two-thirds of respondents under the age of 40 were in favor, but 57 percent of individuals over age 50 were against.

In late January, the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) filed a petition to the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of several Northwestern football players, citing the risk of concussions and other long-term injuries as a reason why college athletes should have organized representation to “improve their terms and conditions of employment through collective bargaining.”

According to Ramogi Huma, a former college football player at UCLA who also serves as CAPA’s founder and president, the current scholarship model constitutes compensation for college athletes, but the students deserve the right to argue for more, such as medical coverage or a trust fund that would go into effect after graduation.

“I think what needs to change is when it comes to physical and financial protection, players deserve a real seat at the table with the power to negotiate,” Huma said. “There’s nothing that’s guaranteed. There are things they can bargain over, even under NCAA rules. For instance, whether or not former players have their medical expenses paid for down the line, beyond one year after they’re out.”

Yet a majority of poll respondents still viewed the scholarship as adequate compensation, reflecting the view of many college administrators and the NCAA. Two months ago, several weeks before CAPA filed its petition, Emmert expressed enthusiasm over a possible stipend for miscellaneous expenses like laundry or trips home, calling it “less threatening” than the proposition of increasing a scholarship’s value to cover the full cost of attendance.

“I do believe we need to look at enhancing the cost of attendance, in particular on a need basis, but you can’t convince me there’s not great value in the scholarship and being a student-athlete,” Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson said recently, at the same function Emmert attended. “The other thing is, you have an opportunity. If you don’t’ want to be a student-athlete, you can say no and not go to school.”

Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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