Ohio State's Jai'Sean Tate, center, tries to shoot the ball between Maryland's Justin Jackson, left, and Kevin Huerter during the second half of the Jan. 31 game in Columbus, Ohio. (Jay LaPrete/AP)

Anti-black prejudice is a key factor in some white Americans' opinions objections to paying college athletes for their work, according to new research published in the journal Political Research Quarterly.

The study found that it's possible to reduce support for paying college athletes among certain white people simply by showing them a picture of a black person's face. In social science, this is known as priming: subtly stimulating certain associations before asking a person a question or getting them to carry out a task.

Among whites with a high degree of “racial resentment,” there was a significant difference in support for paying college athletes depending on whether they were shown black or white faces before answering a survey question. For instance, when shown white faces, about 60 percent of high-resentment whites opposed paying college athletes. But when a separate group of high-resentment whites were shown black faces instead, opposition was closer to 80 percent.

The researchers measured racial resentment by asking whether respondents agreed with statements such as “if blacks would only try harder, they could be as well-off as whites” or blacks should overcome prejudice “without any special favors.”

Crucially, among whites who scored low on racial resentment there was little difference on the question of college athlete pay regardless of whether they were shown black or white faces. A second experiment yielded similar results when priming respondents with stereotypically black or white names, rather than faces.

Here's one of the charts from the paper, showing the effect of racial resentment on opposition to paying college athletes. Among the group shown “mixed faces,” opposition to athlete pay increases sharply with respondents' racial resentment.


Kevin Wallsten, Tatishe M. Nteta, Lauren A. McCarthy, and Melinda R. Tarsi

The question of paying college athletes has become a controversial one in recent years. In 2014, the NCAA had profits of $80.5 million from nearly $1 billion in total revenue. It also had more than $708 million in assets that year, according to a USA Today report.

In 2016, the NCAA signed an $8.8 billion deal with Turner Broadcasting and CBS for the broadcasting rights to the March Madness basketball tournament. That's on top of an existing $10.8 billion deal signed back in 2010. ESPN has a separate, $7.3 billion dollar deal in place to broadcast NCAA's football playoffs.

But none of that money flows to the student athletes at the center of that deal, because the NCAA mandates that college athletes must be “amateurs in an intercollegiate sport, and their participation should be motivated primarily by education and by the physical, mental and social benefits to be derived.” Moreover, according to the NCAA, “student-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprise.”

But some observers are now forcefully arguing that the NCAA itself, with its billion-dollar deals and tens of millions in profit, has become just the type of exploitative commercial enterprise its own bylines warn about. Legal scholars have written that the NCAA hides its exploitation behind a “veil of amateurism” that “keeps the revenues of college athletics away from student-athletes.”

Courts have ruled that some of the organization's practices violate antitrust laws.

But public opinion on the question of student-athlete pay is more mixed. Polls have consistently shown that most Americans are uncomfortable with paying college students to play semiprofessional sports. A 2015 YouGov survey found that 25 percent of respondents said student athletes should be paid for their time. A 2014 Washington Post survey had similar findings.

But the surveys have also consistently shown considerable racial gaps on the question. In the YouGov survey, black respondents were more than twice as likely (45 percent) as whites (21 percent) to support pay for student athletes. The Post survey similarly found that nonwhites were more than twice as likely to support student-athlete pay as whites.

One reason for the discrepancy: Most big-time college athletes are black.

“In the nation’s six largest athletic conferences between the years 2007 and 2010, African American men were only 2.8 percent of full-time degree seeking undergraduate students but represented 57.1 percent of football teams and 64.3 percent of basketball teams,” according to the study in Political Research Quarterly.

In other words, “debates about the financial benefits provided to college athletes are likely to be implicitly about race for most white Americans,” the authors wrote. And their results strongly suggest that white Americans' implicit racial biases partly explain why black college athletes still aren't getting paid for their labor.

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