When it comes to preventing young athletes from earning a fair share of the more than $8 billion a year generated by college sports, the National Collegiate Athletic Association is akin to a moralizing street mugger. It’s not enough for the organization to flash a knife and demand players’ wallets; it also has to tell everyone within earshot that, no, actually, empty pockets are good. That’s how the NCAA argues that its amateurism rules — which limit player compensation to tuition, room, board and small cost-of-living stipends, but do not restrict sports administrators such as Alabama football coach Nick Saban from collecting millions — are necessary and justified because they protect and enhance athletes’ educations.
There’s no connection between cash in a player’s hands — or a W-2 form in their mailbox — and their ability to open a textbook or show up to class. But that hasn’t stopped the NCAA from making this case in the court of public opinion and, more recently, in federal court. In a bench trial overseen by U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken in Oakland, Calif., that is scheduled to end Tuesday, former campus athletes are challenging the organization’s pay-for-play prohibition. They argue that it violates antitrust law by restraining competitive bidding among schools for the services of top athletes, similar to how tech giants allegedly conspired to hold down salaries by agreeing to not hire one another’s employees. Wilken’s ruling could come as soon as December.
If athletes win (and withstand a lengthy appeals process), it could utterly transform the plantation economy of big-time college sports. Depending on the scope of Wilken’s ruling — she could loosen NCAA restrictions a bit or a lot, or even eliminate them entirely — a gold-medal-winning Olympic swimmer like Katie Ledecky would be able to endorse products without jeopardizing her college eligibility. Football stars such as former University of Georgia running back Todd Gurley could sell their autographs for cash without sending state legislators scrambling to criminalize the act. Individual schools could pay athletes as little or as much as they like — the same way they now pay strength coaches, athletic directors, school presidents, grad students and everyone else with a campus job. (Actually requiring that athletes be paid would be beyond the scope of an antitrust case.)
The NCAA is telling Wilken that paying players would have “staggering and destructive implications” for college sports — and for the educations of campus athletes. “Maintaining amateurism,” the organization says on its website, “is crucial to preserving an academic environment in which acquiring a quality education is the first priority.”
How so? According to the NCAA, paid players would study less and play sports more. As its former vice president Oliver Luck once explained, paychecks and the “opportunity to do an autograph signing, or an endorsement” would “distract” campus athletes from “what’s really important, which is the educational component.”
Moreover, the NCAA asserts that permitting pay would make athletes less integrated into their campus communities. If an “athlete was being paid and it changed significantly their lifestyle,” NCAA President Mark Emmert testified in a previous federal antitrust case, “they probably would not be living in a residence hall. They probably would not be eating in the cafeteria, they probably would not be as — as active a member or participant in the life of a campus.”
Squint a little, don’t think too hard, and both of these justifications sound plausible. But they’re utterly divorced from the reality of campus athletics. Take the notion that pay would lead athletes to spend more time on sports-related activities. It’s hard to see where they’d find the extra hours. A 2015 survey found that athletes in the Pac-12 Conference spent an average of 50 hours per week on their sports and were often “too exhausted to study effectively.”
The previous year, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern University football players qualified as school employees under federal labor law, largely because they spent 40 to 50 hours a week on their sport during the season and up to 25 hours a week during the spring semester — compared with just 20 hours a week on academics. Kain Colter, then the team’s quarterback, testified that he was steered away from strenuous classes like chemistry and had to abandon a pre-med major because his sport was too consuming. “You can’t ever reach your academic potential with the time demands,” he said. “You have to sacrifice, and we’re not allowed to sacrifice football.”
Eliminating amateurism probably wouldn’t make athletes like Colter more distracted or more likely to sacrifice school for sports. It would simply allow them to be compensated for the sacrifices they’re already making. Working and earning while attending college isn’t exactly unheard of. According to a Georgetown University study, between 70 and 80 percent of college students are active in the labor market, with roughly 40 percent of undergraduates working at least 30 hours a week and 25 percent of full-time students also working full-time jobs.
NCAA schools don’t tell those students what they can and can’t earn for the sake of academic focus, any more than Georgetown — my alma mater — told me I couldn’t collect a check from my job at the student bookstore because it might distract me from my government homework. Actress Natalie Portman worked on a Star Wars film while enrolled at Harvard . Bumble CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd sold tote bags to raise money for animals affected by the 2010 BP oil spill while she was attending Southern Methodist University. Numerous professional athletes — including current Washington Wizards forward Jeff Green and former Baltimore Ravens lineman John Urschel — have completed undergraduate and graduate degrees while being paid to play sports. Why should campus athletes be held to a separate and unequal standard?
Speaking of Urschel, he played for the Ravens while pursuing a PhD in math at MIT. Did Emmert fret that he wasn’t eating at the school cafeteria? Did the NCAA send someone to check? All anyone needs to know about the assertion made by University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides during the O’Bannon trial — that allowing player pay would “drive a wedge” between athletes and their fellow students — is this: The same people making those claims are busy using the money they don’t spend on athletic labor to build lavish, multimillion-dollar, sports-only training facilities containing barber shops, bowling lanes, movie theaters, beach views and man-made lazy rivers , offering athletes a luxe world separate from the rest of campus.
The NCAA’s assertion that if players are paid, then they won’t study is inarguably paternalistic, arguably racist — would amateurism exist if it was siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars from predominantly white revenue-sport athletes to overwhelmingly black school administrators, and not the other way around? Nevertheless, the argument has worked in court before.
In 2014, Wilken ruled against the NCAA in a similar suit brought by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon over the uncompensated use of athletes’ names, images and likenesses on television broadcasts and in video games. Finding that NCAA restrictions violated antitrust law, she ordered that schools be allowed to pay athletes at least $5,000 a year via trust funds that they could access after their college careers. The NCAA appealed her decision, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit nixed the trust funds, finding merit in the organization’s education argument by declaring that all athlete compensation needed to be “tethered” to schooling.
This was a mistake. After all, if prohibiting player pay truly was crucial to making quality education the top priority in college sports, then the NCAA and its member schools would be presiding over a scholastic nirvana, which is not the case. Academic scandals marked by tutor-written coursework and no-show classes are as reliably regular as the changing seasons. A 2014 report from the University of South Carolina’s College Sport Research Institute found that the graduation rates of football and men’s basketball players in the major conferences were 20 to 31.5 percent lower than those of non-athletes. Back in the aughts, a University of Georgia assistant men’s basketball coach taught a course, mostly for his players, with a final exam that began by asking: “How many goals are on a basketball court?”
A ridiculous question, to be sure. But no more ridiculous than the NCAA pretending to be an academic guardian in order to plunder its on-field workforce. Three years ago, former University of North Carolina athletes sued their school and the organization, alleging that they hadn’t received legitimate educations because of widespread academic fraud. The NCAA responded by denying any responsibility to “ensure the quality ” of their schooling, and it later declined to punish UNC. It was a rare flash of honesty — a lesson for Wilken and the rest of us, too. Amateurism doesn’t protect education. It protects schools’ bottom lines.
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