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The NCAA says student athletes can’t be paid to play — even as their coaches, athletic directors and schools earn millions from TV contracts. A group of football players at Northwestern University is seeking to change the rules, claiming they’re university employees who should be able to form a union and bargain. We examine questions about money in college sports and the rights of student athletes.
- Sally Jenkins Staff writer and columnist at The Washington Post; Author of "The Real All Americans: The Team That Changed A Game, A People, A Nation" (Doubleday)
- Gabriel Feldman Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Sports Law Program, Tulane University Law School
- Lisa Delpy Neirotti Professor of Tourism and Sport Management, George Washington University School of Business
MS. JEN GOLBECKFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in for Kojo. It's a debate that's grown more heated as the dollar amounts have exploded. Should college athletes get a cut of the millions their schools make from TV rights and ticket sales to their games? Student athletes can accept scholarships for a free education and stipends to help with living expenses.
MS. JEN GOLBECKBut beyond that, NCAA rules say students can't be paid to play: no endorsement contracts with Nike or Adidas, no cut of the gate, and no share of the multi-million-dollar television contracts that enrich their coaches and athletic directors. But a group of Northwestern University football players is trying to change the rules. They're asking the National Labor Relations Board to recognize them as university employees, so they can join the union and bargain with the school for better treatment.
MS. JEN GOLBECKThe effort to unionize raises new questions about the role of money in college sports and the rights of student athletes and the future of amateur athletics. Joining us to discuss this is Lisa Delpy Neirotti, Professor of Tourism and Sports Management at the George Washington University School of Business. Thanks for being with us.
DR. LISA DELPY NEIROTTIThank you.
GOLBECKWe have Gabe Feldman, Professor of Law and Director of the Sports Law Program at Tulane University. He's also Associate Provost for NCAA compliance. Thanks for being with us, Gabe. And we have Sally Jenkins, Staff Writer and Columnist at The Washington Post and author of "The Real All Americans: The Team that Changed A Game, A People, A Nation." Let's start with you, Lisa. Do athletes who get full scholarships for four years of college deserve any additional compensation for playing revenue-generating sports like football or basketball?
NEIROTTII mean the real question, are these athletes employees. And I say, no. They are receiving a great amount of money in tuition. And they are gaining a college degree, or at least they have the opportunity to gain a college degree, if they put their mind to it. And I think, for most of these athletes, they want to be there. It's not that we're forcing them to be employees of the university. They could choose to go to a Division III school. They could choose to go to, you know, any school, or not play at all. So I believe that they are getting well compensated and they don't have to take this position if they don't want it.
GOLBECKGabe, let's turn to you. A group of football players at Northwestern University are making the case that they are university employees who are compensated in the form of scholarships to cover tuition. They say they have to put football first or risk losing that compensation. From a legal standpoint, could playing a college sport be considered a job?
MR. GABRIEL FELDMANWell, up until now the answer has been no. And the answer has been pretty clearly no across the board, not only for student athletes but also for graduate assistants. So for the Northwestern football team to win their case and to be recognized as employees and therefore allowed to unionize, it would take a shift in the law. I'm going to tend to both agree and disagree with what Lisa just said, or at least agree with her, but then reach a different conclusion.
MR. GABRIEL FELDMANI think the fact that these student athletes do receive compensation in the form of scholarship and exposure helps their argument that they are in fact employees, because the test that the NLRB and the courts look at to see if they are employees is, first and foremost; are they compensated? And then, if they are compensated, are they under the control of their university? And they clearly are. I mean, again, if we agree that they were receiving compensation, they are at the mercy of their coaches. And they often are required to miss classes to play their sport.
MR. GABRIEL FELDMANAnd unlike, let's say, graduate assistants, there isn't as direct of a connection between what these student athletes are doing on the field and what they're doing in the classroom as there is with graduate assistants. So I think there's a decent argument that these student athletes are employees. Again, I think it's a long shot that they'll win the case. But I don't think it's beyond possibility that they are recognized as employees.
GOLBECKAnd, Sally, what do you think? Do you think college athletes should be counted as employees or treated like other students who are free to have jobs on or off campus?
MS. SALLY JENKINSWell, no, I don't think they're employees. I don't think they should be treated as employees. They actually have access to all kinds of services that other students don't have access to. We've done a very poor job of explaining just how fortunate they are. On the other hand, I do think they should be free to enter the free-market economy when it comes to pedaling their images illegally. Schools have used a lot of thinly-veiled ways of pedaling Johnny Manziel's jersey and his image. He doesn't get a cut of that and he should.
GOLBECKYou, too, can join the conversation. Should student athletes be allowed to join unions? Should certain groups of students like Division I athletes or graduate teaching assistants be considered university employees? You can join us by calling 1 (800) 433-8850. Or you can email us at Kojo@WAMU.org. Lisa, you wanted to follow up on Sally's comment.
NEIROTTIYes. In fact, athletic departments spent 12 times the amount on athletes as they do a normal student. And so there's a lot of expenses around holding athletic programs. And I don't think the majority of people realize how expensive it is. So for, you know, SEC schools, they're saying it's $163,000 per athlete.
GOLBECKThat's what the school spends on the athlete?
NEIROTTIYes. And that's not just for football players, that's the average. So if you take that over a volleyball player, a soccer player or a, you know, swimmer, you know, that's -- it's a really expensive program to run.
GOLBECKSo, Sally, I'm going to start with you on this question, but I want everyone to weigh in. You've said the best solution here is to create a free market where revenue-generating athletes get a cut of the profits in school's bid for athletes. Can you talk about how that would work?
JENKINSYes. This is Taylor Branch's idea, not mine. He's expressed it much better than I will. But essentially, if you remove these artificial NCAA rules that forbid, you know, varsity athletes from profiting in any way, you know, we don't apply that to Jody Foster, when she's at Yale, or James Franco or Natalie Portman, when she's at Harvard. Nobody ever dreamed of telling an actress who wants to get a college education, you can't make money acting while you're in college or we'll consider you a professional rather than an amateur.
JENKINSAnd that's what we do with college athletes. It's a completely artificial distinction and we need to remove it. You know, if they want to accept cash from boosters who are willing to create a fund to lure the top talent to their university, that ought to be legal under NCAA rules. We've really created a separate class of citizen in revenue-producing athletes. And we need to actually define them better as what they are, which is regular students.
GOLBECKGabe, what's your take on this, legally and otherwise. Are these really a second-class of students who are having some rights denied that other students, like theater students, as Sally said, are getting?
FELDMANOh, there's no question. I mean there is no question that the NCAA has created a massive manual of very arcane rules that create a distinction between the student athletes and regular students. And one of the main distinctions is, as Sally said, they're not entitled to earn compensation for the things that they are very good at. And, as Sally said, whether they're an actor, a musician or your computer scientist, whatever it might be, if you're good enough to make money outside of class, you can get paid.
FELDMANThat doesn't impact your ability to be -- remain a student; whereas, it would impact you're ability to remain a student athlete. So I'm not exactly sure what Sally's specific proposal is. But I would agree, if the proposal is they should be allowed to get paid for their image and likeness. That they could have a marketing deal, an endorsement deal with an Adidas or a Nike. To me, that's a better solution than just opening it up to the free market where the schools pay, because I think they run into a whole lot of issues: one, with schools being able to afford to pay; two, is potential Title IX issues.
FELDMANI think they're surmountable. I don't think they're impossible to overcome. But I think, as a first step at least, let's let them get paid for their celebrity. Let's let other outside entities pay them. Then we don't have to worry about the Title IX issues, we don't have to worry about the budget issues of the schools. And these student athletes will get rewarded for the fact that they are making their schools a lot of money.
GOLBECKLisa Delpy Neirotti, your take on this? Outside of what the university is giving them, scholarship or otherwise, should these students have a right, like all other students do, to work outside of their jobs on campus?
NEIROTTII think, if the revenue is directly related to the individual, that's when they should get a piece of the cut. So not just general tickets and TV revenue but, for example, the video game licensing and when their name and likeness -- I mean, not name, but likeness is so associated with their likeness, it's hard to deny that that is them and that they should get revenue for that. Now, looking at another model that was in place when the Olympics were amateur, there was an athlete foundation that whatever money the athlete made during their time, it went into a foundation.
NEIROTTIAnd then after, let's just say, after they finish school, they could tap into that athletic foundation. This is one idea that's been floated out there.
GOLBECKSo what's the benefit of a system like that, where the money goes into a trust, which I think was the Olympic-style system, versus just letting them earn the money while they're students?
NEIROTTIWell, then it still keeps kind of a fair playing field for the athletes while they're in school. And I think that's one concern that people have, that if you've got this, you know, millionaire, let's just say, playing against somebody that can't make their phone bill, that would kind of cause problems within the team.
GOLBECKWe have a lot of callers who are interested in this topic. We're going to try to get to all of you. And if you want to join the conversation, you can call us at 1 (800) 433-8850. You can email Kojo@WAMU.org. Or you can get in touch with us through Facebook or by sending us a Tweet to @KojoShow. Let's actually go to the phones. We have John in Arlington, Va. John, you're on the air. Go ahead.
JOHNHi. I definitely think that student athletes and also graduate assistants should be treated as employees. And I think that universities have perverse incentives when you treat students differently, both benefits and detriments. Like, aside of the financial issues, student athletes have difficulty transferring. They are not, in football in particular, but in several other sports as well, there aren't, you know alternate farm leagues and such that they can go to. So college athletics is really the name of the game to get involved professionally.
JOHNBut you also see this with graduate assistants where, you know, for universities that have a research portfolio, there's a lot of pressure on professors to utilize those students that, perhaps at the expense of, you know, the students' studies or even holding their degree over their head. So, I mean, if -- when you create different classes of students, it creates incentives for schools to utilize those students for their own financial benefit, without regard to the future financial ability of those students, whether it's, you know, the health of college athletes or the ability of, you know, graduate students to have skills that they can then go on and use in the marketplace.
GOLBECKJohn makes a lot of points that match up with those that the Northwestern University football players are making. Gabe, do you want to respond to his comments?
FELDMANWell, I think I'm in general agreement. The only quibble I would have, again, is comparing graduate assistants to student athletes. I just think it's a much stronger argument for a student athlete to make that they are an employee, because, at least in theory, the work that a graduate assistant or graduate student is doing is directly in line with the work that they are doing as a student. And it fits in as part -- directly as part of their education. And there is clear and direct oversight from a member of the faculty. This is completely different when you're talking about a student athlete.
FELDMANThe services they're providing -- or on the football field or the basketball court -- they're completely unrelated to the education they're receiving in school. Now you can say there is a significant educational benefit to playing sports, which I would agree with. But that's not connected to what they're learning in the classroom. And there is no oversight from faculty members. This is just supervision from a coach.
FELDMANSo I do think there's a big distinction between the student athlete and graduate assistant. So even if we say they're graduate assistants or graduate students are not employees, I think there's an argument that student athletes are.
GOLBECKLisa, did you want to respond?
NEIROTTIYes. I mean, I think we're overlooking so many benefits that athletes do receive by going to school. One, they may not have that opportunity at all for many of these athletes if it wasn't for playing sports. They do receive a tremendous amount of academic assistance that other regular students may not receive. And yes, they are pulled away from the classroom. I witness it every day as a professor but, you know, they're -- they are learning. They're traveling. They're seeing different places. And I think, you know, they're learning a lot while they're playing even though it may not be directly related to their classroom.
GOLBECKWe're going to continue -- oh, Sally, I'm sorry, go ahead.
JENKINSWell, I would jump in here and say that I think that what they're learning is directly related to what they're learning in other classrooms. I think we ought to give them academic credit towards degrees for the 40-, 50- and 60-hour weeks that they put in in a Division 1A varsity sport. For the life of me I don't understand why you don't get intellectual credit for playing basketball under a Mike Krzyzewski or a Pat Summitt. I think we could solve a lot of these problems by respecting what athletes do more academically.
GOLBECKAnd Sally, we're going to get to that point and discuss it more in depth because it's a really interesting take on this. But first we're going to take a break. We'll continue our conversation then. Stay tuned.
GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking with Lisa Delpy Neirotti, Sally Jenkins and Gabe Feldman about amateurism in college sports. You can join the conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850 or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Gabe, you said there's a lot of legal hurdles for the northwestern players to overcome in their effort to form a union, but maybe that's not their end game anyway. What are the legal challenges and what do the players ultimately want?
FELDMANWell, I think the major legal challenge again is overcoming the decades of precedent that have said that student athletes are not employees. And whether or not they're successful there. And there's going to be multiple hearings in front of the LRB and then perhaps appeals to the federal court. And this could go all the way up to the Supreme Court in theory so it could take many, many years to be resolved.
FELDMANBut my sense from just hearing what the players have said, what the lawyers have said, is that they don't necessarily want to have a union so they can form a collective bargain agreement with the schools, NCAA. They really want some fundamental changes and in large part they want some voice in the rules that apply to them. And if you look at how professional sports leagues work, the professional athletes all have players unions. And they have a seat at the table to be able to decide, at least in part, what rules apply.
FELDMANCollege athletes don't really have that voice. And they certainly don't have any vote. And so I think in part what they're looking for is just basic rights and protections, some of it with respect to health and safety, some of what we're seeing professional athletes get. And some with respect to whether you call it minimum compensation, additional compensation or just enough to cover their full cost of attendance, which lots of studies out there show that even with these scholarships that many student athletes do not have enough money to cover their full cost of attendance. Sometimes a shortfall between 2,000 or $6,000.
FELDMANSo I think they'd be looking for sort of incremental gains like that and also the right to get paid, as Lisa mentioned, for use of, for example, their images and video games, to get compensation for that. I think ultimately they might want a free market system where they can go to the highest bidder. But I think at this point the end game is not to form a union. I think that's the means to an end.
FELDMANAnd the end here is to get some basic rights and to get some more protections and to end some of the exploitation that the Taylor Branch has that Sally has been talking about. And really just gives them again just not necessarily revolutionary change but just an evolutionary change to give them some basic rights.
GOLBECKAnd Sally, one of the things the northwestern players say that they want it long term health care for injuries they suffer while they're playing in college. Is that a reasonable request?
JENKINSI don't think it is just because you have -- you then get into, you know, workers' compensation issues. How do you define a football player differently from say a female lacrosse player? You know, the vast majority of athletes in college are nonrevenue-producing. This is a nonprofit endeavor. You know, the federal government defines the NCAA as a nonprofit organization.
JENKINSThe point here is not to create huge amounts of revenues and argue over everybody's cut. The point here is to create opportunities for athletes across the board. I actually think unionization and workers' comp issues takes away opportunities. I think it would lead to the loss of scholarships for thousands upon thousands of athletes.
JENKINSAnd, you know, I don't think there's anything wrong with telling revenue-producing athletes at places like Duke or Stanford or Notre Dame or Ohio State or Nebraska or Alabama, hey part of your role as a university representative and as someone enjoying this enormous privilege is to create opportunities for others. Why is that a bad thing to learn in college?
GOLBECKLisa, do you want to comment?
NEIROTTII can see where the athletes feel like they would like some voice at the table. And, you know, going back to the Olympic model, you know, years ago athletes had no voice. And now 20 percent of the governing bodies has to be current or recent athletes. And I know there is the student athlete councils at each school. I just wonder if they may be able to have a larger voice in all this.
NEIROTTIIn terms of the long term care, I just do not see that as sustainable. And, you know, then what happens if a drama person gets injured or a dancer? You know, where is this going to stop?
GOLBECKLet's take another call. We have Clara from Silver Spring. Clara (sic) , you're on the air. Go ahead.
CARLAThank you. This is Carla.
GOLBECKSorry, go ahead.
CARLAThat's okay. My daughter just graduated from Michigan where I grew up. And she told me that the athletes cannot work in the summer because they had to do stuff for the team. So most kids work in the summer and build up their resume. And the athletes can't do that so they're treated sort of like employees of the universities.
GOLBECKSo Carla raises an interesting point there. We also have an email on the same issue of students being employees. Alan in Columbia, Md. writes, "If these student players consider themselves as college employees, why aren't they paying income tax and contributing to their social security accounts from the scholarship income the institution is providing?" Gabe, why don't we have you start.
FELDMANWell, I think they would. I mean, I think there's no question that there might be some negatives that come along with them being recognized as employees. And I think you take the good with the bad and this wouldn't be a silver bullet. But again, I'm not sure that the student athletes at the end of the day really want to be considered employees for the sake of being considered an employee, I think they want to use it as leverage.
FELDMANAnd we're seeing that with the unionization. We're seeing that with the O'Bannon lawsuit. We're seeing that with the lawsuit that was filed yesterday, a class action suit against the NCAA saying that this cap on scholarships is illegal. We're seeing it sort of across the board. And I think the end result of this is that at a certain point, there's enough leverage for these student athletes that the NCAA starts to give in on some of these issues.
FELDMANAnd I don't know what the specific answers will be to these questions. But it's very clear right now, despite the presence of SAC and despite the presence of some very knowledgeable and ambitious student athletes, that what the NCAA and the individual institutions want is what they get. And maybe a way to change that is by winning a lawsuit or by being recognized as an employee.
FELDMANBut I don't think that's a result that anyone wants. I don't think we want a court stepping in telling the NCAA how they should run. I think we want the NCAA, the schools, the presidents and the student athletes getting together and figuring out some sort of compromise. There hasn't been any need or reason for the schools to compromise because the student athletes haven't had leverage in the past. So again, maybe this gives them the leverage they need.
GOLBECKGo ahead, Lisa.
NEIROTTISo over the years the schools have loosened up on letting athletes work spring breaks, Christmas and summer. And yes, there's some coaches that, you know, tell their athletes, even though it's not -- they're not allowed to, that they prefer them not to work. But I think it's up to the athlete to, you know, stick up for themself and say, I am going to get a job and I am going to do this. I mean, unfortunately I think some of these athletes don't voice up and don't move on their own because they're used to being told what to do and they just follow along. But there's plenty of opportunities for athletes to work.
GOLBECKGabe, go ahead.
FELDMANYeah, I just think with all due respect that student athletes are -- not that they're used to being told what to do but if they do second guess their coach or make their coach angry, they are at the mercy of their coach. Remember, they're not guaranteed four years of college or five years of college. These are one-year renewable scholarships. So if you're not a star on the team and the coach thinks you're expendable and you make noise and complain about what the coach is doing, you might find yourself without a scholarship.
FELDMANSo I just don't think it's realistic for most student athletes to voice up, as you said, because they're just risking too much. And they just don't have any protections. If a professional athlete did that, mostly they have guaranteed contracts. They don't have to worry about getting cut for doing something like that. And I just think there's too much at stake. These student athletes, as you said, are getting so many things that they would risk losing if they tried to ask for more.
GOLBECKWe have a number of callers who are raising points about fairness. I'd like to take a couple of those and then get responses from our panel here. Let's start with Anne in Edgewater, Md. Anne, you're on the air. Go ahead.
ANNEYes. I'm calling because the term student athlete, it was actually phrased by the NCAA so they could prevent and say that these are students first and athletes second, when no, they're athletes first and students second. I mean, some of them can't even read or write correctly because, I mean, the way -- and that's what I think.
GOLBECKAnne, thanks for your call. Before I get comments from the panel, I'd also like to hear from John in Alexandria, Va. John, you're on the air. Go ahead.
JOHNThank you. I just wanted to say the issue is a lot of share in profits. I just can't believe that the millions of dollars these young kids are generating for the universities in general, it seemed to have question that they shouldn't be in the mode of sharing that profit. And by that I mean, give them significant -- what the gentleman was saying, significant concessions with regards to their health insurance.
JOHNAnd frankly, I'm not sure where Lisa comes from, because if a student athlete is injured in the field, why should he not be compensated? That's a liability by the university. He was injured in the field by the university -- by playing at the university and he should be covered by health insurance. I mean, let's just basic (word?) .
GOLBECKAll right, John. Let's have Lisa respond and then we'll go to Sally.
NEIROTTISo remember, this is an opportunity. They don't have to play. They chose to play and we take risks in everything we do. So it's not like the university's forcing them to go out onto the field and play. So that's where I'm coming from.
GOLBECKSally, do you want to comment?
JENKINSWell, sure. I mean, look, we give all kinds of scholarships that come with strings attached. I mean, the idea that you have to fulfill some commitment in return for your scholarship, I mean, that's basic. That's true of, you know, any number of scholarships and grants that we give. I mean, yeah, there are certain things they're expected to do for that scholarship without basic salary compensation or health insurance.
JENKINSYou know, again, you know, dancers take certain risks. I mean, people who do all sorts of things on college campuses take risks. All of it contributes to, you know, hopefully the overall prestige and attractability of the university. It's all a communal effort. You sign an agreement for that scholarship to represent the university and do certain things in return for the extraordinary compensation of your tuition and all sorts of world class training, exposure on a stage that you simply couldn't, you know, find anywhere else.
JENKINSYou know, this idea that somehow because the university makes money off of college football and college basketball therefore it is, you know, automatically some sort of, you know, revenue-sharing endeavor, I mean, is nonsense.
GOLBECKLisa, you want to respond?
NEIROTTIWe have to understand that there's just a handful of schools that are making money off of athletics. The majority are losing, in fact, they're going into their general funds. You're already having the general student population, you know, contribute up to 18 percent of the athletic budget. So it's really, you know, an incorrect statement to say athletic -- schools are making money off of athletics. Of, you know, the FBS schools, those are the largest money-making schools, only a quarter of them are making money. So...
JENKINSI actually think it's even less than that, depending on the year. There were some years when literally only four or five schools in the major division 1A (word?) championship category actually showed a profit, you know. And the other thing that I would point out is, again, the number of revenue-producing athletes on a campus is a very, very, very small subset of the overall category of student athlete.
JENKINSAnd I quibble with the other caller. They are students first because, again, I believe that what they do in their sport has genuine intellectual content. I think the main way in which we're not compensating them is by not giving them academic progress towards degrees for all of the time that they're putting in. If we did they, we'd feel better about this whole compensation issue.
GOLBECKLet's take another call from Manny in Silver Spring. Manny, you're on the air. Go ahead.
MANNYYes. I'd just like to say Lisa's arguments are almost absurd. They sound like the same arguments that were made to justify plantations that made little or no profit while the large plantations made lots of profit in employing slaves. The Civil Rights Act that was enacted in 1965 will probably eventually settle this up in a very volatile way because I don't see the very wealthy and powerful and very white organizations at the NCAA giving up to a very poor and predominantly now African American sports complex. They're just not going to do it. They didn't give up the slaves easily. This won't happen easily either.
GOLBECKGabe, I'd like you to respond to this. Legally do you see the Civil Rights Act playing into the issues that we've been talking about here?
FELDMANLook, again, I think maybe as another lever, I don't think that there's a particularly strong argument of the Civil Right Act right now. I think there are probably some of the stronger arguments out there. But we heard these type of arguments and 13th Amendment arguments when we talked about professional baseball players and the reserve clause and not having free agency rights.
FELDMANSo it's a question of the potential exploitation of these student athletes. And I agree certainly with Sally when she said that we're talking about a very small percentage of student athletes here. We're not talking about the nonrevenue sports, that they likely get a much better bargain out of this. They're not producing revenue yet. They're getting a lot of benefits both in terms of scholarship and all the other benefits that they talked about.
FELDMANBut -- so I think we can narrow the issue to that 1 percent or .5 percent of the big time basketball and football players who do generate a tremendous amount of revenue for the sports. And I don't think it's an answer to say that a lot of -- most athletic departments lose money, because we all know lots of different ways to do accounting. And we can also look at, well, it's no surprise that many of these programs, even if we said the football or basketball programs are losing money, when you look at their coaches' salaries. Look at the money they spend on facilities.
FELDMANAnd I think there's a decent argument that because there is money being generated by these programs, it's got to be spent somewhere. And they're trying to do something to compete for these student athletes. They can't pay them to come over there, so they pay their coaches. They pay for better facilities. And there's money going everywhere except to the student athletes. And whether you say that's right or wrong, there are certainly many people -- I don't know if it's a majority -- that perceive that as unfair.
FELDMANAnd we may be at the point where the student athletes -- or enough student athletes have said, this is absurd. This is now a multimillion, billion dollar industry. We deserve some cut of it. And, you know, whether you disagree with that and say they're getting lots of benefits anyway, I mean, you know, we can agree to disagree on that. But the question is, whether it'll be enough leverage for these student athletes and whether some of these lawsuits might be successful. And we'll see.
JENKINSYeah, I mean, I think this is where you get into the free market argument. And I think I believe like Taylor Branch does, he's persuaded me, that if you remove the artificial restrictions that the NCAA rules set up, then you do remove this, you know, quote "plantation" style system. I think that if you allow boosters at schools, if you allow players to go to the highest bidders, that free market, actually, if you envision what would happen with that, one of the things that might happen is you might see coaching salaries come down a little bit as boosters redirect some of that money to players.
JENKINSThat's one way of actually taking some of a Nick Saban's $7 million salary at Alabama and redirecting it, because some of that salary is actually -- the only reason Alabama can afford to pay it is because boosters from the university put it together. So I think that if you let players go to the highest bidders and you let this market define itself, you eradicate some of the gross unfairness that's been created over the years, particularly as the market grows into a $1 billion business.
GOLBECKWe have a lot of callers. If you've called, please stay on the line. We're going to take a quick break. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Jen Golbeck, sitting in for Kojo. And we'll continue our conversation about amateurism and college sports in a moment. Stay with us.
GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck, from the University of Maryland, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Lisa Delpy Neirotti, Sally Jenkins and Gabe Feldman about amateurism in college sports. We have a lot of callers on the line, but if you'd like to join us you can call 1-800-433-8850. We're going to try to get to all of the calls, but before we do that, Sally, I had put off a really interesting point you had started making before.
GOLBECKBecause you had suggested that athletes be allowed to actually major in their sport and earn academic credit for the time they practice and play. And that coaches could become professors. So can you talk a little about that and how it would work?
JENKINSWell, I think the source of most of our anxiety on this subject is this anxiety that there is this small subset of players who may not belong on college campuses. Ooh, you know, can they really read and write? It's based in an ancient stereotype and a Victorian code that's really outmoded. People like Howard Garner, up at Harvard, have identified the different brands of intelligences now. We know enough about neuroscience to know about the synthesis that a great athlete has about his powers of perception or her powers of perception.
JENKINSAnd what learning at the very top level, world class expertise in athleticism is a brand of intelligence. I don't know why we're not giving them academic credit for that or for their leadership skills that they're learning, or for the collaborative skills that they're learning. I think we really need to rethink that. I don't see that they're different from any other performers on college campuses, like violinists or actors or dancers.
JENKINSI think if we redefine that, then along with that would come the idea of redefining the role of a coach. Make them faculty members, make them teach a syllabus, make them answer to a faculty senate. If Nick Saban can't teach a class that's available to the entire student body at Alabama, he shouldn't be at Alabama. Some of the greatest coaches in the world that I've known, have been the greatest teachers I've ever been around.
JENKINSI don't know why Mike Krzyzewski's teaching, which is incredibly valuable, is only available to about 15 students a year, given what he's paid. That doesn't make sense to me. You can't imagine how many people at the University of Tennessee I've met over the years who say, God, I wish I had been able to play for Pat Summitt or learn from Pat Summitt.
JENKINSLet's make these people available to the student body. And it would clarify our thinking on all of this. It would clarify their thinking. College presidents would feel better about those coaches presence on their campus. We'd have more leverage over those coaches and we'd have more leverage over those students.
GOLBECKWe got a tweet asking why we didn't have a student on our panel, but fortunately we have a couple former students who have called in. So I'd like to take their calls, just to get their take on this issue. We'll start with Lisa, in Annapolis, Md. Lisa, you're on the air. Go ahead.
LISAGreat. Thanks for taking my call. I was calling because of the thing about sort of bucking up as a student and an athlete and sticking up for yourself. I was a student first. And then was afforded the opportunity to play on a new Division I team at my school for the first year. And I couldn't believe the contract I was handed when I was given that "opportunity." The jobs I had to give up -- you couldn't accept a ride from a professor because it would looking to the NCAA like you were getting special treatment.
LISAThis was not at all a fun and games, isn't this great, I get to play this sport. There is a lot you have to promise that you're going to abide by because of NCAA rules. Now, that may have changed or it may be even worse than it was 10 years ago when this was my case. But as a student athlete, we go and travel. And you say that that sounds like a great thing to do. We would go on a bus. We would get to a hotel. We would sit by the pool, but we're not allowed to get in. We would eat what we were given. We would play our game at a site offsite from the other schools, wherever those fields were. We'd get on the bus and come home.
LISAThis was not travel, as an educational possibility. This was just getting to a game and getting game. We were not allowed to do certain things that the coach didn't want us to do, whether they were NCAA rules or not. This is very, very -- you were involved in this. It was every day practice, every day gym, every day workout, everything. And I came as a student first and it was very hard to keep those grades up while I was still doing this, you know, so that I could wear my school's name on my jersey.
LISAAnd I just think somebody should stick up from a student perspective and an athlete perspective, that this was not one of the big sports and I was putting in a huge amount of time.
GOLBECKI really appreciate these comments, Lisa. Are you willing to share what sport you played or what university you were at?
LISAIt was a softball. So it was women's sports.
LISANot a revenue generator. Not well attended by anyone. But something that I had played for years and was given an opportunity to do and thought it would be a lot of fun. And I couldn't believe the rules, just in a sport like that, I cannot imagine what football players are going through. I can't imagine what they have to put up with to keep everything in line and keep their lives on track to be able to play that sport. And I don't think anybody on this panel probably really understands what that's like.
GOLBECKLisa, I really appreciate your perspective. Before I let the panel jump in, I want to also hear from Larry, in Washington, D.C., who was also a Division I athlete. Larry, you're on the air. Go ahead.
LARRYYeah, thanks for taking my call. I have a couple perspectives on this, as well as a little bit of insight as to creative ways that some athletes at smaller universities, and maybe larger universities, are able to get just the operating cash to survive. Because we're not allowed to earn income. And so I was in a situation where my university went from NAIA to NCAA Division I, where previously, under the NAIA statutes, I was able to work at camps and earn money in the summer in my sport.
LARRYBut if you ever want a good read and you want to see what the NCAA guidelines are for camps and clinics, the stipulations are quite complicated. And in fact, I was then no longer able to work at that camp and earn income in the summer. But there's a situation where you're looking at maybe the top 40 or 50 schools that are going to generate revenue. Well, what about all the other 350 schools -- just speaking of a Division I. How are you going to appropriate the revenue to those smaller schools?
LARRYBecause it's really not fun watching the same 40 schools play each other. Or participating in that. The beauty about college sports is you have those small colleges and mid-majors that make up these conferences and you have that nationwide access, if you will. If the top schools are just playing each other all the time because that's where students are going to get paid and those universities can afford to pay, how are you going to spread this wealth that the upper class -- and this is very kind of sheik with today's events -- this divide? How are you going to spread that wealth amongst those top 40 schools?
GOLBECKThanks, Larry. Let's get some comments, both about Larry's call and Lisa, who talked to us about her experience. I'd like everyone to comment, but, Sally, let's start with you.
JENKINSWell, first of all, I'm really glad our softball called in and makes the point that she makes. I mean this is an old statistic, but they say that it takes 10,000 hours of practice at anything to achieve the level we commonly call world class. These are world-class athletes that we're talking about. And that's the amount of their time commitment. So I'm really glad we heard from her perspective, number one.
JENKINSNumber two, the second caller is exactly on point, but I think he's also sort of in the grip of a fallacy. It doesn't require Alabama money to play at Alabama's level. This whole idea that without a total balance of wealth, somehow we'd only have 40 football schools playing each other is wrong. The evidence of that is a school called Boise State. Their budget is about $8 million compared to 30 or 40 at Ohio State or Alabama. Same thing with Texas Christian, same thing with Wisconsin.
JENKINSWisconsin's done a great job of managing the money in their athletic department. They pay as they go. So it's not true that you would wind up with 40 like-minded schools all spending the same thing. That doesn't necessarily lead to inequality on the football field or some sort of generic product. Different schools have different philosophies about how much they invest and spend in these sports. And it works both ways, whether you spend a lot or spend not as much.
GOLBECKLisa, did you want to comment either on what Sally said or on what both of our callers said?
NEIROTTII completely sympathize with the athletes. I mean I, again, I see them in class and I'm not any way taking anything away from how many hours they spend and how much work they do. But I think it's important. And this may go back to leadership, and even parents -- that they have to know what they're getting into. Because even at the non-competitive schools, the coaches are still judged on win and losses. And so they are going to do everything in their power to make their team wins, otherwise they're out of a job.
NEIROTTISo whether that's right or wrong, the philosophy is that's what they're judged on. So I think athletes -- maybe all of us need to do a better job of educating young people, whether a college scholarship is really the right choice for them because it's a lot of hours, but it is a choice.
GOLBECKGabe, do you want to comment?
FELDMANSure. I'd have two quick comments. One, I think just because it's voluntary doesn't mean that we should allow one side to take advantage of the other. I don't think that means we shouldn't try to have more balance in terms of the relationship. And two, in terms of the competitive imbalance argument -- I think we hear this all the time and the NCAA has been making this argument for decades, that if we allowed schools to pay their student athletes, then all the best student athletes would go to the schools that have the most money.
FELDMANAnd that would lead to what? That would lead to Alabama always beating Florida Atlantic? Well, we already have that situation. I just think competitive balance in college sports is a myth. It doesn't exist. And if you're a top college football player and you're choosing between Alabama and if you put a smaller school out there, they're going to go to Alabama. That's not going to change. The only change will be that they'll be getting money to go to Alabama. And if anything, I think allowing, let's say boosters to pay these student athletes will actually give some of the smaller schools a chance to get some of those student athletes.
FELDMANBecause right now they're all going to those top schools. Now there's some exceptions, and there's some bad scouting, whatever it might be. But if you had a wealthy booster or alum from one of those smaller schools, they could actually say, you know what? I really want this kid to come here so I'm going to get him. And they're going to go to that small school instead of Alabama. So I actually think a free market could actually increase competitive balance.
GOLBECKWe have an email…
JENKINSI agree with that.
GOLBECKSorry, go ahead, Sally.
JENKINSOh, I just wanted to say I totally agree with Gabe. And I also think the other thing that people don't think about is the athletes want the stage. Alabama can only play so many players. So Florida Atlantic is actually going to get its share of players no matter what because they have a stage. And so it doesn't necessarily matter all the time what the highest bidder is willing to pay. And by the way, there's already highest bidders out there, under the table. We're just talking about elevating it above ground and making it legal under the rules.
JENKINSBut you definitely are seeing a trend towards top blue chip athletes going to smaller schools that aren't name schools because they want to play. They want to start. They want to play for three or four years, rather than have to sit on the bench for two years at Alabama. And so you see a natural redistribution of talent for that reason as well.
GOLBECKWe have an email from Engo that says, "Why should colleges be in the sports and entertainment business at all? Is there a reason beyond the fact that it makes money for the schools and provides exposure for athletes who want to go pro?" And we also have a call from Don, in Springfield, on a similar point. Don, you're on the air. Go ahead.
DONYes. As a long-time sports writer from way back, I see the college professionals now coming on as minor leaguers. In other words, baseball operates its own minor league system. Basketball and football do not have a minor league system. The colleges are operating this system for them at great advantage. Baseball, there are no stadiums that hold 100,000 and no field houses that hold 20,000. So I think it is a business at college. And as long as they're operating the minor leagues for basketball and professional football, that they should pay the athletes. Thank you.
GOLBECKThanks very much for your call, Don. We're coming towards the end of our time, but I'd like to give you each an opportunity to respond to that and also just wrap up your thoughts. Just about 30 seconds each. Sally, let's start with you.
JENKINSWell, look, I mean colleges are minor leagues for all sorts of professions, like -- I don't know -- medicine, business. This is an old complaint about college sports. Ooh, athletes might be using universities as a stepping stone to a professional career. Well, yeah. That's what all college students do. I don't know why that's a bad thing in the case of sports and it's a good thing in the case of, you know, people who are going to go on to business careers from Harvard. So yeah, colleges are minor leagues for all sorts of professions. Let's face it.
GOLBECKGabe, do you want to comment?
FELDMANSure. Just my quick take on this is that for decades we've heard similar complaints about the NCAA and this myth of amateurism. And for decades the courts have given protection to the NCAA to continue enforcing these rules that put limitations or complete restrictions on the ability of student athletes to earn money. There's clearly been a public shift over the last several decades where most see this as unfair.
FELDMANThe question is will the people sitting on the courts and the juries -- the judges and juries, will they see it otherwise? And will the NCAA, I think, decide to give in just a little bit more this time? Because I think the last thing that the NCAA wants and the schools want is, as I said before, a judge stepping in, telling them how to run their business. So I think whether it happens this year or in 20 years, we will see some significant change in the way these schools treat their student athletes.
GOLBECKAnd, Lisa, you get the last word, very quickly.
NEIROTTIThis has been a long debate, but I do think they're going to give in on the individual revenue rights, if it's directly related to their profile.
GOLBECKThanks very much to our guests. I'd like to think Lisa Delpy Neirotti, professor of tourism and sports management at George Washington University School of Business. Sally Jenkins, staff writer and columnist for the Washington Post and author of "The Real All-Americans." And Gabe Feldman, professor of law and director of the Sports Law Program at Tulane University. Thanks everyone for joining us. I'm Jen Golbeck, sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks for listening.
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