A Senator Joins the Fight to Pay NCAA Players

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- This is the time of year when college sports is most nakedly a business.

The pretense that college athletes are first and foremost “amateurs” – university students who just happen to be pretty good at sports – is never more laughable than when the National Collegiate Athletic Association hold its annual men’s basketball championship – a.k.a. March Madness. In the space of three weeks, the tournament generates over $1 billion for the NCAA and its member schools.

To maximize the number of tickets it can sell, the NCAA puts the final three games in football stadiums so big that the spectators in the upper decks can barely see the players, much less the ball. The tournament is so important to CBS and Turner Broadcasting that they have locked up the rights until 2032; starting in 2025, they’ll be paying $1.2 billion a year for the privilege. Sponsors pay millions to be associated with March Madness. Most of the coaches get big bonuses – on top of their multi-million-dollar salaries – as their teams progress through the tourney. If you try to walk into a March Madness arena with a Pepsi, a guard will take it away. Only Coke – an NCAA “corporate champion” – is allowed in.

In recent years, the three weeks of the tournament has also become the time when the NCAA’s critics are at their loudest. The central issue is one of economic injustice. How can you justify a system in which everyone gets rich except those whose skills are creating all the wealth: the players?  You can’t – as more and more people have come to see.

When Sonny Vaccaro, the sneaker-marketer-turned-NCAA-critic  quit his job at Reebok in 2007 to devote all his energies to taking on the association, he was a lonely voice. By the time I joined the crusade in 2011, the number of critics had grown, but we were still a distinct minority. Today, it’s practically become conventional wisdom to describe the NCAA as a cartel that suppresses the wages of its labor force. Even the college basketball sportscaster Dick Vitale – a company man if ever there was one – has been calling for players to be paid.

Now comes a new critic – perhaps the NCAA’s most important and powerful yet. On Thursday morning, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut issued a white paper, entitled “Madness Inc.,” about what’s wrong with the “college sports industrial complex,” as the paper puts it.

Murphy is best known for his unwavering commitment to gun control; the shooting at Newtown, which took place less than two months after he was elected to the Senate, was a defining moment for him.

As causes go, college sports is hardly in the same league as mass shootings, of course. But the myth of amateurism perpetuates not just an economic injustice but also a racial one that could be pretty easily remedied. (Most of the football and men’s basketball players in the elite athletic programs are black; in addition to not being paid, they also have graduation rates that are far lower than white college athletes’.)

When I spoke to him, Murphy said that he’d been thinking about “jumping into the fray” for some time. “As a huge college sports fan, I can’t help but notice how much bigger the industry has gotten over the past decade,” he said. “As more and more money has flowed into college sports, it’s become increasingly indefensible that these kids remain impoverished while the adults become millionaires.”

Then came the injury to Duke University’s Zion Williamson in February after his Nike sneaker blew apart. “It was amazing to see Nike’s market value drop because of one misstep by a so-called amateur athlete,” Murphy said.

Madness Inc.,” which Murphy says is just the first of a series of papers examining college sports, focuses on the unconscionable economic disparity between the unpaid players and all those – mostly older, mostly white and mostly male – profiting from the system. For the most part, it is a rehash of what critics like Vaccaro have been saying for years – not that there’s anything wrong with that! – but it does have a few new gems.

Here’s my favorite: The $1.2 billion paid in salaries to the 4,400 head and assistant coaches in the five major conferences is $300 million more than the amount that goes to their 45,000 athletes in scholarship aid. “If a budget is a reflection of an institution’s values, these programs simply believe that coaches … are far more valuable than the student-athletes who provide all the labor.”

Murphy’s paper concludes that the NCAA and the college sports establishment must start finding ways to end the exploitation of college athletes and “fairly compensate them for their labors.”

I’m pretty certain that Murphy is the first senator to call for the players to be compensated. So it’s an important moment, a signal that the pressure on the NCAA to get some of its riches into the hands of the players may soon become political pressure. Murphy told me that he was issuing his white papers as a way to help educate his colleagues, and that he thinks legislation could well be in the cards.

Maybe, he suggested, if the NCAA remains resistant and a Democrat wins the White House in 2020, a new administration could use the recent court rulings that the NCAA is an antitrust violator as leverage to force it to change.

On Thursday, after I read Murphy’s paper, I called Vaccaro, who’s now 79. Given how marginal the improvements have been since he first started talking about the NCAA, I wondered if he was still optimistic that college sports could be reformed.

“I am,” he replied, happily citing Chris Murphy as the latest convert to a cause that gets more adherents by the day. “Someday, the kids will be paid.” Then he added: “Too bad I won’t be alive to see it.”

Vaccaro’s singular invention was the “shoe contract,” in which his company – it was Nike at the time – would pay a coach to have his team wear Nike sneakers.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is co-author of “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA.”

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