College athletics in the U.S. has become a billion-dollar industry over the past half-century, due in no small part to the explosion of television coverage of major conference football and basketball games. Its governing body, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), has received criticism on several fronts as the logical gap between college athletes’ status as amateurs and the incredible amounts of revenue generated by colleges, conferences, and the NCAA itself becomes more pronounced with each passing year.
In 2011, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera took a leading role in the national discussion when he penned a widely read story titled “Let’s Start Paying the Players.” That article grew into his 2016 book Indentured: The Rebellion Against the College Sports Cartel, co-authored with Ben Strauss.
Nocera appeared at the University of Louisville’s Kentucky Author Forum in April to discuss his book and what he believes is an unjust NCAA system that exploits athletes by curtailing their rights while profiting from their performance. He was interviewed for KET’s Great Conversations by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Vanity Fair contributing editor Buzz Bissinger.
Nocera covered business for the New York Times before becoming an opinion writer from 2011-2015. He has won multiple awards during his career for work at the Times and other publications such as Esquire and Fortune. Since Nocera began writing on the subject, other sportswriters and opinion makers have joined a growing chorus for reforming the NCAA.
“I admire you for this [book],” says Bissinger, whose book on Texas high school football, Friday Night Lights, was made into a popular movie and television series. “I think you put this subject on the map. I think you were the first – and certainly with the credibility of the New York Times – to write about it, and write about it in a different way. Not to concentrate on the picayune recruiting violations that most people in sports do, [but] to really look at the NCAA as a cartel, as an institution that is really destroying the civil rights of these kids.”
A Question of Individual Rights
Nocera argues that the NCAA’s denial of college athletes’ civil rights is at the core of what is a confusing, over-regulated, and autocratic system. All other problems associated with the NCAA – the nitpicking and often silly restrictions buried in the 400-plus page rule book, the oppressive economic exploitation – stem from this injustice, he says.
“I got interested in this subject around rights, much more than the issue of pay,” Nocera says. “I did write the first story with an idea of how to pay the players, but it was more of a thought exercise. And I did it five years ago, when I was just starting to get into this, and before the widespread criticism of the NCAA really gained steam. So, I hadn’t really thought much about it. And in the course of doing that story … I began to realize how pervasively the life of an athlete is controlled.”
The NCAA’s consolidation of authority really began in the 1950s, Nocera explains. Under the leadership of Walter Byers, the organization gained enforcement power after exposing a major point-shaving scandal in college basketball in the early 1950s and punishing the offending teams. Byers foresaw the burgeoning impact of television coverage of college sports, especially football, and the NCAA controlled broadcast rights into the early 1980s before colleges regained them in a Supreme Court decision.
Even after this decision, which coincided with the rise of ESPN and other cable networks, the NCAA still held enormous enforcement and marketing clout, and continues to do so. The NCAA also negotiates television rights for its men’s basketball tournament, the three-and-a-half-week spectacle known – and licensed – as March Madness. Revenue from the tournament annually exceeds $1 billion, Nocera says.
Money pours in from television packages, sports merchandise, sponsorships, and other areas, enriching NCAA executives, conferences, university athletic departments, and coaches. But the players – the “student-athletes” whose performance generates all of the revenue – receive nothing aside from a scholarship, and even that is subject to renewal and restriction, Nocera notes.
“Think about what the NCAA rules really are,” he says. “They are a national compensation limit placed on athletes by an organization that has 100 percent market power. … Why does [the NCAA] use the phrase, ‘student-athletes?’ Because in 1956, Walter Byers was worried that several states were going to allow injured football players to get workmen’s comp, that they were going to be classified as employees.
“What is hard to stomach, I think, if you are somebody who believes in capitalism, believes in the market, and also believes in justice, it’s hard to stomach the idea that the labor force, the guys that are making everybody rich, get nothing,” he adds.
The most prominent court case in recent years to challenge the NCAA’s practices was brought by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, who sued the NCAA for using his physical characteristics, jersey number, and playing style to create an avatar for a March Madness video game. A circuit court judge ruled that the NCAA’s amateurism rules violate antitrust laws, and that decision was upheld in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but Nocera says that both rulings stopped short of real reform. Furthermore, the Court of Appeals reversed the circuit court’s ruling that college players must receive compensation for use of their likenesses.
“Judges, like many Americans, are fearful of what might happen if the system was radically changed,” Nocera says. “And they also tend to buy into the NCAA’s rhetoric that ultimately what they’re doing is for the good of the athlete, on behalf of the athlete. It’s paternalistic, it’s a deeply paternalistic system.”
O’Bannon’s lawyers petitioned the case to the United States Supreme Court in March.
The Element of Race
Nocera talks about several other stories he came across during his column writing and research – some comical, some depressing – where athletes were unjustly investigated or punished by the NCAA. He takes particular exception to the NCAA’s transfer rule, which he says shows how the system is designed to benefit coaches and schools at the expense of players, who must sit out a year if they transfer and do not get a waiver. Nocera says that this restriction is ludicrous, noting that many college students transfer in pursuit of a degree and have unlimited freedom to choose where to go and when.
The NCAA’s academic requirements for players in football and men’s basketball are also oppressive, Nocera argues, and set players up to fail since they already devote about 50 hours per week to their sport during the school year. As a result, he says, “they take classes designed to keep them on the field or on the court. They take majors that make no sense.”
These players are, in effect, full-time employees of their respective schools, but the NCAA regards them as amateurs. It is a lucrative system for all parties involved – the colleges, the NCAA, and the NFL and NBA who use the teams as a farm system – except the athletes themselves.
Nocera says it’s important to point out that the amateurism rules extend to a player’s high school years as well, where they are prohibited from receiving any financial assistance whatsoever, no matter their economic circumstances. This points to what Nocera believes is an underlying element of discrimination inherent in the NCAA system, since major college football and basketball teams are largely made up of African-American players from poor backgrounds.
“This is a harsh thing to say, but I do think that the NCAA has an innate suspicion of a lot of black athletes that it doesn’t of white athletes,” Nocera says. “At the beginning of every season, there are always athletes that the NCAA is investigating who are incoming freshmen, either because of their academic record, or because of some shady person in their life. When was the last time you saw that happen to a white kid? I can’t remember it.”
Suggestions for Reform
Nocera says that from time to time, coaches, athletic directors, or incoming NCAA presidents (such as the late Myles Brand in the 2000s) have called for reforming the system, but he argues that the inequality has only become more pronounced through the years.
Unlike Bissinger, who has called for the abolition of college football, Nocera acknowledges the massive popularity of big-time college sports and feels that a complete overhaul of the system is unrealistic, especially one that would set up a compensation formula for players in football and men’s basketball. The only way such a radical reform could take place, he believes, is if the sport’s biggest stars would refuse to play in a major event such as the BCS championship or the NCAA basketball title game.
Still, Nocera argues that “there are small remedies, not large remedies” currently being discussed that could have real and lasting impact. These remedies would partially reorient the emphasis of the NCAA model back to the players – by allowing them the freedom to transfer without restriction or delay, by making them eligible to receive lifetime medical insurance, and perhaps most importantly, by giving them a lifetime scholarship.
“Let’s call [the players] what they are: athlete-students, not student-athletes,” he says. “They work 50 hours per week. Football and basketball is their priority. Everybody knows it. Classes are secondary. So one of the things that I argue is that they shouldn’t have to take a full load of classes while [they are on campus]. Take one class. Take two classes. And when you finish your eligibility, then you focus on your scholastics. Or you even leave school and come back.”