An important NCAA bylaw trumpets this lofty sentiment about athletic amateurism: “Student participation in intercollegiate athletics is an avocation, and student-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises.”
The statement gathers many disputed elements into a single sentence: that college athletics is “avocational,” that participants are “student-athletes” (with its suggestion that the two roles bear the same weight), and that one of the organization’s chief responsibilities is to shield its charges from exploitative money-making schemes.
In fact, Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss argue in their remarkable new book, “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA,’’ the organization may be the biggest threat to the long-term interests and well-being of the college athletes it claims to protect.
Nocera and Strauss build their case through a combination of anecdotes and analysis, tracking in chronological sequence the growing commercialization of college sports since the 1950s and the more recent efforts by a loose confederation of athletes, lawyers, economists, and advocates to oppose the NCAA’s stranglehold on money and power. It’s a complex argument, full of intricate legal and economic points, but the conclusion is simple. Through its system of rules, the NCAA forces athletes to accept the bulk of the risk for a meager share of the financial gain their efforts produce.
Division 1 football and men’s basketball are the major cash-generating sports in college athletics. America’s 25 highest-paid football coaches at public universities earned an average annual salary of $3.85 million in 2014. Some argue that the scholarships that athletes receive are generous compensation, but as percentage of total revenue their value is paltry. In the ACC and the Pac-12 conferences, total reported scholarship costs averaged only 5.6 percent and 7.3 percent of the school’s football and basketball revenues.
Until very recently, few schools guaranteed their athletes four-year scholarships, which meant an injury could prompt coaches to rescind their offers and leave students unable to pay for tuition or adequate medical care. Scholarships often fail to cover the full cost of books and other living expenses, and the NCAA’s draconian rules sometimes prevent athletes from eating food not supplied by the university dining hall. Something is deeply wrong when the star of the wildly lucrative Final Four basketball tournament complains of going to bed hungry, as happened in 2014.
For a number of complex reasons, including the time commitment required of athletes and insufficient academic preparedness and support, graduation rates for Division 1 basketball and football players are low.
Further only around 5 percent of these athletes will go on to professional careers in the NBA or NFL. A much higher percentage will, however, suffer chronic and expensive medical problems from old injuries. Claims that major athletic departments simply lack the money to fund long-term medical care with deferred accounts are undercut by the gargantuan sums regularly spent on new facilities and coaches’ salaries.
Universities, athletic conferences, and the NCAA can also profit from the rebroadcast rights to old games, merchandise sales, and the licensing of college players’ likenesses for video games. In one of many similar stories, they recount how basketball star Chris Webber helped make millions of dollars for clothing companies while still in college but was not allowed to give a jersey to his own parents, which would have violated NCAA rules. Many of their carefully reported stories show the NCAA enforcing rules in a selective and inconsistent manner that disproportionately punishes colleges and coaches who oppose the organization.
Nocera and Strauss quote a wide range of economists and attorneys who agree that the NCAA functions as an economic cartel by colluding to artificially suppress wages for workers. The phrase “student-athlete” was a legal fiction concocted in the 1950s to avoid paying worker’s compensation to the widow of a football player who died on the field. In 2014, football players at Northwestern went on strike, noting that they regularly worked more than 50 hours per week on sports. One economic analysis suggests that a free-market competition between schools to recruit men’s football and basketball players would result in natural wages between $100,000 and $300,000 per year.
It’s no longer plausible to claim that paying college athletes would somehow ruin college sports. The truth is they are already compensated, just inadequately so.
INDENTURED: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA
By Joe Nocera with Ben Strauss
Portfolio, 369 pp., illustrated, $30
Nick Romeo is a journalist and cultural critic.