"The system deprives athletes of the education that they're promised": Joe Nocera on the injustice of college sports

"Indentured" co-author Joe Nocera discusses exploitation in college sports and efforts to reform the NCAA

Published April 2, 2016 8:45PM (EDT)

Syracuse players celebrate after beating Virginia in the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament, March 27, 2016, in Chicago.   (AP/Nam Y. Huh)
Syracuse players celebrate after beating Virginia in the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament, March 27, 2016, in Chicago. (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

On Saturday evening, the University of North Carolina and Syracuse University will face off in the Final Four of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament in front of tens of thousands of fans at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. The game will be televised on TBS, which along with CBS signed a 14-year, $10.8 billion contract with the NCAA for the rights to the tournament in 2010.  The Atlantic Coast Conference, to which both schools belong, will earn a record $40 million from the tournament. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and North Carolina coach Roy Williams each reportedly earn about $2 million annually. Aside from scholarships, none of the players on either team will receive financial compensation.

Both Syracuse and North Carolina are emerging from NCAA compliance scandals. A 2015 NCAA investigation of the Syracuse men's basketball program revealed "academic misconduct, extra benefits, the failure to follow its drug testing policy and impermissible booster activity." The university voluntarily sat out last year's tournament in an effort to avoid harsher NCAA sanctions; Boeheim was suspended for nine games earlier this season. North Carolina is awaiting the announcement of NCAA sanctions — which, conveniently, has been delayed until after the lucrative tournament — stemming from a decades-long pattern of academic fraud involving a "shadow curriculum" of fake classes taken by student-athletes.

The injustice, corruption and exploitation at the heart of college athletics are dissected in the new book "Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA," by New York Times columnist Joe Nocera and New York Times contributing writer Ben Strauss. "Indentured" explores the history of big money in college athletics and the ongoing fight to reform the NCAA, an organization that Nocera and Strauss believe acts against the interests of the very student-athletes it sanctimoniously claims to protect.

Joe Nocera joined Salon for a conversation about "Indentured" and the state of college sports:

Do you see Saturday's Final Four game between Syracuse and the University of North Carolina as an embodiment of some of the larger problems in college sports?

What it embodies is the extent to which the bargain between the university and the student is a corrupt bargain for the student. Because in both cases, but especially the UNC case, at the heart of it was what they call academic fraud. Basically, the athletes at UNC were not getting a legitimate education. They were taking these fake classes to stay eligible — they were majoring in eligibility. At Syracuse, for all the time they spent investigating, ultimately the main bad thing that happened was that an academic counselor took a test for Fab Melo, which is also a form of academic fraud. They embody the way the system deprives athletes — especially football and men's basketball players — of the education that they're promised.

Has the NCAA's handling of the punishments relating to these cases exposed its underlying profit motive?

Well, of course. Take the example down in Louisville, where they self-imposed a penalty to try and lighten the load. Or at Ohio State, where they basically said players got impermissible benefits, but they weren't going to get penalized until the following season because they had to play in the Sugar Bowl where there was a lot of money at stake. UNC is sort of the same thing. It's hard to believe that the NCAA doesn't already know what it's going to do, what the problem is, but here we are in the Final Four, and everybody's going to try to ignore it until they get through it and all they money is made. The ACC is getting somewhere around $40 million because of their success in this tournament.

Why do you think indentured servitude is an apt metaphor for the current state of college sports?

Indentured servants were people who basically worked for someone else for years, for no money, with restrictions on their movement and a limited ability to leave until a prearranged point. They were indentured to these other people, and college athletes are in many ways indentured. They have limited movement, they are deprived of many rights that every other American and every other student on campus has, and basically, they're in a system where everyone is getting rich off their labors and they get nothing of monetary value whatsoever. In fact, the NCAA is setting limits on their compensation, which you would think would be against the law.

And it's also restricting athletes' ability to profit from the use of their own image, which is maybe even more egregious. 

They don't have the right to use their name, image and likeness; they don't have the right to endorse; they don't have the right to get money from their autograph. In high school, if their mother takes money to go on a recruiting trip with them, that's a violation — they don't have the right to do that. The NCAA's definition of amateurism is really quite all-encompassing and incredibly onerous.

The NCAA holds up amateurism as the be-all and end-all in college athletics. Does that idea hold up under scrutiny?

They say a couple of things. First, they say, "They can't be paid because they're students." And then they say, "Well, they're students, so they can't be paid." The truth is that any other student on campus can be paid. And, in fact, they can be paid by the university and they're still students. So that's really a pretty bogus rationale.

The other rationale they have is that amateurism is kind of the special sauce of college sports. If you took amateurism away and you started to pay the players, you would wreck what was special about college sports. The fans would be turned off, the alumni would be turned off, the student body would be turned off, and they would lose what makes it special. I don't believe that's true. I think what's true is that they want to have some knowledge that the players are actually students at the university. Although in cases like the University of Kentucky men's basketball team, you sort of have to wonder if even that is something people care about, given that most of those players just spend one semester in school and then basically don't go to class for the second semester and then go pro.

A classic defense that you hear from supporters of the NCAA is that the scholarship athletes are getting a free education and thus don't deserve additional compensation. How do you respond to that line of thinking?

I think it's off-base for two reasons. The first is that athletes should have rights. Part of those rights are economic rights. They should get what their value is. Most of them won't go pro. They have this tiny window to make some money on their athletic ability and they're deprived of that.

So you could say, "OK, they're getting a scholarship that's going to be worth a couple hundred thousand dollars, and more importantly, they're going to get an education." But the truth is that when you're a college athlete — especially if you're a football or men's basketball player — you are on the campus to generate revenue for the university. That's your job, and that comes before academics every time. You don't get to pick the majors that you want, you don't get to pick the classes that you want, you miss tons of classes because you're traveling. That's what you're there for. So the idea that they're supposed to be satisfied with an education, which is basically substandard at best, is kind of a fraudulent argument.

One of the things that I'm arguing, aside from all the pay stuff, is that there should be lifetime scholarships. Athletes should not have to take a full course load. They should be able to get by with one or two classes a semester and then finish their education when their eligibility is done. I think it would be harder for people like me to argue that they were getting a substandard education if they had lifetime scholarships and if they had the ability to go back to school and get that education after their playing days were over.

Why has this conversation only become mainstream in the last five years or so? I suspect the explanation goes beyond simply the attention the issue has received because of the O'Bannon case and coverage like your 2011 piece in the New York Times Magazine and the 2011 cover story in The Atlantic.

Jay Bilas, who is a huge advocate for paying the players, told me that when he was a college athlete he thought a lot about things players were deprived of, like health care and so on. But he didn't really think about money, because his coach, Mike Krzyzewski, only made $100,000. Today, Mike Krzyzewski makes $10 million.

College sports has gone from a business that was hundreds of millions of dollars to being a business that's literally billions of dollars. It's a giant entertainment industry. I think one of the reasons people have latched onto this, why more sports writers and columnists are writing about it, why the average fan is thinking about it, is just because college sports is so saturated in money.

It's also because everything else about college sports is so blatantly commercialized. You have the NCAA sponsors, the bowl games all have corporate names, the players wear logos for Nike and other corporations. So to have all of that and to say, "Well, the players shouldn't get any of this," is so blatantly hypocritical that more and more people are looking up from the game itself and saying, "Gee, there's something really screwy with this system."

Sonny Vaccaro, whose story you cover in "Indentured," played a big role in the commercialization of college sports but is now active in reform efforts. What do you make of his motives for taking up this fight?

It's interesting because he was famously "the sneaker pimp" for much of his career. He was the guy who invented the sneaker contract — where you pay the coach to have the players wear the sneakers — and he did that for many years. If you ask him if he's trying to redeem himself he will vehemently say no, but it's hard to believe that's not part of his motive.

Another part of his motive is just that he has known these young, poor, black kids all his life, and he has spent much of his life thinking these guys are getting screwed by the NCAA. Not just with money, but with investigations and penalties and all sorts of things. So basically, he's angry about the NCAA. He's angry about the system. He is in many ways motivated by this anger that he harbors towards the NCAA.

What did you learn about those underlying topics of race, inequality and social justice while reporting on this issue? 

Before the current North Carolina scandal, there was a different North Carolina scandal that revolved around the football team, some of which had to do with academics, much of which had to with hanging around with a guy who represented an agent. A lot of players got in trouble. The mother of Devon Ramsay, one of the players, sent me a sheet of paper with the 14 players who were in trouble. The only thing she said in the note was, "What do these guys have in common?" And the answer was that they were all black.

So I started to really pay attention to that. Part of it is a money issue because a lot of these athletes are poor and they come from impoverished neighborhoods and single moms and they're black and they don't have any money. Amateurism is about money. So if you're a white middle-class kid and your mom wants to come on your recruiting trip, she just jumps on an airplane and pays for the ticket. If you're a single mom in an impoverished neighborhood that doesn't have much money, somebody has to give you the money, and the NCAA views that as an improper benefit.

The NCAA is extremely suspicious of African players who come to the United States to play high school and then college basketball. It's extremely suspicious of black players who have older white friends or benefactors — they just automatically assume something bad is going on. So there's a level of suspicion towards black players that just doesn't exist in the way they look at white players. That's the simple, plain fact that becomes more and more obvious once you focus on it.

"Indentured" discusses several economists who were important players in challenging the NCAA in the courts. Can you explain their role?

There are three economists named Andy Schwartz, Dan Rascher and Ernie Nadel — Nadel is now retired — and they were at a litigation consulting firm. Especially in antitrust law, you need economists to write briefing papers and do reports for the court, so they did a lot of that. They were sports fans, and they just got interested in this whole idea of the NCAA and college sports and antitrust and how the players were deprived of their rights, especially economically. They're also real free market guys, so their basic view is that the conferences should set the compensation limits for players and they should compete with each other the way American companies compete with each other.

They're really smart. The first time you hear their ideas, you're a little flustered. Even I was because you're not used to hearing it anybody talk like this. But as time went on, I found their ideas more and more compelling and persuasive, and I couldn't argue against them. The counterarguments all seem kind of ridiculous, patronizing even. When I was writing my columns about the NCAA, they became good sources for me. Then when I was starting the book, they became central characters, partly because of their views, which they've been pretty public about, but also because they provided a lot of the economic brain power that led the O'Bannon case. They'd been trying to gin up an antitrust case against the NCAA for like 15 years. They were the first ones to try and figure this out, so that's why they're big characters in the book.

Why do they propose that economic competition should take place at the conference level rather than at the university level?

They wouldn't be against universities doing it themselves, but their view is that the conference is the appropriate unit to set compensation. So that all the Big 10 players have the same set of rules and the SEC players have a different set of rules, and they can compete for players based on their different compensation rules, or different other rules for that matter. Some could offer lifetime health insurance or lifetime scholarships, that could be part of their compensation. There would be competition between the conferences just like there's competition between Google and Apple.

Does your salary cap proposal for compensating players appear in the book?

No, it doesn't. We don't get into proposals to fix the system, we mostly just let our characters do that. I have now come to the conclusion that my salary cap system probably violates the antitrust laws because it still allows the NCAA itself to set compensation limits rather than conferences or universities. I now believe strongly that players should be able to exercise their economic rights wherever that happens to lead.

How do the sports that don't produce big money — basically everything other than football and men's basketball — fit into this?

They actually call the big money sports the revenue sports. They generate the revenue. So I would argue that in all the other sports, the players work really hard — I acknowledge that — but they are not employees of the university in the way that a college football player is because they're not there to generate revenue for the school. I would basically say that the other sports should pretty much stay the way they are.

I do believe that the Olympic model should exist for all players in all sports. If the local auto dealer in Hartford wants to have the UConn women's basketball team do a group ad for their cars, they ought to be able to do that. That would also give people the right to their name and likeness, which they ought to have. It would allow them to sign autographs. I think everybody should be able to do that. But I don't think the players in the other sports should get paid because most of them really are getting an education, the universities can't really afford it and it just doesn't make much economic sense.

Are you optimistic about the movement to reform the NCAA?

I'm pretty downbeat about the prospect of real reform. There have definitely been some good things that have happened on the margins. As the Power 5 conferences have gotten more autonomy, now you have this cost of attendance payment, the difference between your scholarship and the actual cost of attending college. The players do get a check every month for that. Health care is a little bit better; there are concussion protocols now, at least at some universities.

Things have gotten better on the margins, but on the big stuff — due process, economic rights, stupid stuff like the transfer rule that overly restricts athletes — that stuff has not changed and there's no incentive in the system to change. Although the reformers have gotten louder and their voices have been heard more, the huge weight of all these institutions is on the other side. There was an article on CNN's website just the other day by Val Ackerman, the head of the Big East, and Larry Scott, the commissioner of the Pac-12, jointly writing an article about how privileged these athletes should feel because they're getting this wonderful free education and they have all these benefits.

So my views are very much in the minority. The courts have been a huge disappointment because even though they have ruled that amateurism rules violate antitrust law, they have not been willing to take the next step and say that if the rules violate the law, you have to get rid of the rules. The courts have had only the tiniest of remedies. The government is not going to get involved, they've got other fish to fry. So the only way the system is really going to change is if the players themselves rise up, and I don't really see that happening on the horizon anytime soon.

Do you think the NCAA's ideal of the "student-athlete" is a realistic concept?

No, I don't. Not the way we have it structured now. At the very least we should be calling them athlete-students, to at least emphasize what the actual priorities are. As long as college sports is a giant money-making behemoth, and as long as it's run by universities which are nonprofit and have a very different set of incentives and motives, they're always going to be at cross-purposes. It's always going to be problematic. There's always going to be some level of fraud and the players are always going to get cheated.

By Michael Garofalo

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