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NCAA Is A Cartel And Should Pay Its Athletes, New York Times Author Says


March Madness will dominate televisions. But not everyone's a fan of the organization that puts on the event.

New York Times sports business columnist Joe Nocera has strong words for the National Collegiate Athlete Association. The NCAA, he says, is a cartel. Nocera's new book is called “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA.” 

“All members of all cartels cheat,” Nocera told KERA's Lauren Silverman during a recent episode of "Think." “In college sports, cheating is called recruiting violations. The NCAA has long been in the business of trying to prevent schools from violating the rules around recruiting … but it’s almost impossible to completely regulate. Then the question is: who do they go after and how hard they go after them? Who gets punished and who doesn’t get punished?”

While the NCAA has existed since 1906, it started getting powerful in the mid-1950s after the hiring of Walter Byers, who transformed the organization from what Nocera calls a “toothless thing” to the powerful, multimillion dollar organization it is today.

Nocera says that Byers, who died last year, created two major sources of power for the NCAA: the power to enforce punishments and the power of language.

The power of the NCAA

Byers’ first move as executive director was to tell every school in the country to boycott the University of Kentucky’s basketball team for a season, because they were involved in a points-shaving scandal. By doing so, he proved that the NCAA could (and would) punish a school that behaved in ways it didn’t like. From this singular action grew rules about athlete recruitment, behavior and NCAA enforcement.

Byers also introduced the term “student-athlete” after some seriously injured players were trying to get workers’ compensation. He put out an internal memo saying that from then on, everyone had to refer to players as “student-athletes.” The semantic shift became ingrained in the culture; the idea that players were employees and entitled to benefits was destroyed. The NCAA continued to profit.

Credit Tom Woodward, flickr

How to fix it

However, Nocera says, the goals of university athletics’ programs are at odds with the point of the universities themselves.

“Universities make a bargain with athletes: [they say] come to our school and help generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, work 50 hours a week … go on road trips that’ll last a week sometimes, and in return, we will give you an education and a better life,” he said. “Well, universities don’t really keep up their end of the bargain: there are very few legitimate majors that an athlete can take that don’t conflict with practice, and everyone knows practice comes first. There are a lot of players ‘majoring in eligibility’ taking classes that are designed to keep them on the court for four years.”

Nocera says there are two big ways to reform the NCAA to make it fairer to its players.

The first, which Nocera attributes to economists Andy Schwarz and Dan Rascher, argues that the NCAA is not the appropriate unit to be setting compensation, but that conferences like the Big 12 are. This reform would have the conferences basically compete for athletes on the basis of compensation.

Some of this is happening now, on a small scale. The University of Alabama allows its student-athletes to receive the full cost of attendance in scholarships, which amounts to over $6,000, rather than just the full cost of tuition. This increased scholarship is being used as a recruiting tool.

The second plan Nocera suggests is for each school to give its players a small salary, which is capped according to NCAA guidelines and paid from the university’s salary pool.

“Every athlete has a minimum salary of $25,000, which won’t make them rich,” Nocera says. “You would still have money left over to use as a recruiting tool. People have a hard time understanding this, but students use money as part of their decision-making process all the time. All the time. A parent says, ‘I can’t afford you to go to Berkeley so you have to go to another state school.’ ... So why is it so horrible if you say, ‘Well, we should do this for athletes.’”

The potential benefits of this plan would be that by directly paying players, schools could save the money they’re currently spending on state-of-the-art facilities to attract the best talent.

“Under the table stuff would disappear if the money was on the table,” Nocera says.

Learn more

From The New York Times: A conversation with Joe Nocera

From The New York Times: Book review of "Indentured"

From The New York Times: A way to start paying college athletes

From NCAA: Why Nocera is wrong

You can listen to the complete conversation at Listen to "Think" at noon and 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday on KERA 90.1 or stream the show.