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Guest Host: Susan Page
By any measure, college sports in America is big business. It generates an estimated $13 billion a year in revenue. The NCAA alone has annual revenues of some $900 million. But the college athletes under its purview are not allowed a dime.
The authors of a new book argue that many of these athletes are being exploited in a corrupt system that treats them like indentured servants. The authors also tell the story of a loose-knit band of rebels who have begun to fight back.
- Joe Nocera Opinion columnist, The New York Times
- Ben Strauss Contributing writer, The New York Times
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from INDENTURED: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA by Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on a book tour. College sports is big business. The NCAA rakes in about $900 million a year, most of it from football and basketball, but its players are required to remain unpaid amateurs. In a new book, two journalists from the New York Times detail abuses in the system. They argue it exploits college athletes. Just consider the title of this new book, "Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA."
MS. SUSAN PAGEAuthors Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss join me in the studio. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. BEN STRAUSSThanks for having us.
MR. JOE NOCERAPleasure to be here.
PAGEWe're going to invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Find us on Facebook or Twitter. Are you a former college athlete yourself or a coach? Do you have kids who would like to be college athletes? Are you the fan of your college team? We'd like to hear from you. So Joe, let's start with the early days of the NCAA. It was really founded as a way to protect athletes. How did it get started, just briefly?
NOCERAWell, it's been around since 1906. That's has to do with Teddy Roosevelt being upset with too many players dying in this new sport called football. But it didn't become powerful until the 1950s when a 29-year-old former sportswriter named Walter Byers became the first executive director of the NCAA. And he almost immediately did something that no one had been able to do. He persuaded every other college team to not play Kentucky for one year because Kentucky was involved in a point shaving scandal.
NOCERASome Kentucky players. The minute that happened, he has power because he had the power to punish schools that violated the rules. And then, the second form of power he had was over money because he also controlled, for many years, this ended in the 1980s, he controlled television football rights for all universities and he controlled who could be in, when they could be on, how often they could be on. And so that was a tremendous source of power.
NOCERAAnd he was, to be honest, a power-hungry guy and he created a power-hungry organization that cared more about its power than about the athletes it was supposed to protect who really became exploited as the system -- and more and more money came into the system.
PAGEYou write a lot about Walter Byers in your new book and he invented a term that seems ironic almost, student athlete. Why that term?
NOCERAOh, it was an attempt to evade workman's compensation. That's the amazing thing. It's a total piece of propaganda. He invented it around 1956 or so because several states were considering giving injured athletes workers' comp as injured employees. And so he put out the word that everybody had to start using this phrase. Everybody in college sports, you couldn't say athlete anymore. You couldn't say player. You had to say student athlete. And as that phrase got ingrained in the culture, the whole idea that they were employees and therefore could get workman's comp vanished.
PAGESo you know, the idea of regulating college sports in a way that sounds admirable, and admirable enterprise, but Ben, this book is full of stories about unbelievable abuses of power by the NCAA. You begin the book with a story about Ryan Boatright. Tell us about him.
STRAUSSRyan Boatright was a basketball player, college basketball player at the University of Connecticut a few years ago and he was investigated by the NCAA because an anonymous source reported the NCAA that his mother had received impermissible benefits. And this is the rule or the word that the NCAA uses to sort of cast aspersions on these players, this impermissible benefit. And what it turned out was that a friend of the family who was a coach of Ryan had paid or given some money to his mother so that she could go on a recruiting trip and see the college that Ryan was visiting.
STRAUSSAnd this is a single mother with four kids who couldn't afford this trip. This is an act of kindness to send her on this visit. And the NCAA cracked down and started investigating her and this investigation includes, you know, holing up in a hotel room, four white investigators, for five hours, grilling her about every single check she's written over the last number of years, can you prove that this was, you know, used to buy Christmas presents for your kids and not, you know, as some bribe to attend some school.
STRAUSSAnd eventually, she's so overcome, she loses her job because the investigators are, you know, showing up to her workplace and other place and it's sort of a tragic story of what happens when the NCAA can go after you.
PAGEHad she done anything wrong?
STRAUSSNo. We think she hadn't done anything wrong because what she had done was accept this basic human kindness of traveling with her son...
PAGEFrom a friend of the family, not from a stranger.
STRAUSSFrom a friend of the family. Not somebody who was, you know, trying to steer him to one school or another. This was a family friend who was, you know, offering her this basic kindness.
NOCERAThey hated the family friend because he was the kid's AAU coach and this is also the brother of a professional player who got in trouble with the NCAA years ago. So they just kind of had it out for this guy and they -- by the way, the anonymous tipper was an ex-con who had been her boyfriend who was trying to exact revenge because, the way he saw it, Ryan, his meal ticket, had gone away. You know, he didn't have his meal ticket anymore. It just -- the lack of compassion and common sense, I think, is a common theme that runs through the book.
NOCERAThe rigid bureaucratic thought process of the NCAA, which hasn't really changed that much over the years.
STRAUSSAnd there's one other piece of the story. Boatright was suspended by UConn once and then he was cleared. And then, Ryan's from outside Chicago and his team is going to play at Notre Dame so he's got this caravan of family members who are going to come and watch him. And they drive through a snowstorm to get to South Bend, Indiana, which is not too far from Chicago. And it was only after they arrived that they NCAA, you know, said to UConn, he's under investigation again.
STRAUSSAnd so he's sort of -- his coach has to tell him that his family has come to see him play and he can't play. And he just collapses in his coach's arms.
PAGEWhat were the consequences for him?
NOCERAHe was suspended, ultimately, for about 10 or 11 games and then, he had to pay back the "impermissible benefit." I think he had to pay, like, $100 a month to some charity until he had paid -- I think the total was 3 or $4,000.
PAGESo what's the reasoning behind -- I understand that you don't want people bribing players. You don't want people slipping money to their families in a way to influence them improperly. But what's the reasoning behind cracking down in this case, which is like some of the other anecdotes that you tell in this story, just seems inexplicable.
NOCERAThe NCAA defines -- one of the ways the NCAA defines amateurism, in addition to you can't get paid when you're playing in college, is that any benefit that you get, including in high school, including in grade school, for that matter, any benefit that you get that is a direct result of your athletic ability is impermissible. So, you know, a classic example -- let me give you another great case. Perry Jones, III was a freshman at Baylor. He got suspended for five games because his mother, who had a heart condition and couldn't work, borrowed money on three occasions from his AAU coach and then paid the money back within 10 days.
NOCERAPerry Jones, III hadn't even know this had happened. He had no idea. But the NCAA decided that because she knew the AAU coach because he played on the team, therefore, the only reason she got that money was because of Perry Jones' basketball talent, therefore he had to be punished.
STRAUSSAnd you ask why these rules are in place. The NCAA's reasoning, college sports reasoning is what's called competitive balance and so we have to make sure that all of these teams across college sports don't have an advantage over each other by giving one player, you know, more than another school is willing to give this player. And so it's all in the name of making sure there's a level playing field for these schools, which, you know, by the way, is absurd for a number of reasons because now, conferences have their own TV networks.
STRAUSSAnd, you know, with all the money that pours in from boosters, there's an incredible disparity between the schools that exists and there's even a court case where an NCAA executive sort of admitted in a deposition that that competitive balance is made up, but this is the rationale.
PAGEWell, there was a court case, even in the case of Ryan Boatright, wasn't there, that went to the Supreme Court?
NOCERANo. No, that's the famous O'Bannon case. That's a different case.
PAGEBut there was a court case that said that the NCAA was not required to give due process to those they accused of wrongdoing.
NOCERARight. So this is a famous 1988 case. It's called the Tarkanian case. Jerry Tarkanian, for sports fans out there, know that he is the legendary former and, died last year, coach of the University of Nevada Las Vegas, Running Rebs. He won a national championship in 1990. The NCAA went after him hard because he criticized them in some publication and he sued and said he was denied due process and he had a right to a hearing.
NOCERAAnd he, basically, said, the University of Nevada Las Vegas is a state institution. It's a government institution, therefore I have a legal right to due process. It went all the way to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court by 5-4 said, no, no due process if you are in the NCAA.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break and when we come back, we'll continue our conversation about the new book, "Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA." I should note that we reached out to the NCAA. We asked them if they would like to call into the show, take some questions, make their case. We haven't heard from them yet, but if they call us, we'd be happy to put them on the air. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio, Joe Nocera, a columnist for the New York Times, and Ben Strauss, a contributing writer for the New York Times. They've joined forces on a new book. It's titled, "Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA."
PAGENow we're getting a little pushback from some of our listeners. Here's a comment from -- that was posted on the drshow website. Lots of kids would be willing to play for a scholarship. If some kids don't, then don't go to that school. And here's a Facebook comment from Mimi. Only room and board, a chance for a first-rate education? Their choice to perform the work. Weekly auditions for their potential employers? These people are saying these student athletes are getting a good deal.
NOCERAYeah, they're not actually. They are in many sports, but not in the revenue sports of college football and men's basketball. I mean, let's be clear, they're not getting a good education. They're just not, most of them. Their work, their job consumes 50 to 60 hours a week. Many of them come to college more or less on a -- pretty unprepared for college work. And then they are not given the tools to allow them to get there. They get shunted into, you know, crummy classes, fake classes. There's a huge scandal at the University of North Carolina around this. And they major in something called eligibility, which is basically designed just to make sure they stay on the court.
NOCERASome graduate. Many don't. It's a -- the bargain that colleges say is that, you come to our school and we will get you an education, to the 95 percent of athletes who don't become pros. But then they make it nearly impossible to fulfill that education. And so, you know, you can say it's great, they have no debt, yada yada, but they are exploited.
STRAUSSAnd the federal graduation rates for football players and men's basketball players are around 50 percent. And I'll tell you the story of one player I spent time with, he graduated from Cal just a couple of years ago. And he told me how wonderful it was, right, to be a college athlete. You get the adulation and the glory. And obviously to play in a sold-out stadium in front of hundreds of thousands of people is incredible. We'd all love to do that. And he graduated and he didn't have a resume. And so he tried out for an NFL team. It didn't work out. And now he drives for Lyft, which is like Uber. He's basically a taxi driver.
STRAUSSAnd, you know, he's telling me, I don't know what to do with my life and I'm unprepared to move on from football. I'm right...
PAGEIn fact, Joe -- I'm sorry, go ahead.
STRAUSSOh, no. Please.
PAGEIn fact, Joe, you gave a remarkable statistic. Let's just spotlight that for a moment. Only 5 percent go on to professional careers. Surely more than 5 percent of the people who take this deal at colleges thing they have a professional career ahead of them.
NOCERAThey all think. I mean, I think the statistic actually is that 80 percent of college football and men's basketball players think they're going to be pro, including people -- the guys on the bench. They think that, if only the coach would put me in. If only I had a chance. And so one of the things we advocate for and which is actually starting to happen -- this is one of the good things -- is we've -- we advocate for lifetime scholarships.
PAGENow, what's a lifetime scholarship.
NOCERASo that you can come back -- if you don't graduate, you can come back to the school at some point in your life and say, you know, I want to pick up where I left off. I understand now I'm not going to be a pro. I know a lot more about the world. I understand the importance of a college education in a way I didn't when I played. I've got time now. And I'd like to get that degree. And I think that's something universities, as a moral responsibility, owe to players. They owe them the education. And, frankly -- there's another thing where they really fall down -- they owe them lifetime health insurance. Do you know how hard it is for a football player to get health insurance, especially if he's been injured? Talk about a preexisting condition.
PAGELet's go to the phones. We're going to take your calls. 1-800-433-8850. Our phone lines are open. Miles is holding on. He's calling us from Greensboro, N.C. Miles, hi, you're on the air.
MILESHey, guys. Joe, absolutely agree with everything you just said. I played college sports at Division III level. My son is a football player in high school. He's actually getting looks now from college. So I don't want him to play Division I ball. And the reason being is everything you just noted. It's a Faustian attack. I've never, you know, there's no economic model around where a business generates hundreds of millions, you know, billions of dollars, and their employees go basically unpaid. The NCAA has really lost its way in this -- in the last several years because of the big money that's driving D-1 football and basketball, primarily television money. And that's why I feel like that...
PAGEMiles, what does your son think about this? Does he agree with you? Or does he think this sounds pretty appealing?
MILESNo, he absolutely agrees with me. One of the things that we also have encountered, too, with colleges and coaches, you know, he wants to study chemistry or chemical engineering. And his -- the prospective coaches kind of frown on that, you know.
NOCERAThere's no way he majors in that. Sean Beatty -- let me just tell you this one great thing. Shane Battier, the very fine basketball player who went to Duke, once told me that he majored in religion. He's a serious guy. He's a smart guy. He said I majored in religion because it was the only serious subject that I could major in that didn't interfere with practice.
MILESBingo. I've had several friends that have actually given up their scholarships, you know, way back when, as opposed to giving up their desired major, primarily the sciences and engineering. So, no, my son is not going to go down that path.
PAGEAnd, Miles, you said you played Division III college football. Did you -- do you feel like there was -- you know, they were talking about some of the costs for student athletes -- did you feel like there were rewards for you in having played college football?
MILESOh, absolutely. I love football. You know, to the point of, you know, having the banged-up body, yeah, you still get the banged-up body. But, you know, it's the joy of playing. It's as close as you come to that joy of playing as a true amateur in high school. But once you get to -- especially now, you know -- once you get to D1, in today's environment, those kids are employees. I mean, that's what they're -- that's what they do for a living.
STRAUSSAnd Miles you make a good point. But I think it's really important to stress, our book is focused on Division I football players and Division I men's basketball players. Because their roles on campus and their fundamental place on campus is so different than everybody else -- different than the Division I swimmer, different than the Division III football player -- because they are there to drive money for the school. They are there to advertise for the school. They are there to bring in TV money. They are there to bring in booster money. And nobody else -- no other athlete, no other student on campus has the same role as these big-time football and basketball players.
PAGEMiles, thanks very much for your call. So you're calling for lifetime scholarships, for medical coverage...
PAGEYou also think the athletes ought to be paid. How would you -- how would that work?
NOCERADifferent people have different ideas. So let me just throw out Jay Bilas. Jay Bilas, the very well known ESPN sportscaster, who's also a former player at Duke, has been very -- he's basically said, it should be a free market, that colleges will figure out, within a couple years, you'll get an equilibrium. And somebody -- when people say, well, how do you do that? He says, well, we have these things in America called contracts. And you sign one. And it's really not that hard to figure out.
NOCERAI am less full, free market, because I do understand that universities have limits on what they can pay. Although, if you can pay coach Krzyzewski $10 million, you ought to be able to pay the players something. So I have a complicated salary cap idea that gives every player a minimum amount of $25,000 and that leaves -- and leaves enough that you can actually bid for or offer money to the star high school halfback that you want to recruit. And it -- let me just say, I understand that it's really hard to get your head around that idea. The first time I heard it, it was hard for me to get my head around the idea that you would play the players.
NOCERABut I went to Boston University. And the reason I went there was because they gave me a larger scholarship than anybody else. So money -- and I was a lower middle-class kid -- so money played a huge role in where I went to college. Why are athletes the only people on campus for whom that is not allowed?
STRAUSSAnd here's another thing sort of introducing money or allowing schools to offer money in order to attract students. Right now, you have Michigan's coach, Jim Harbaugh, is flying around the country recruiting players, spending $10,000 a day on a private jet. And coaches are sleeping over at recruit's houses and climbing trees to get their attention. And it's silly. It's silly. Because if you could offer them money, players would know exactly how much they were valued. You wouldn't have to go through this absurd song and dance that is recruiting today and it would simplify a lot of things.
PAGEWhat are the perils of paying student athletes money?
NOCERAWell, what several university presidents have said, well, they'll spend it all on bling...
NOCERA...which is actually kind of racist, when you really get down to it. I -- look, we're advocates for it. I, you know, I don't think there is any downside. I think it should be allowed. I don't think they should make millions of dollars. I don't think there should be that kind of disparity on campus. But here's the flip side. Very often, these athletes -- yes, they're heroes and so on -- they're the poorest kids on campus by far. And they're in an environment that they've never been in before. And the idea that they can't have a pizza because it violates NCAA rules and -- is absurd.
STRAUSSAnd I think one of the biggest arguments or one of the sort of the sky-is-falling arguments against paying players that you hear is, well, if you start paying men's basketball players and football players, then all of the other sports are going to go away. And I just think that's patently false.
PAGEThey'd go away because they'd be required to pay them as well?
NOCERANo. Because the football -- one of the excuses they often say...
NOCERA...is that football and basketball pay...
PAGEThe funds, yeah. Right.
NOCERA...pays for everything else.
STRAUSSFunds them. But what you have to understand is, if you -- you have these huge conferences, right? West Virginia is in a conference with Baylor right now. And so one of the reasons that volleyball at Baylor -- or at West Virginia is so expensive is because the team has to fly from West Virginia to West Texas to play those games. So you could have very much easier and smaller regional conferences for these schools. You don't have to pay their coaches hundreds of thousands of dollars. You don't have to build them, you know, palatial facilities.
STRAUSSAnd all of a sudden these sports don't cost very much money. And when you have schools with these hundreds of millions of dollars in their budgets, it wouldn't kill them. If they want volleyball, they could have volleyball. It would be just like, sort of, an entertainment budget where you pay a, you know, a band to come and play a concern on campus.
PAGEThe subtitle of your book is, "The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA." So let's talk about some of the rebels, the handful of people who are trying to change things. You write about Ed O'Bannon. You mentioned him earlier, Joe. Tell us about him.
NOCERAEd O'Bannon was a great college player at UCLA. He won a national championship with UCLA in the mid-90s. He was a car salesman in Las Vegas five or six years ago, when he saw that his avatar was being used on an EA Sports video game.
PAGEIn fact, someone said to him, look, there you are in this video game.
NOCERAYeah. A kid, a kid said, hey, Ed. Look, you're on a video game. And he looked and he was upset. He was like, I'm a grown man. I don't own my name and likeness in perpetuity from when I was in college? So he called another of the rebels, Sonny Vaccaro, the famous sneaker pimp -- the man who invented...
PAGENow do you -- you slid over that word sneaker pimp.
NOCERAThat's right. I'm sorry, I did, so sorry. Yeah. Let's, yeah. And Sonny's the man who invented the sneaker contract, that is, where you pay the coach to get the players to wear the brand of sneakers, which is now of course widespread. Sonny turned against the NCAA, devoted his life, about 10 years ago, to taking on the NCAA, because he thought the wrongs that it perpetrated -- especially against young black kids -- was just appalling and he wanted to do something about it. He knew Ed O'Bannon. They were looking for a plaintiff to sue.
NOCERAO'Bannon became the plaintiff. And that became the famous Ed O'Bannon case, which was about name and likeness, but more importantly was about the NCAA's amateurs and rules in general. And that case went to the Appeals Court.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So what was the ruling?
NOCERAIt just boggles the mind. Both the District Court and the Appeals Court ruled that the NCAA's amateurism rules violate the nation's antitrust laws. So you think, well, then, if that's the case, then they should throw the rules out. That's would they would do in other spheres of economic life. But instead, they basically said -- the Appeals Court said, well they should get the difference between the scholarship and the actual cost of attendance. So that's two or three thousand dollars, and we'll leave it at that. That's fine.
NOCERASo, in other words, they're saying that the compensation rules are against the law, but let's just keep the compensation rules anyway. And why did they do that? I think the reason is that no -- people are afraid to blow up the system. They're afraid of what's going to happen next. And nobody wants to be the one to say, you destroyed college sports. I don't personally think college sports would be destroyed. But I think that's what they're afraid of.
STRAUSSAnd that's an important point. Because I think college sports fans around the country don't care one way or the other if players get paid. What they're -- right? When you see the public opinion polls that, you know, some -- when people say that, you know, players shouldn't get paid, it's very similar to when they said baseball shouldn't have free agents or when they said Olympic athletes must be amateurs. They're afraid that college sports, as they know it, is going to go away. And I just don't think that's the case. Because, you know, you can pay them and the system will stay pretty much very recognizable.
PAGELet's go to Richard. He's calling us from Upper Marlboro, Md. Richard, you're on the air.
RICHARDHey, guys. I played Division III a long time ago -- four years of football, ran track. I'm a -- and I'm still a big fan of my school, it was College of New Jersey at that time, Trenton State College now. I also had got advanced degrees at Maryland, so I'm a big Terp fan. But I am really disgusted with the outrageous salaries that they're paying these coaches now. It's just beyond believable.
RICHARDAnd I just finished the book, "Billion-Dollar Ball" by Gilbert Gaul. I'm sure you guys are aware of that. And in it, he talks about how little success is predictable by just paying coaches more money in Division I football. And basically, we're just throwing money away. And I wish you guys would also talk about the tax aspects of that $13 billion. And I'll leave it to you.
PAGERichard, thanks so much for your call.
NOCERAWell, I mean, the salary issue is obvious. It's a market system for everybody except the players. So Jim Harbaugh gets hired from professional football to be the coach at the University of Michigan. They're going to pay him what he was getting if not more than he was making as a professional coach. So, yeah, so he makes $5 million. Nick Saban at Alabama Football, he makes $7 million. Mike Krzyzewski is the highest paid coach in the nation, college or professional. He makes $10 million.
NOCERAThe way the NCAA thinks about this and wants everybody to think about it, is that everything about college sports should be professionalized except the players. So that's why you have the Coca-Cola, the official soft drink of the NCAA during the tournament, and then, and so on and so forth. So my -- our argument is that, if you can pay a coach that much, you sure as heck can pay the players something.
NOCERAAnd on the tax consequences, you know, let me just give you the best example I've ever seen. The University of Florida used to publish a very -- published their balance sheet. The athletic department was separated from the University. They used to publish their balance sheet and they had a line called donations, i.e., deductible donations, $35 million. Those were seat licenses.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss about their new book, "Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA." And we'll take your calls and comments, 1-800-433-8850 is our toll free number. You can always send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we're talking about a new book. It's titled, "Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against The NCAA." And the co-authors are here with me, Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss. Let's go to the phones and take some of our callers. Maurice has been very patient, holding on from Durham, N.C. Maurice, hi.
MAURICEHi. I'll make it quick. I'm an ex-collegiate athlete myself and a physician that works with athletes all the time. So I have an ear for this. I'm just gonna say it outright. I think the NCAA -- the situation of the NCAA is essentially the reinvention of slavery. And what I mean by that is you're taking -- and I'm sure the guys there have the statistics, but you're taking African-American -- mostly African-American athletes at the prime of their life, beating them up and whatever else you do to them.
MAURICEPutting them in a situation unsuitable for proper education, and then basically letting them go and saying fend for yourself. While you're paying the administrators of the colleges, the coaches, the NCAA millions and millions of dollars. The last thing I want to say about that is that athletes have the power. If you look at the situation at University of Louisville right now, their basketball team, Rick Pitino makes millions and millions of dollars. He, you know, had the -- whatever -- sexual whatever with some woman in a restaurant and that go swept under the rug.
MAURICEHe got his hands slapped. The sexuality stuff continued at the University of Louisville to where the school decided we're not gonna let the basketball team go to the NCAA. You have two seniors on that team that transferred to Louisville to go to the NCAA. Their dreams are shattered. Now, Rick Pitino makes millions of millions of dollars. In my opinion, he ought to be setting up a trust fund for these guys to support them to get -- to make something out of their lives.
PAGEMaurice, thanks so much for your call. Any comments?
STRAUSSYou're absolutely right, Maurice. This is a racial issue. And I think people don't look at it as a civil rights issue, but that's exactly what it is 'cause you look at who is driving the revenue. Oftentimes look at the roster of men's basketball teams and football teams. It is predominately young black men. And where is the money going to? It's going into the administrators' pockets and it going to fund scholarships for upper middle class tennis players or swimmers.
STRAUSSAnd I think you also make a great point about the power that players have. Right? We talk about all the problems with the system and the trouble -- or these lawsuits come and people are afraid to hit that eject button. But look at what happened at the University of Missouri just last year. There were racial problems on campus and the football team stepped in and said we're not gonna play until something changes. And this had been percolating for weeks, perhaps months. And as soon as the football team said we're not gonna play the president was gone in 36 hours. And that's how much money is tied up in these games. And that's how much power the players have.
NOCERAIt's very hard for 18, 19, 20-year-old kids to stand up to a system, to their coach, to an establishment, to their president and the university. It's really hard. And that's why it hasn't happened. But I can guarantee you that if one team decided not to some out for the Final -- for a Final Four game, the system would change in an hour.
PAGEIf one college would say…
NOCERAIf 13 kids on one team said we're not gonna play.
STRAUSSAnd we actually write a story in the book. The 1991 UNLV team -- this was Jerry Tarkanian's team. But this team had had all kinds of beefs with the NCAA. There was one player on the team named Greg Anthony, who had started a t-shirt business, sort of this entrepreneur. And the NCAA had told him that he had to shut down his t-shirt business because it violated amateurism. And so this is a team that wasn't happy with the NCAA. And they discussed, they made a pact that if they reached the championship game they were gonna boycott it.
STRAUSSAnd then what happened? They lost in the Final Four in the semi-finals and they didn't reach the championship game. And you wonder though…
PAGEWould they have done it?
STRAUSSI think they would have. I think they absolutely would have.
PAGEHard thing to do, when you reach the championship game.
NOCERAYeah, but they had the one coach in the nation who would have said, go, go, go.
STRAUSSBut you wonder if they had done that how different college sports would look today. And I'll tell you, I think it'd look awfully different.
PAGEDo you think student athletes, the athletes who are on these teams understand the power they have?
NOCERAI think a lot of athletes look at what happened at Missouri and have opened their eyes. And Sonny Vaccaro, we come, you know, we know pretty well now because we wrote about him in the book. And he still is connected to a lot of college and high school players. And he told us that there are a lot of parents and athletes who are calling him about the issues, as opposed to, you know, where should I go to college or what should I do. And he said there's a raised consciousness that he had never seen before.
PAGEYou know, you think about who's responsible for addressing injustice. Right? So you've got these situations with the NCAA that seem wrong. So maybe the student athletes themselves have some obligation to bear what's going on. What about fans of college teams? Alums from college teams, do they have an obligation to try to address this situation do you think?
STRAUSSI think you ask the same question of football fans. Right? They tune in every Sunday. Millions of people are watching the Super Bowl and you have these serious questions about concussions and how the league dealt with the concussion issues. And even today, how teams deal with the concussion issue. And it's so hard to separate those issues from the joy of watching the game. And next month people are going to fill out brackets and they're gonna watch March Madness. And it's gonna be really, really exciting. And I don't think that sort of consumer protests are gonna be what's the impetus for change. It's too hard.
NOCERAA lot of fans really resist this idea. Especially in places like the South, like the Southeast Conference and the Big 12. There's a lot of resistance to it. And if it's gonna happen, it's gonna happen from players or from litigation.
PAGELet's go back to the phones. We'll go to Arlington, Va., and talk to Medina. Hi, you're on the air.
MEDINAHi. What a wonderful conversation. I just wanted to say that I was a D1 women's basketball player. I was drafted into the WMBA. And I also agree, you know, my undergrad was communications. Yes, it was paid for. But once I graduated I had nowhere to go. I had -- entry-level jobs were my only option. So I had to go back to school, while my peers were already in their -- in the workforce for several years -- and become a nurse. And I worked my way up from ADN to MSN, but it's not as glamorous as people think.
MEDINAAnd, in addition, I have friends who were injured. So the military wasn't even an option for them. So I definitely agree that athletes require more support. And the lifetime scholarship feature, I think that was amazing because that's what my school offered for me.
STRAUSSDid you -- well, let me ask you this. Did you come to the view that while you were playing your education was substandard, even though you were majoring in something that sounds real, like communications?
MEDINAI did. I had a friend who majored in biology. And because of the demands of her classes, she didn't play at all. And it was frowned upon for us to schedule for classes that interfered with practice schedule, pregame, lifting, things of that nature. So, like, the only thing that was left was communications, basket weaving, basically the choices were so limited that if you did want to apply for like a nursing school or a medical school or anything like that, you just didn't play. And as a 19, 20-year-old child, what's the one thing that you want to do? You want to play and make your friends and your family proud of you. And you don't realize at that point in your life the importance of, you know, the decisions that you're making.
STRAUSSAnd that's what we found, time and time again from talking to former players, is that you have this choice. You can be the best athlete you can be or you can be the best student you can be. But it's just impossible to be both.
PAGEBut then let me ask you, do you still play basketball?
MEDINANo. I'm actually now a (word?) competitor. And I've gotten into like the whole nursing field. And I really enjoy it, but I just look at the kids now and I'm just thinking, man, you need to have a really good backup plan. And I hope that they have the support with checks and balances in place to facilitate that.
PAGEAnd if you had a daughter who was a great basketball player, like you were, and had an opportunity to play college basketball would you tell her to do it?
MEDINAYou know what? I would. And let me tell you why, because there are things that basketball taught me as a little girl that I carry throughout my life that are priceless, like determination and perseverance. And it's helped me to regroup and it's a foundation of where I am today. But I would also caveat that with, honey, you may not be a superstar, but as long as you're getting this degree that's gonna, you know, be best for you when you get older you should definitely go for it.
NOCERAOne of the problems with the system is the athletes are on their own. They don't get advice when they're going into college. They're not allowed to because if they hire an agent they're immediately ineligible forever. And one of the ways the system controls players is by, you know, preventing them from getting the kind of advice that they need. You know, Joe, you're not gonna make it in the pros. You really start -- need to start focusing on your academics. So you really need, you know, that doesn't happen. And there -- they -- what she said is correct. You're just left to fend for yourself.
PAGEOr it probably happens with rich kids who or athletes. It probably doesn't happen with poor kids who are athletes. 'Cause rich kids would have the kind of support system that would help them make better decisions.
NOCERAWell, that gets back to the race issue. You know, most of the athletes that we're talking about here are poor black kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods. And one of the reasons so few white kids get in trouble with the system, because their parents have money.
PAGEMedina, thanks so much for your call. Very -- really interesting call. And thank you for your service to our country as an Air Force nurse. Here's an email from Michael who writes us from San Antonio, Texas. "This issue should be addressed by the presidential campaigns," he writes. "This is a blatant case of income inequality and economic exploitation and everybody knows it. It's a clear case of racial discrimination, a civil rights issue. The NCAA would be in the wilderness without black players. And black players are the ones most exploited. Everybody in the college sports industrial complex is getting paid but the talent."
NOCERAYou know, unfortunately, Arnie Duncan, the former secretary of education, was, in my opinion, totally on the wrong side of this issue. You know, he is one of the people who really kind of advocates for stuffing -- for putting Pandora back in the box, de-emphasizing college sports or at least, you know, kind of changing it in ways that do not destroy the amateur model, but protect it.
NOCERAAnd there's even been talk of a presidential commission to talk about these things. But the truth is that the reformers who have power generally don't think in terms of paying the players or doing something radical like that. They much more think in terms of, you know, how can we -- which is not a bad thing. How can we boost the education, how can we do that. But what -- their ideas are generally impractical.
PAGELet's go back to the phones. First, I'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Sorry, I'm supposed to say that at this time. So now we'll go back to the phones. And go to Birmingham, Ala., with a caller who's been very patient. John, hi. Do you have a question or comment?
MARKActually my name is Mark and I'm from Gadsden, Ala. Sense listening to some of the people I've decided to go ahead and speak out. My daughter and I…
PAGENow, just to be clear. They give me the wrong name and place. Right?
MARKNo. They gave you the right name because I was trying to remain anonymous. But let me say this, as a former college athlete myself and a daughter that I have that is a sophomore in high school that's being recruited for tennis, you know, already, every week getting emails, you know, about what she's doing. We went away to a player showcase that we were -- you had to be invited to as a sophomore. And during that time we spoke with about 50 college coaches and we had a whole list of D2 schools. Because as watching me limp around on an artificial knee that, you know, I did in college, you know, at a major university.
MARKAnd what ended up happening was she wanted to go D2 for the full scholarship aspect. When we went there, at the time she was really into the idea of medical school. So we ended up speaking with several Ivy League schools. And the problem being, you know, I make too much money. And if you make over 75,000, they cannot give you a financial aid package, which is fine. But during the meetings with the Ivy League schools we were flat out told by several coaches that we met with -- and she was really excited for these schools like Columbia and Harvard and Vassar.
MARKAnd during that time she really became disheartened because the coaches said, look, I set the schedule of when you practice. I set the schedule of when you play. You will play every match that I tell you to play. You'll play where I tell you to play at. And then you take whatever classes you can. I don't even care if it's basket weaving. Literally, we actually heard the words basket weaving. And, you know, she decided, wait a minute, this is not, you know, I want to go pre-med. I decided not to go pro. I decided not to go live with an IMG. I decided not to go live (unintelligible) academy. I want to be a doctor, you know.
MARKAnd I -- we're happy for her to do that. But during the course of that time that we were there for these four days, we spoke with a lot of college coaches. And they actually put her on the phone with people that were in their medical program that had missed matches and missed practices or even like the University of Miami that makes up a special practice time for a couple players that are doing chemistry or doing pre-med. And, you know, those schools now jump to the top of her list, schools that we weren't even looking at like South Dakota and Kenyon College and, you know, I mean, schools that we didn't even go there to look at initially.
MARKThey jumped to the top of the list because speaking with those coaches and hearing them say, look, I'm not gonna push you. I know, you know, I know enough about what we've done and what you want to do as a student. And, you know, her whole -- we went from -- our top 10 list completely changed. I mean, 7 of our top 10 were gone.
PAGEYou know, Mark, she's lucky to have some good advice.
STRAUSSWell, I -- it just reminds me of what happened in the Northwestern union drive. This was a couple of years ago. Kain Colter was the quarterback there. And the football team at Northwestern filed a petition with the labor board in Chicago and said we are university employees. We are paid with a scholarship. We work 50 hours a week and we are under the strict control of our coaches. And if we don't play football they can cut us. And this three-day hearing was sort of, you know, very eye-opening and sort of this great window into the life of a college athlete.
STRAUSSLike if the coach sends you a Facebook request, you have to accept it. If you want to move off campus, you have to run that by your coach. And the amount of control is absolutely total. And this gets into issues that go beyond just classes because, you know, we tell the story in the book of a basketball player in Oklahoma a few years ago who injured his knee at practice. A teammate fell on him. And he went and he got the knee examined. And the doctors told him, oh, you're fine, just keep playing.
STRAUSSAnd so this goes on for about a year. His knee still hurts. And finally his parents take him to get a second opinion. And the doctor says, oh, you have a torn meniscus, you got to get this fixed. And so what happens is -- this is a basketball player at Oklahoma -- not only will Oklahoma not pay for the surgery to get his knee fixed, but then they cut him, cut his scholarship because he's injured now and he can't play.
PAGELots of anecdotes like that in your book. Your book is called "Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against The NCAA." It's been a pleasure to have you with us on "The Diane Rehm Show" today. Ben Strauss, Joe Nocera, thanks for being with us.
STRAUSSYeah, it was a pleasure. Thank you.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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