Viewpoint Murphy vows to stay to the end in is noble critique of the NCAA
As Chris Murphy rolled out his 15-page report about the NCAA last week, cherry-picking news outlets for comment, my initial reaction was there can be a thin line between profound reformer and political grandstander — and Connecticut’s U.S. Senator needs to make certain he is on the right side of that personification.
In reading the first in a series entitled, “Madness, Inc.: How Everyone is Getting Rich Off College Sports — Except The Players,” my next reaction was this was the best book report I’ve read on the subject, a thorough white paper on the greed of those who run the NCAA and the Power Five conference cartel.
If Murphy’s goal was to cast a sweeping net to bring along those who were not up to speed on the gluttony of big-time college athletics, consider it mission accomplished. If it was his goal to prod his fellow legislators to speak out against a monopoly that rakes in billions on the backs of “amateurs” — we’ll see how it goes — but it is a noble intention.
As a sports columnist, I like to lay my cards on the table. I voted for Chris Murphy, like most of his views. My wife, a mental health advocate and one who has suffered through a troubled system, is staunch in support of his dogged work and resulting legislation in this vital area.
So, this is what I wanted to know before the support grows from “Chris is right about the NCAA, just like a lot of other people through many years,” to “Sen. Murphy, the most important political voice to speak out, is taking a dogged fight to one of the most powerful and corrupt systems in America.”
Even before questions about what’s next is this question: “Are you in it all the way?”
“I’m in to the ending,” Murphy answered.
Good, because the fight to be on the right side of athletic history isn’t the same as periodic, well-placed criticism.
“Look, I’m a huge sports fan,” Murphy said. “I’ve watched college sports become bigger and bigger and bigger business. The billions of dollars being made by the industry without ending up with the students isn’t defensible any longer. You could claim that you needed to put all that money back into the athletic programs, but now they’re building miniature golf courses and recording studios (at the school’s athletic complexes). It got to a breaking point with me.
“This is a political issue. Whether you look through the prism of employees not getting paid. Or through the prism of a whole bunch of coaches and athletic directors and CEOs who are largely white making a bunch of money off of basketball and football players who are largely black. I wanted to use the small bully pulpit that I have to introduce this issue to my colleagues and put it into a political context. Who knows? The NCAA may be up here asking for an anti-trust exemption sometime soon. And if they do, I want my colleagues to understand the issues at stake.”
Murphy’s piece rolled out the numbers. College sports programs brought in $14 billion in 2018, rising from $4 billion in 2003. This is one of his favorite points: The 45,000 student-athletes in Power Five conferences receive $936 million in student aid, while the salaries of 4,400 Power Five coaches are a combined $1.2 billion.
“That tells you how screwed up the allocation of resources is,” Murphy said. “We didn’t subpoena any information for this report, but we are displaying it in a way people haven’t seen before.”
Murphy plans to paint a picture of what the lives of student-athletes are really like and what they’re like after college when they don’t go pro. He wants to do something on recruiting and on the Power Five cartel. There will be three or four more reports.
What there will not be is a concrete plan to compensate athletes.
“Certainly not yet,” Murphy said. “I’m not an expert on this. I’m sharp enough to see the injustice, but not expert to know the detailed solution. What’s offensive to me is the NCAA isn’t even trying. They’ve been in my office a bunch of times. They tell me it’s impossible to figure out who to pay and not to pay, how much to pay. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. Try first.”
There is a segment of the population that believes that a college scholarship coupled with the more recently added cost of attendance stipend, ranging from $2,000 to $5,000, is plenty. As a parent of a Division III athlete, I’d take that deal in a heartbeat. But let’s be real.
There are bizarre NCAA rules. Joseph Schooling got $750,000 from Singapore for winning an Olympic gold medal in Rio and was still eligible to swim at Texas. American Olympic college athletes receive stipends, yet football and basketball stars can’t cash in on their own likeness for video games, jersey sales, etc. It is an outrage. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) introduced a bill in the House of Representative that would allow athletes to profit off their image and likeness.
“It does seem crazy students can’t make money off their likeness and it is an option, but I don’t want to sit here and endorse doing only that vs. something else,” Murphy said. “Auburn is making a lot of money off the offensive lineman, too, not only the quarterback. Those guys probably aren’t going to make a lot of money on a compensation system based solely on merchandising. This has to be about fairness. Everybody on that team is making money for the university, the NCAA, shoe companies, on-line gambling sites, the networks.”
The courts have kept chopping away at the sham definition of amateurism. In March, judge Claudia Wilken of the Ninth Circuit Court ruled the NCAA was in violation of antitrust law regarding compensation for football and men’s and women’s basketball players. But it only granted compensation for matters related to education. It was technically a victory as far as post-graduate expenses, computers, etc. But it fell short of free market compensation the NCAA fears. There will be appeals, more court cases and more appeals. Believe that much.
Wilken also ruled the NCAA retains the right to limit benefits “incidental to participation.” UConn’s Breanna Stewart, testimony showed, earned the equivalent of $4,000 in 2015-16 in various athletic awards. So in a semantical way they’re already being paid. It’s complicated.
Do you pay only players in revenue-producing sports? How much? Do different players gets different amounts? What about Title IX. Will equal compensation be demanded? What about schools that can’t afford it? Hell, UConn is $40 million the red per year. Will this lead to the richest schools breaking away to form their own super conference?
“All fair, tough questions,” Murphy said. “There’s no system devised that won’t have claims of unfairness. That doesn’t justify sticking with the existing, unjust system. The system we have today is byzantine and complicated and not fair. Just look at the rules that constrain these kids, what they can and cannot not do during the summer, during the recruitment process. Some make absolutely sense. I’m not saying a system of compensation wouldn’t leave out some who should be compensated or overcompensate others. I’m suggesting I’d rather err within the system that compensates students than to continue to err in a system that only compensates adults.
“The public conversation is growing louder. The political pressure is slowing ramping up as is the pressure of the courts. I’d rather the courts or Congress not micromanage the relationship schools have with players. My short-term goal is to make enough trouble for the NCAA that they start having real conversations about how to help players before introducing any legislation.”
That trouble better be loud and sustained.