Payer Haters - Patrick Hruby
Payer Haters

Three prominent pay-for-play opponents explain their support for the NCAA restricting athlete compensation
By Patrick Hruby | The Athletic | May 2018
This​ time, things will​ be different. That’s what​ National​ Collegiate​ Athletic Association president​ Mark​ Emmert​ promised last fall​ when​ he​​ touted the creation of an independent advisory commission chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a solution to an ongoing federal investigation into college basketball’s underground economy.

“It will not just be incremental nibbling around the edges,” Emmert told the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a campus sports reform group, last October in Washington, D.C. “We cannot go to the next basketball season without seeing fundamental change in the way college basketball is operated.”

Last Wednesday, the Commission on College Basketball presented its recommendations to the NCAA, calling for an end to the National Basketball Association’s “one-and-done” draft eligibility rule, stricter enforcement and harsher penalties for amateurism violations, greater NCAA control over youth and summer basketball, and other measures best described as incremental nibbling.

Not among the recommendations? Eliminating the longstanding and controversial rules that prohibit college athletes from receiving more than the value of their scholarships and small cost-of-living stipends—rules that many observers, including myself, believe are illegal, immoral, and the entire reason that college basketball is attracting FBI attention in the first place.

Without amateurism, alleged illicit shoe company payments to steer certain players to certain schools become perfectly normal signing bonuses. Alleged illicit payoffs to assistant coaches and various middlemen become utterly ho-hum finder’s fees. An entire sport-sullying scandal—one Emmert calls “disgusting”—becomes the unremarkable, ordinary business of exchanging goods for services, the same unremarkable, ordinary business that takes place every day in offices all across the country, including the NCAA’s headquarters in Indianapolis.

Indeed, allowing college athletes to be paid would be the easiest and best solution to the NCAA’s FBI problem. After all, nobody calls the feds when Emmert collects nearly $2 million in annual compensation. Only pay-for-play is completely off the table, even for a supposedly independent commission charged with making fundamental, necessary changes.

Much of this is due to craven self-interest: The less college sports administrators have to share with athletes, the more they can enrich themselves. But that’s not the whole story. Amateurism could not be maintained—not by schools, not by federal courts, not by Rice and company—without a sincere belief that permitting athlete pay would be both bad and wrong.

Over the last decade, I’ve written a bunch of words exploring and explaining why that’s not the case. But as the Rice Commission was working on their report, I realized I needed to better understand that belief. To do so, I spoke with three prominent pay-for-play opponents—basketball analyst and talk radio host Doug Gottlieb, women’s sports advocate Donna Lopiano, and former Knight Commission member Len Elmore—who aren’t on the college sports payroll, and therefore have no personal financial incentive to defend the status quo.

Here’s what they had to say:

“The biggest bullshit ever”

Before Gottlieb worked in sports media, he played basketball at Notre Dame and Oklahoma State, once leading the nation in assists per game. While both schools made millions from big-time revenue sports, Gottlieb never felt exploited. Nor does he believe that campus athletes are being exploited now.

Photo of Gottlieb at Oklahoma State by Todd Warshaw/Allsport via Getty Images

Moreover, Gottlieb says, he’s not alone.

“I can think of five or six big-name (basketball) head coaches who will publicly say (they’re) for players (being paid), but privately will say this is the biggest bullshit ever,” he says. “They just don’t want to be crucified on Twitter.”

On air and online, Gottlieb has taken heat for his position. (I’ve been among the critics). He has heard all of the arguments for allowing athlete pay, ranging from simple outrage at the disparity between five-figure scholarships and six-figure coaching salaries to complex discussions of federal antitrust law. While he isn’t entirely unsympathetic, believing that NCAA amateurism rules should “continue to evolve,” he thinks that pay-for-play advocates are missing a key point.

College athletes, he says, already are getting a pretty good deal.

Start with admissions. The NCAA system allows athletes to attend elite academic institutions that they would never qualify for otherwise—schools like Stanford, Northwestern, Michigan, and Duke. “It’s great that you can have substandard grades in comparison to the rest of your freshman class and still get in,” Gottlieb says. “Try talking to a parent of a non-athlete. Ask them what it’s like to apply.”

As college tuition costs skyrocket and the application process increasingly resembles something out of “The Hunger Games,” Gottlieb argues, those special athletic admissions have become even more valuable. “When I was growing up in Southern California, if you had a B or C average, you could get into a state school,” he says. “Not anymore. I took it for granted that I would get into Notre Dame. Didn’t think twice about it. I might have gotten a sniff as a regular student—I had a 3.7 GPA and 1140 SAT. But now? No shot. None!”

Once athletes are on campus, Gottlieb says, they never have to stand in line to register for classes. Good tutors are readily available. Food, housing, laptops—all covered. “The dorms are sick now,” he says. “Then you get far and away the best training you can get—the coach, the trainer, the weightlifting coach.”

And the benefits extend beyond college. “What do they always tell you in business and in business school?” Gottlieb says. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. When you get done playing, you’re in a family, connected with your school, boosters, alumni.”

Coming out of high school in 1995, Gottlieb was recruited by UCLA, Michigan State, and Florida. He chose Notre Dame because of its brand. “I felt like that was invaluable,” he says. “The brand is what gets you your first job, what gets you into conversations that you never could get into otherwise.” Gottlieb mentions Jay Bilas, the former Duke basketball star who’s now a lawyer, ESPN broadcaster, and amateurism bĂȘte noire. “Jay has benefited far more from playing at Duke than Duke benefitted from him playing there,” he says. “All those Duke guys benefit greatly. Same thing for me and Oklahoma State. That’s just the reality of it for 99.5 percent of us.”

Along the same lines, Gottlieb argues that most college athletes aren’t worth more than their scholarships. Yes, he says, the television rights to big-time football and basketball are worth billions. And yes, the schools keep the lion’s share of that money—tens of millions annually for Power Five athletic departments. “But that money has nothing to do with the actual, individual athletes,” Gottlieb says. “It has to do with the brand and the volume of games. Those rights are sold decades in advance, regardless of who the players are, good or bad.

“Pro sports are packaged differently—if the Oklahoma City Thunder didn’t have Russell Westbrook, they wouldn’t be on TV on Christmas Day. But every year, Notre Dame gets higher ratings than superior schools in football, just because they are Notre Dame.”

Gottlieb also worries that pay-for-play would contribute to what he views as a growing sense of entitlement among college and high school athletes, particularly in basketball. “All the way down to AAU, the shoe company picks up the tab,” he says. “The kids don’t pay for tournaments or hotel rooms. They expect somebody else to pay for food. Everybody expects everyone else to open their pockets.”

Gottlieb faults his own sense of entitlement for using stolen credit card numbers to purchase nearly $1,000 in merchandise, a decision that led to his early departure from South Bend and eventual arrival in Stillwater. And maybe that’s why he sounds sincere when he says he wouldn’t have wanted looser amateurism rules while he played at Oklahoma State—even though he thinks he could have scored free meals and a comped car because “we were pretty popular in our town.”

“One of the best things about college is that however much you have per month—scholarship check, plus Pell Grants, plus whatever help from home—you have to figure out, ‘ok, how much does stuff cost?’” Gottlieb says.

Gottlieb recalls that college teammate Desmond Mason, who later played 10 years in the NBA, drove a 1976 Chevy Nova that he had worked on with his father. One day, Gottlieb saw the car being put on a flatbed trailer. He asked Mason what was wrong.

“He told me it needed to go to the shop,” Gottlieb says. “I later learned his dad was punishing him, taking away the car so he would get his grades up. When you get everything for free, there’s no accountability.”

Of course, there are counterpoints to every assertion Gottlieb makes. Getting into an elite college isn’t worth much if you’re woefully unprepared in the classroom, too busy playing sports to learn anything, and encouraged or directed to major in eligibility. Schools undoubtedly have brand value to fans and networks alike—but without players, there are no games to broadcast or watch, and basketball programs certainly seem to value athletes beyond the cost of their scholarships when recruiting them out of high school. A fuzzy desire to instill accountability in young athletes is laudable, but not exactly a legitimate legal justification for violating the Sherman Act.

Still, one thing is inarguable. Lots of people agree with Gottlieb, believing that the NCAA system mostly works just fine—and that the real problem is one of perception. When Gottlieb discusses the topic on Twitter or on his radio show, he says, “there are people on both sides. But you get a really good push from a silent majority that is like, ‘hey, I love watching you play football, but I am paying off my student loan debt, so I kind of have no sympathy for you.’”

A few years ago, Gottlieb says, he found himself talking pay-for-play with a former Butler basketball player, who asked him for his take. “Dude,” Gottlieb said, “I think it’s bullshit.” The player concurred, laying out the deal like this: You come to school. You play ball. You drink a lot of beer, have a lot of sex, travel around the country. Everyone wants to hang with you. You make friends for life. You get a degree. And then you come back once a year and tell stories about the good old days.

“Look, (playing college sports) is a tradeoff,” Gottlieb says. “But it’s one I feel like I got the better of.”

Profits and purpose

When I called Donna Lopiano, I expected her to pooh-pooh the idea of paying college athletes. But I didn’t expect her to hammer the entire NCAA, too.

Photo by Peter Lockley/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

“They’re crooks,” she says. “How many ways do you have to say it? How much data do you need to prove it?”

Lopiano is a former campus sports administrator—the first women’s athletic director at the University of Texas, and someone who grew the school’s women’s teams from a $58,000 afterthought in the mid-1970s to a $4.4 million powerhouse in the early 1990s. She’s also a gender equity trailblazer: Two weeks after Lopiano was hired at Texas, she nearly was fired for testifying in front of Congress against proposed legislation that would exempt football from the effects of Title IX, the federal law that bans gender discrimination for institutions receiving federal funds.

The proposal was named for John Tower, a powerful United States Senator from Texas. It was supported by beloved Longhorns football coach Darrell Royal. At the time, Lopiano was 29 years old. Standing up to both men, she spoke out anyway, kept her job, and subsequently fought like hell to establish and expand women’s college sports, eventually becoming the CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation.

As such, I assumed that Lopiano would sound like an athletic director when asked about pay-for-play. Can’t do it. Too expensive. Athletes already get plenty. Did you know we’re now allowed to provide unlimited snacks? I also figured that she’d see eliminating amateurism as a threat to female athletes, something that would funnel even more money and resources into football and men’s basketball and away from the women’s programs she and so many others have worked so hard to build.

Only that’s not how Lopiano sees it. In the recent book “Unwinding Madness: What Went Wrong with College Sports and How to Fix It,” she and co-authors Andrew Zimbalist and Gerald Gurney argue that the NCAA and its member schools have lost their way—that they do more to exploit athletes than to nurture and educate them. “The institutions are using sports as a marketing arm,” Lopiano says. “And that is okay, as long as the price is not the health, well-being, or promise of a real education for some of these kids.”

College athletes, she says, already practice too much. Travel too far. Play too often. They sacrifice classroom achievement for academic eligibility, and put their bodies and brains in harm’s way for bowl eligibility. And their schools support this—encourage this—because winning is fun, as well as a great way to attract alumni donations and prospective students.

Turn those same athletes into salaried employees, Lopiano says, and things will only get worse. “Let’s not have an employee relationship,” she says. “Let’s protect them from things like coaches asking them to practice 50 hours a week by making them not employees.”

Lopiano is quick to clarify that he has no problem with college athletes cashing in on their individual names, images, and likenesses—something their Olympic counterparts long have been free to do. “The (schools) have chosen to restrict the freedoms of the athletes unfairly,” she says. “It is a system of quasi-slavery in that if you want to play, and have this path to professional sports, you have to give up your name and image.

“They take over the athlete. They make the athletes, especially the ones from lower-income households, susceptible to the kinds of schemes we see (in the ongoing FBI investigation into college basketball). If you want to go out and do an ad for a local car dealer, you should be able to do that.”

As for the big money pouring into college sports through ticket sales and television broadcasting rights, Lopiano believes that it can and should be better spent. Currently, she says, campus athletes receive about 14 percent of the annual revenues generated by their sports. By contrast, pro athletes generally receive about 50 percent.

“College should be closer to that percentage,” Lopiano says. “And we don’t have to pay athletes to do it.” Instead, she argues, schools should beef up their academic aid packages, giving athletes more years to obtain their degrees, bigger cost-of-living stipends, extra funding for graduate school, and maybe, just maybe, bonus payments for athletes who excel in the classroom.

More importantly, Lopiano believes that NCAA schools should offer full health insurance to all athletes, and not just the secondary and catastrophic coverage they currently provide. “Take an athlete who injures his shoulder in a football game,” she says. “Right now, he’s covered by his parents’ insurance or a secondary policy from the school, and that ends two years after he graduates.

“If he was an employee and suffered a chronic injury like that and was unable to work or needed anything, he’d be covered by workers’ compensation. Well, an insurance policy like that is possible. Or look at concussions. The NFL just set aside a billion dollars and has a system for distributing that money. There’s no safety net like that for college athletes and no prospect of one.”

Ultimately, Lopiano isn’t particularly concerned about athletes being paid. Or not being paid. She wants them to learn something. She wants their medical bills covered. Above all, she wants schools to live up to their self-professed moral and educational obligations—and suspects that paying athletes directly would give those same schools another excuse for falling short.

Her lack of faith isn’t surprising. While Lopiano was working at Texas in 1992, she was approached by the coach of the school’s men’s and women’s rowing team, Jeff Gardner, who wanted to elevate the program from club to varsity status.

Lopiano gave Gardner a Title IX compliance manual and the phone number of Diane Henson, an Austin-based lawyer who had tried sports gender equity cases. The implication? If you want the school to do the right thing, sue. Gardner and a group of athletes did just that—and under the terms of a settlement, Texas ultimately added soccer, softball, and women’s rowing as varsity sports.

In 2005, the rowing team named its newest boat the Donna A. Lopiano.

“The profits in college spots should go back into their purpose,” Lopiano says.

Legitimate fear?

Len Elmore is nobody’s fool. A former NBA player turned college basketball analyst, he graduated from Harvard Law School, then investigated police misconduct while working as a prosecutor in Brooklyn.

Getty images

Like Lopiano, Elmore sees a big-time college sports system that fails to educate too many athletes. And like Lopiano, he believes that paying players would exacerbate that failure.
Unlike Lopiano, it’s not the schools that Elmore primarily distrusts. “If you pay (athletes) to just come and play, then what’s the use of them taking advantage of the educational opportunity?” he says. “I go to summer camps and talk to kids, and I ask them, ‘why do you want to go to college?’ They say, ‘I want to get paid.’

“If you have 18-year-olds receiving checks, paying taxes, hiring agents to negotiate contracts with universities, those things can interfere with the idea of going to class and getting the best education you possibly can. I have a legitimate fear that it will hurt rather than help.”

Much of that fear is rooted in personal experience. As a high school senior, Elmore led New York’s Power Memorial High School—Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s alma mater—to a city championship and a mythical prep national title. Back then, he says, college recruiting was “the wild, wild west. Lots of programs paid guys under the table.”

Elmore says he received his share of bids, none of them kosher under NCAA amateurism rules. One school offered a sports car and “a closet full of clothes.” Another sent a letter promising a summer job paying $10,000 a year, full tuition for law school, and a post-graduation job with the Hughes tool company. Elmore’s mother took one look at the letter and started laughing. No way, she said. “She told me our people have been bought and sold in the past, and that was over,” Elmore says.

Elmore’s family wasn’t rich. Mom cleaned office buildings. Dad drove a garbage truck before working his way up to sanitation manager. They could have used the money. But they valued education. Family problems had forced Elmore’s father to drop out in the ninth grade and eventually join the army; Elmore’s mother, a high school salutatorian, was unable to take advantage of a college scholarship offer because her family needed her to work.

Still, the couple devoted an area of the basement in their small house in Queens to books. “They called it the library,” Elmore says. “They went into debt to buy encyclopedias. So who am I to question education?”

Elmore went to Maryland. He was an All-American on the court—but in the classroom, he drifted, doing what he says was “just enough to get by.” Sometimes, he felt like he was only on campus to play basketball. After spending the spring of his senior year playing in a series of professional basketball scouting tournaments, Elmore left school 10 credits short of graduating. His mom was disappointed. His girlfriend—now his wife, Gail—was, too. “Do you know how depressed I was?” Elmore says. “Here I was, a first-round pick (in both the NBA and ABA), money in my pocket. But I had sunken shoulders that I wasn’t walking with my class at graduation.”

Two days later, Elmore says, he was starting summer school. He finished his degree requirements the next summer, right after his Indiana Pacers lost in the ABA Finals. When the 6-foot-9 center walked out of his final exam, he says, he “could have done a backflip if I wasn’t so doggone big.”

Elmore later served as the chairman of the board of the National Basketball Retired Players Association. In that job, he says, he dealt with a number of former players who had fallen on hard times, in part because they either received worthless college degrees or none at all. “I saw peers fall by the wayside—who blew off class, didn’t go back, never graduated, who ultimately got jettisoned by the pros,” Elmore says. Some of those athletes were the same ones getting paid under the table by their schools. “That dulled their senses and skewed their vision, convinced them that the education wasn’t important,” he says. “Their view was, ‘I’m getting paid and I’m going to the pros. Why do I need this?’ Now they’re left with nothing.”

Elmore agrees with Lopiano that schools should spend a lot more money on health care, and a lot less on coaches and palatial facilities. He favors allowing athletes to profit off their likenesses, too, albeit in a limited fashion. “Let’s aggregate those dollars on a group basis, put it in escrow, and upon graduation they receive a share,” he says. “Now, you’ve used a carrot to hopefully grow graduation rate numbers.”

Elmore admits that his attitude toward paying players is paternalistic. But he swears that he’s “not a hater.” “I wish everyone could have everything they ever wanted,” he says. “I’m just afraid that if you start paying, it takes (athletes) off the right track and puts (them) on the wrong track.”

Like Gottlieb and Lopiano, Elmore doesn’t support amateurism for amateurism’s sake, and he is less a true believer than a leery skeptic—favoring the status quo over an uncertain alternative. In that way, all three have something in common with the Rice Commission. As long as people fear difference, nothing fundamental will change.