Five university presidents and athletic directors offering their unfiltered thoughts on why the NCAA and its members should hold fast to amateurism, a model that’s landed them all six-figure base salaries, may be the best argument for abolishing the system.
First spotted by USA Today, notes on interviews conducted by Kenneth G. Elzinga, an economics professor at the University of Virginia*, which can be read in full at the bottom of this post, appeared online Friday as an exhibit in an ongoing lawsuit against the NCAA and several member conferences. The suit was filed against the NCAA and its top conferences to challenge the limits put in place by these organizations on how athletes are to be compensated.
Former Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke, Richmond athletic director Keith Gill, Texas president Greg Fenves, Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart, and Wake Forest president Nathan Hatch all sat down to offer their defenses of the NCAA. Burke offered up the spiciest quotes—such as claiming athletes receive too much from schools already—but the other four did their best to keep pace.
Some of the recurring themes that popped up in the interviews are the same ones the pro-amateurism side has been pushing since the NCAA’s creation: Athletics are just another part of universities, like singing clubs or the Chemistry department; fans wouldn’t want to watch college sports if athletes were paid because this would diminish their school ties; players would be too competitive about pricing and undermine their teams; the disaster that would befall non-revenue sports programs in a pay-for-play model.
Before we go any further, let’s just get this out of the way: These arguments have always been nonsense and they always will be. You can read our previous coverage of this issue for specific explanations as to why the arguments against paying players are disingenuous slop:
The sessions featuring Fenves and Barnhart were disappointingly predictable, given the fact that unlike Hatch, Burke, and Gill, the pair run two of the most lucrative programs in all of college athletics in Texas football and Kentucky basketball. Both staunchly opposed the notion of paying their athletes, citing a mix of the above and some nonsensical, hypothetical situations for good measure.
Fenves told the interviewer he “cannot comprehend how athletics could be a part of university life” if athletes were paid. Like the rest of the group, he argued that academics and the camaraderie one feels when conducting free labor are the binding factors that make college athletics tick. In an attempt to point out that some top-tier athletes are still focused on their schoolwork, Elzinga reached all the way back to 1983 to relay the story of how Ralph Sampson stayed with his Virginia team for his senior season rather than play in the NBA; Fenves responded by saying Colt McCoy “was a big deal” and students wanted to take classes with him.
He expanded on this by refocusing on the one party every single administrator singled out as not being ready for a cash payment model: the fans. Essentially, Fenves believes Texas fans are shit heads that would not tolerate mistakes like “stupid turnovers” from Longhorns rookie center Jarrett Allen if the player was paid in cash instead of with a scholarship.
Barnhart offered a similar hypothetical, claiming that the typical Kentucky fan, alumnus, and taxpayer would think, “I enjoy supporting that young person’s education; I wouldn’t enjoy paying their salary.” (Barnhart did not mention the fact that Kentucky athletics funds itself with the tens of millions in TV, advertising, and merchandise revenue it generates each year; he also didn’t mention how he thinks fans feel about paying his soon-to-be $840,000 in base salary.)
Barnhart then pontificated on the meaning of young men and women playing sports, and thoroughly explained how athletes are really just buff students:
Most people who come to intercollegiate games view the players, first, as students. Among other things this means they are young people who aspire to “something bigger,” and, in part, the games are “about young people finding their way.” MB believes that’s part of the reason the fans support the teams
in [Barnhart]’s view, varsity athletes are students, no different from others at KY. They just use a different part of their body
Wake Forest’s Hatch, who is also chair of the NCAA Division I Council, said sports are a “huge builder of spirit,” claiming that the best college experiences come when“you do big things together and then you do small things.” (Yes, this man is the president of a university.)
A full athletic scholarship, per Hatch, is a “tremendous gift” because it ties athletics and academics together, and he believes that Wake Forest trustees “would not buy” a system that paid players, even if it was just football and men’s basketball players. Hatch cited his concern for non-revenue sports as the reason he doesn’t see such a model being implemented, claiming, “You wouldn’t have the money to give full scholarships in non-revenue sports.”
Gill, the sole administrator interviewed not hailing from a Power Five athletics department, cited the same “connectivity” issues Hatch mentioned, saying that Richmond students are fine with athletes being on campus because “they see athletes in class and know they are going through the same academic endeavors, such as taking exams, etc.” He went to say that paying players would be “catastrophic” and unsustainable for any school; Hatch then cited the following quote and called it “perfect.”
I believe if we’re required to pay athletes for play, turn them into professional or semiprofessional players, I think that will ultimately undermine the reason why higher education is involved in intercollegiate athletics in the first place. . . . I think if you’re paying them to play athletics, I think it is inconsistent with the idea of what a student athlete is.
But if Barnhart and Fenves were guilty of being rich, middle-aged men attempting to protect the system that made them rich, and Hatch and Gill are small, private school representatives dragging their feet out of fear of being left behind, then Burke, the Purdue athletic director from 1993 to 2016, is guilty of being all those things, as well as delusional.
For instance, take the following four problems that Burke considered to be among the top concerns for those running college sports:
a. Plaintiffs’ attorneys, who are seeking money;
b. Congressional dysfunction, which he described as desire to “parade people” through hearings;
c. The NCAA’s governance system often responds with a lag;
and d. Public opinion of intercollegiate sports becoming cynical.
Playing off the last point on his list, Burke said that colleges are their “own worst enemies now,” bemoaning the fact that they “can’t go a day without a scandal e.g., a sexual assault.” (Burke did not state it for the record, but he probably thinks this something to do with those pesky attorneys.) The interviewer wrote that Burke currently believes “universities have to do a better job of explaining what they provide to student athletes.” The former AD said that he couldn’t “think of one thing we do” that allows people to move up the socioeconomic ladder the way college athletics does.
Burke echoed the student-to-athlete connection matter, saying that paying players would lead to fellow students viewing them “as hired guns,” thus making it more difficult for the university to integrate them with regular students. He claimed that the NBA teams “don’t want to baby-sit” and thus are fine with the 19-year-old cut-off.
Burke then offered his headline-stealing answer while discussing how well he feels universities and athletic departments take care of athletes in 2017. According to Burke, members the Purdue Club, which is responsible for raising the money to cover the cost of attendance for Boilermaker athletes, feel athletes already receive too many niceties and would cut their budget, if allowed:
In his opinion, student-athletes already are provided with everything that they need to be successful, which he described as the goal of financial aid to student-athletes. He said that “we” [referring to schools] want to provide a level of support and services based on the time demands of participating in intercollegiate athletics and being a student that meets what student-athletes need to be successful academically and athletically.
MB believes that there is “already some tension” where the question of giving more to student-athletes is concerned. He said that some schools “are creeping back into that.”
Member of the John Purdue Club would not like the money going into athletes’ pockets beyond the cost of their attendance at Purdue. Some donors already are concerned about the level of services Purdue provides its student-athletes. MB and his colleagues have to explain why the services are appropriate. He believes that if he didn’t have those conversations, donors might act unilaterally and reduce the amount of money they give
You do have to give these guys credit on at least one point, though. It is hard to imagine the NCAA and college athletics existing in their current forms if athletes were paid for their labor. I can’t think of a stronger argument in favor of paying them.
You can read the full set of notes below.