A new report states that just one out of every four athletic directors are in favor of giving athletes the ability to make money off their name based off their athletic abilities.
This, and a couple new quotes from the fat cats running the show, is the most notable information found in the Aspen Institute’s latest feature on the issue of college athlete pay. The remainder of the piece is dedicated to walking readers through the history of the NCAA’s money-grubbing, and the direct role that athletic directors and coaches took in ensuring themselves a nice payday while simultaneously fighting against ceding even a fraction of the same benefits to players. Considering we’re one day away from the Condoleezza-Rice-led NCAA committee sharing its recommendations to “fix college basketball,” this is as good a reminder as any that movements aimed at addressing structural inequality almost never start at the top.
The person most often quoted—as far as I can tell, the only person actually interviewed for this piece—is Tom McMillen, which is supremely interesting given the current financial incentives he has to pour cold water on most of the ideas being offered.
McMillen was a star for Maryland’s basketball team and was on the 1972 Olympics team before serving in Congress. Now, McMillen is the president of LEAD1, an organization through which college athletic directors lobby Congress. (The chairman of LEAD1 used to be Michigan State’s Mark Hollis; since Hollis was fired in the wake of the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal, it seems Colorado’s Rick George assumed that role.) The group spends their funds on plenty of issues, but the main one anybody should be concerned about is their stance on paying college athletes.
McMillen and LEAD1 do not believe that college athletes deserve direct compensation for the labor they provide on the field. Much like his Maryland cohort Len Elmore, McMillen belongs to this older class of athletes, who go on and on about the cushion provided to the modern athlete, and how they only got “$15 for laundry” during their playing days and turned out just fine. McMillen looks at the latest high-tech athlete locker room or a retractable roof practice field or the skyrocketing coaching contracts, and instead of concluding that a lot of money that could be going to players is being set on fire, decides that the fix is just to rein in spending.
In speaking with Jon Solomon, Aspen’s editorial director and a former CBSSports reporter, McMillen reveals the aforementioned statistic about the disdain athletic directors have for allowing their workers (sorry, athletes) to be paid for, say, appearing in a new EA Sports college football game, or for jersey sales, or for direct sponsorships from outside private companies, like Nike or Adidas, companies we already know are eager to funnel money to college athletes.
According to McMillen, 79 percent of athletic directors in the NCAA’s highest football subdivision support players making money off their name for non-athletic related activities, and 26 percent favor giving players the right for athletic-related pursuits. Emmert, the NCAA president, has said the Olympic model – athletes receiving sponsor money in exchange for use of their name, image and likeness – is deserving of serious consideration inside the context of college sports.
Things get really rich when McMillen argues that, actually, it’s the players who are delaying any real progress toward compensation:
“I hate to say this, I think the plaintiff lawyers are slowing this down,” McMillen said. “If you didn’t have a court case now, I think college sports could have addressed this. Now, the lawyers will say they’ve made progress because of the court cases. It’s what comes first – the chicken or the egg? But when a court case’s fundamental principle is tethered to education, it’s a slippery slope no one will touch right now. I think the ADs are more sympathetic to (players making money off their NIL) provided some of their concerns are addressed. They don’t want it to be an abusive recruiting tool.”
This is, essentially, the exact same tool used by ever labor-buster in the modern age—the NCAA kept its foot pressed to athletes’ throats for decades before expressing a slight willingness to extend better benefits, and then threw its hands up and harrumphed when lawyers were brought in to untangle the inequalities that have been coiled around college athletics. McMillen is a man on a payroll, with outdated and bone-deep beliefs gained from having participated in the college game in a time before coaches were practically running their own on-campus fiefdoms and getting paid tens of millions of dollars just to be fired. He is, unfortunately, the exact kind of person that runs college athletics and will continue running it for the coming decade. These voices are old, they are tired, they are repeating themselves, but they are in power. And that’s a real shame, because the American people largely have the common sense they lack on these issues, per Aspen:
A slight majority of American adults (52 percent) still believe a full scholarship is adequate compensation for a college athlete, according to a 2017 nationwide poll by The Washington Post and the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The racial divide was noteworthy: 54 percent of black Americans support paying NCAA athletes based on revenue they generate, whereas only 31 percent of white Americans support the concept.
Gaining public traction is the idea of allowing players to make money if their NIL is sold through merchandise (66 percent of Americans are in favor). A racial gap exists here as well: 89 percent of blacks say athletes should be paid for use of their NIL, while 60 percent of whites are in favor.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to stop relying on these same people, empty suits, to actually come up with meaningful solutions. Maybe it’s time to look elsewhere. Because the NCAA’s story has already been told, in books, in blogs, in printed articles; not everyone needs to know where the term “student-athlete” comes from to understand, when you show them a flow chart or two, that college athletes are getting fucked. And they sure as hell don’t need to hear from Mark Emmert or Tom McMillen on how it’s all not so bad.