Over the last decade, athletes and reporters and professors and even shithead Kentucky governor Matt Bevin have come around to the idea of college athletes being compensated for their time and work. But one not-quite-disinterested group has been very noticeable and stubborn in its resistance to the idea. College coaches and athletic directors generally either opt to remain out of the conversation entirely or cling to the foundational tenets of amateurism for dear life. They virtually never express even token skepticism about the system. Earlier this week, though, one coach finally did.
New Mexico head coach Paul Weir spoke with NMFishbowl reporter Daniel Libit for the first edition of Libit’s podcast for the site—over the past two years, Libit has provided spectacular eagle-eyed reporting on the Lobos athletic department, and that dogged reporting is what led Weir to become the first member of the department to speak with him on the record. The two covered a number of topics during a sprawling two-hour conversation, and the podcast makes for an insightful listen for anyone wanting to know more about the internal operations and fine machinations of a college basketball program. The topic of amateurism surfaced around the 45-minute mark.
In a segue out of a discussion of the win-now mentality that spins the college coaching carousel, Libit introduced a criticism of the NCAA model via the ongoing Alton v. NCAA lawsuit. After pausing for a moment to consider whether he wanted to wade in, Weir engaged. Under the conversational guise of discussing a hypothetical world in which amateurism had been ruled obsolete, the two went back-and-forth about where the money would come from. Libit said it would result in a decrease in coaching salaries, Weir posited that the funds would come from the dissolution of non-revenue NCAA sports. The two then tussled briefly about the minute concessions made by the NCAA in recent years, such as having scholarships that cover full cost of admission and increasing stipends. Weir turned to address a potential situation in which the Power Five conferences decide to break from the NCAA and run their own league. “The relationship between those Power Five conferences and the NCAA is an interesting one to follow,” Weir said.
And then came the money question—the question every major college coach has skirted with a gimmick response supposedly rooted in the belief that the players wouldn’t know how to handle the money they received in exchange for their labors. Libit asked Weir if he believed the system would be improved if college athletes could seek and receive compensation for their work; this was Weir’s response:
“Without a doubt. Anything to do with an athlete’s rights, whether it is transferring and being able to play right away, or going to what school you want to go to, going professionally, being able to earn money off the likeness of your image or your jersey or whatever—I don’t have anywhere near the power to implement that policy—but that to me is definitely the fairer thing to do.
What a lot of people don’t understand is it applies to a very small percentage of overall intercollegiate athletes. If you look at all the sports and all the students playing, this particular topic doesn’t apply to almost two-thirds of the NCAA’s membership institutions.... That was kind of my first point, that’s who will eventually get affected by this, because if athletic departments have to find a way to pay the quarterback at Alabama, they’re not taking it out of Nick Saban’s contract, they’re taking it out of another program.”
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It’s notable that Weir admits that compensating players in revenue sports and allowing them to seek external endorsement is the moral and ethical thing to do. But it’s also notable that the only thing he can muster against it is a stale and familiar talking point—what about the poor souls playing field hockey, or rowing, or fencing, or skiing, or receiving a scholarship for some other niche, majority white sport? What will become of their programs? There’s something ugly baked into this gambit—the athletes composing the revenue-generating sports (men’s and women’s basketball and football) are at least 50 percent black, as of the 2016-17 NCAA’s database, and this argument implies that giving them their due would involve taking everything from their proportionately whiter peers. And yet it is only these revenue-sport athletes who are expected to sacrifice for and support tennis, golf, and lacrosse while simultaneously being prevented from seeking endorsements or even selling their own damn tennis shoes.
It says something about how low the bar on this stuff has been set by industry leaders like Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari that Weir’s response included this point and yet still ranks as the best on-the-record response any Division I coach has provided in response to a question on amateurism. But you have to start somewhere, and Weir deserves credit for providing a thoughtful answer despite by his own admission not being an expert on the subject. The entire podcast is worth a listen, but if you don’t have two hours to burn and just want to check out the discussion on amateurism, you can go here.