Hoop Dreams

March 16, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

RENZI STONE: The whole key to everything is position, so you got to get low.

PAUL SOLMAN: So I’ll try to stay. So I’m trying to keep you out here. The subtleties of big-time college basketball, with 6’10” Renzi Stone of the Oklahoma Sooners. So you’re actually putting lots of pressure on my right here.

RENZI STONE: Lots of pressure in my lower body. And that’s how… That’s how I can clear you out like that, and just shoot the shot.

PAUL SOLMAN: Stone spends 50-plus hours a week working on his game. This year, stone and his teammates have made it to “March Madness,” the annual NCAA Basketball tournament CBS recently paid $6 billion to televise for the next 11 years. With so much money at stake, an economic question has been raised about the status of these players: Are they students, or more nearly, workers who should be paid? Professor Murray Sperber, who’s written a host of books on the economics of college sports, thinks they’re exploited labor.

MURRAY SPERBER, Author, “College Sports Inc.”: If the NCAA gets $6 billion from CBS for March Madness, and the players are getting a $20,000 scholarship to play in this tournament, there’s a huge wage gap. I mean, these are professional athletes essentially. And they are nowhere approaching their market value.

PAUL SOLMAN: To critics like Sperber, the problem is the NCAA itself, the National College Athletic Association, formed by university presidents under orders from President Teddy Roosevelt in 1906 to halt a rash of deaths in college football. But as college sports gradually became a big-money industry, the NCAA Developed interests of its own. Today, says Sperber…

MURRAY SPERBER: This is a trade association. And hey, this is America. You want to grow your empire, you want it as big as possible.

PAUL SOLMAN: What Sperber calls an empire the NCAA considers a mission: Support for a huge variety of college sports.

ANNOUNCER: A long pass.

PAUL SOLMAN: Since 90% of its budget comes from march madness, the NCAA, in essence, is rechanneling basketball money to build big-time, big-budget athletics across the board. The players, meanwhile, have their own ambition: A pro career, even though the odds are enormous. Despite the hoop dreams of most of the 4,500 or so players in the NCAA’s top division, only 2% will land a pro job. Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s basketball program takes in over $4.5 million a year, from the NCAA, a separate TV deal with ESPN, advertisements both local and national, nearly 10,000 tickets a game. The athletes get roughly $20,000 worth of room, board and tuition. But some say they get a lot more. Second-stringer Kelly Newton says there are tangible benefits, just to spending so much time on a court.

KELLY NEWTON: It teaches you how to look at things, and how to evaluate things around you, and throughout life, I found myself doing that a lot. You know, whether it’s driving, walking, just everyday life, it teaches you how to deal with people. There’s a lot of socialization going on with the team, with different teams through the years. Every team is not the same so they teach you how to deal with certain people in different situations.

PAUL SOLMAN: Moreover, say defenders of college sports, what would happen to kids if they didn’t go on to college? Newton worked at a Taco Bell before going to a community college in Kansas, his grades and test scores not good enough to get into a school like Oklahoma directly.

KELLY NEWTON: I honestly think if I wouldn’t have went to the junior college to play basketball, I probably would just stay home and try to work, and something like that. I don’t think I would have went to college.

PAUL SOLMAN: To those who practice it at this level, college basketball is part boot camp, part advanced seminar every day of the week.

COACH: Right? Play as hard as you can.

PAUL SOLMAN: Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson insists that when he lectures, he teaches valuable lessons, even in wind sprints — where you run to certain lines and back in a prescribed time in wind sprints. Sampson insists his players touch every line.

KELVIN SAMPSON, Head Basketball Coach: A lot of kids will cheat you. They’ll just touch this line and say, “what’s the big deal?” Well, the big deal is that we get to the last two minutes of a basketball game, and I ask you to do something, you may compromise and rationalize that it’s not that important.

PAUL SOLMAN: So you’ve got to draw that line, if you will?

KELVIN SAMPSON: It’s a little small thing called discipline. Discipline means doing what you’re supposed to be doing, when you’re supposed to do it. That’s what discipline is.

PAUL SOLMAN: And that’s a crucial life lesson?

KELVIN SAMPSON: That’s a crucial life lesson.

PAUL SOLMAN: Oklahoma’s president, former Senator David Boren, says lessons in the classroom are even more important.

DAVID BOREN: But we’re an educational institution. And at the core of what we ought to be doing is create for these athletes, who are first of all students– they’re students, they come here to get an education– and for the rest of their life, the best thing we can give them is an education, not more money.

PAUL SOLMAN: President Boren might consider Renzi Stone a case in point. Stone’s taking, among other classes, England after 1830.

PAUL SOLMAN: It is unusual that you would be taking something that is that academic.

RENZI STONE: I think that is just a stereotype of, you know, athletes. I think there a lot of guys who take these classes across the country and do well in them.

JUDITH LEWIS, History Professor: The one we looked at first is she feels a real conflict had her role as woman and her role as queen.

PAUL SOLMAN: Professor Judith Lewis has her class using primary sources, here two letters of Queen Victoria’s. She used to be biased against athletes, but she says student athletes like Stone turned her around — that, plus a change in university policy.

JUDITH LEWIS: The athletic department did not want us to make exceptions for the athletes and they monitored them very carefully.

PAUL SOLMAN: Major schools like Oklahoma may be more demanding of athletes than most. And Renzi Stone himself is more demanding still. He considers his B+ average too low. But overall, white male basketball players in division one graduate from the same school, within six years, at roughly the rate of other students: 53%, compared to 57% for white male students overall. And while only 33% of African- American male players graduate, that’s actually better than the rate for non-athletes: 31%. Of course to graduate, you need time to go to class, study. It’s hard to do that if basketball is your full-time job. Oleg Reztsov, from the Ukraine, the team’s third-string center, hardly plays at all, yet he says…

OLEG REZTSOV: I hardly have time to do anything. You need to make sacrifices. I have pretty much no social life. It’s tough especially when you spend so much time on the road. It’s like you have a full-time consulting job and you still go to college.

PAUL SOLMAN: So the question remains: If they’re working full-time, and bringing in millions, why shouldn’t college basketball players share the wealth? The question has become more pressing in the past few weeks, when numerous players have been suspended by the NCAA for breaking its rules against taking gifts, among them Chris Porter of Auburn, who rerouted $2,500 from an agent so that his mother wouldn’t be evicted. Stories like this have prompted a free-market proposal: To sue the NCAA on behalf of student athletes so that they’ll be paid. In Oklahoma, we found support for paying athletes.

MIKE PAUCHEY: I think it is definitely a business, and I definitely think they should be paid.


MIKE PAUCHEY: I mean, they make millions for the universities.

PAUL SOLMAN: Larry Stone, a businessman who played college football, is Renzi Stone’s dad.

LARRY STONE: As a parent that’s trying to keep up all the other expenses, hell, yes. (laughing)

PAUL SOLMAN: As for Renzi Stone himself…

RENZI STONE: There’s so much money that this sport brings in. I look around campus and there are kids wearing my jersey. Somebody is making money off my jersey and my teammates’ jerseys.

PAUL SOLMAN: Even the team mascot, Top Dawg, was unambiguous. The most telling testimony, though, came in Kelly Newton’s class on the African American male.

PAUL SOLMAN: How many of you think athletes here should be paid?

FEMALE STUDENT: I think they should be paid, because the university makes millions of dollars off all these athletes.

MALE STUDENT: You look at the NCAA March madness, they sign a billion-dollar contract with CBS. It is not the lack of money, but the NCAA executives are flying first class making $200,000 or $300,000 per year. So I believe the money is there, just the emphasis needs to be put on the athlete, and not on the institutions.

PAUL SOLMAN: So why not pay athletes at least a modest amount? We asked the head of the NCAA, Cedric Dempsey, who actually makes $525,000 per year, what would happen.

CEDRIC DEMPSEY, President, NCAA: You would have maybe one sport or two sports, because most institutions use the dollars that are generated out of those high-profile sports to help fund a very broad-based program. We have 335,000 young people in this country who have an athletic experience.

PAUL SOLMAN: Federal law, so-called Title IX, also forces schools to offer women a chance to compete in any sport men do. So who would lose if college athletes were paid? Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione.

JOE CASTIGLIONE, Athletic Director: Other athletes. I think that it would reduce a number of the opportunities that we offer for men and women student athletes on our campuses, and generally speaking, many of the sports programs we sponsor do not pay for themselves, outside of

PAUL SOLMAN: Even Coach Sampson, who thinks athletes do deserve some of the money they bring in, supports only modest stipends. In the end, he like many is afraid of opening the free-market floodgates.

KELVIN SAMPSON: I’m not against student athletes having benefits. I mean, my goodness I mean, my goodness, look at the money we make off the NCAA Tournament. My problem is legalizing paying them. Where do you draw the line? I mean, we start now saying okay we’re going to start giving them $1,000 a month, but where do you stop now? I’m afraid of repercussions and ramifications of paying an 18-year-old kid from New Orleans, Louisiana, at the University of Oklahoma to be a student athlete.

CEDRIC DEMPSEY: You pay them $1,000, they’d want $2,000. And if they had an opportunity for $6,000 on the outside, I think that still is a possibility. I hear that all the time. If we just gave student athletes money, we wouldn’t have these other problems. I don’t buy that at all. I don’t think money is going to keep people from not living by the rules.

PAUL SOLMAN: The NCAA, in other words, will continue to resist the notion of pay-for-play, even with today’s star of the March Madness, and its $6 billion price tag.

JIM LEHRER: And for the record, Oklahoma won its opening-round game this afternoon in the NCAA tournament. 74-50 over Winthrop.