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After NCAA announcement, is allowing compensation for student athletes inevitable?

The NCAA, which oversees collegiate sports, has long argued student athletes should not be compensated financially for their performance. On Tuesday, for the first time, the NCAA appeared willing to reconsider the policy. But the "small first step" comes with many caveats. William Brangham talks to sportswriter John Feinstein about amateur vs. semi-pro athletes and NCAA bargaining strategy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For decades, the governing body overseeing collegiate sports, the NCAA, has refused to budge from its position that student athletes shouldn't be financially compensated for their performance on the field or on the court.

    But, today, for the first time, the NCAA seemed to open the door toward a change.

    But, as William Brangham tells us, the announcement comes with many caveats.

  • William Brangham:

    The NCAA was facing a wave of new pressure on this issue from California and a dozen other states.

    California Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed a law that would allow student athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness, including from sports merchandise and video games. The change wouldn't take effect until 2023. But other states are considering following suit.

    So, today, the NCAA's Board of Governors acknowledged that pressure and voted to consider allowing a similar practice throughout college sports.

    But this is just the beginning of a very long path. And the NCAA maintains there will still be a clear distinction between amateur and professional athletes.

    Let's break this down with sportswriter and author John Feinstein. He's written numerous books about NCAA sports and is a columnist for The Washington Post.

    Welcome back.

  • John Feinstein:

    William, thanks.

  • William Brangham:

    So, this got a ton of attention today. The headlines said, NCAA finally relents. They are going to allow athletes to get their money and earn what they bring in for these schools. LeBron James said this was a beautiful day for college athletes.

    What did the NCAA actually say today?

  • John Feinstein:

    Well, first of all, William, what they did was, they were like the robber coming out of a bank who is surrounded by the police. And they held up their hands and said, we give up.

  • William Brangham:

    I have never enjoyed bank robbing. I totally disavow it.

  • John Feinstein:

    Yes, I'm really sorry. And now let's negotiate.

    And the second thing they were saying is, we have got this. California, you don't need a law. Other states, you don't need a law.

    There are two bills in Congress that would federalize the law.

    We have got this. And we're going to take care of our, as they like to call them, student athletes, which is one of the great myths of our time in terms of the big-time football and men's basketball players, because they're training to be professional athletes. There's nothing wrong with that, but they want to maintain this myth that they're somehow amateurs, which they're not.

    They're recruited in a different way. They travel in a different way. They have locker rooms that are bigger than this set is here. And they live in luxury, because they're semi-pros. And, again, I don't think there's anything wrong with that, because they make huge money for the universities.

    But what they're saying is, OK, we have got this, and we're going to pay them.

    But then, if you read through this list that's in front of me here…

  • William Brangham:

    This is statement the NCAA put out today.

  • John Feinstein:

    From the NCAA, with all these caveats.

    And one is, as you mentioned, was, we still want to distinguish between amateur athletes and professional athletes.

    Well, exactly how do you do that? There's no real answer in terms of paying them. Remember, the schools are not paying them. Outside agencies are the ones that will be allowed to pay them. And they say, well, we have still got to make sure that recruiting isn't affected by this.

    First of all, any change to recruiting would be a good thing. But, secondly, what they're saying is, OK, so, if you're being recruited, and Kentucky, which is a big basketball power, has more money from alumni that it can legally offer to you because you're a star basketball player, but American University here in Washington doesn't have nearly that money, then Kentucky has an unfair advantage, except those unfair advantages already exist in facilities and how you travel and things like that.

  • William Brangham:

    So, what is the NCAA doing?

    I get it. You're trying to say that they're holding off the state efforts and the congressional efforts.

  • John Feinstein:

    Right.

  • William Brangham:

    But they are at least now — they directed their three divisions to open up the door to possibly allow students to be compensated.

  • John Feinstein:

    That's right.

  • William Brangham:

    So, isn't that progress in some way?

  • John Feinstein:

    Well, it is a small first step.

    And, again, it is — that's all it is. And, again, they're trying to hold off the avalanche that's coming in their direction of people saying, we're not buying this bit anymore that the sky will fall if college athletes get paid by outside agencies or, as Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA, said, it's an existential issue.

    What the heck does that mean? I guess I'm not smart enough to understand. What is an existential issue when it comes to paying people?

    And so what they're trying to say is, OK, we have got it. We're going to work this out.

    But what it really is, it's an opening bargaining ploy, because they are going to say, OK, we will do this, and the lawmakers are going to say, no, we want that. And then the NCAA, they will say — will say, what about this?

    And they're going to try to give away as little of the store as they can, so that the schools and the NCAA itself continue to — can continue to rake in the billions of dollars they make off of these kids.

  • William Brangham:

    That's the essential argument, the economic fairness argument, right, that the students are the revenue drivers, and that no one is there to see the coaches and the grandstands and all that. They're there to see the athletes play, and that those athletes ought to get a slice of that pie.

  • John Feinstein:

    Yes. Well, there are people who come to see the coaches, and they get — and they're compensated for that. Coaches in big-time programs make seven-figure salaries.

    But let's use Zion Williamson, who was a freshman at Duke last year, who was the first pick in the NBA draft. The money that he alone brought in to Duke, to the ACC, the conference Duke plays in, to the NCAA, as part of their billion — multibillion-dollar TV contract, can't be calculated.

    What did he get in return? Tuition, books, and fees, period. Why can't he go out while he's still in college and sell a car? Why can't he do an autograph show, the way professional athletes do, and get paid for that?

  • William Brangham:

    So, the NCAA says, OK, we will look at this.

    You're arguing it's a bargaining ploy. How do you think this is going to end up, lastly?

  • John Feinstein:

    It's going to end up with some sort of rule being put in place that will allow the athletes to make outside…

  • William Brangham:

    You think that's a foregone conclusion now?

  • John Feinstein:

    It has to be.

    Certain things have their time. The Edsel is gone. This is going. And they're going — the NCAA is going to fight as hard as it can to give away as little to the athletes as it possibly can.

    They're going to continue to perpetuate this myth of the student athlete, and — but, eventually, they're going to have to give in, because, if they don't, Congress is going to step in and pass a law.

  • William Brangham:

    John Feinstein, always such a pleasure to talk to you.

  • John Feinstein:

    Thanks, William.

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