Ex-NCAA Official: Student Athletes Aren’t Workers, Shouldn’t Be Paid

In response to Monday's interview with historian Taylor Branch about the idea of college students who play sports being paid, the NCAA made available Joe Crowley, a historian, former member of NCAA committees and former president of the University of Nevada at Reno. He spoke with Hari Sreenivasan.

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    Finally tonight: the debate over big-time college sports and whether students should get paid.

    Hari Sreenivasan picks up where he left off last night.


    We heard tough criticism of both universities and of the NCAA in the wake of recent scandals involving players from several schools. It came from historian Taylor Branch, who wrote a 15,000-word essay in the latest issue of "The Atlantic" called "The Shame of College Sports."

    Here's a bit of what he told us.

    TAYLOR BRANCH, Author, "The Shame of College Sports": The essential problem is that we pretend that these adults are not entitled to a portion of the value that they earn. And we pretend that the problem with all of these scandals is that dirty athletes are getting money under the table.

    The problem is that we're not honest about it. Nowhere else in America do we forbid adults from seeking a portion of the highly valued services that they provide. And nowhere else would we think of saying, don't pay these people until I'm satisfied that it won't mess something up.


    We asked the NCAA for an on-air response. They made available to us Joe Crowley. He's a former president of the University of Nevada at Reno. He served on key NCAA committees for more than two decades. And he's the author of a history of college sports called "In the Arena: The NCAA's First Century."

    Thanks for being with us.

    JOE CROWLEY, Former President, University of Nevada at Reno: Well, a pleasure to be here.


    First of all, you don't — why you don't think students should be paid for playing big-time college sports?


    Well, the NCAA is based fundamentally on the principle of amateurism, which Mr. Branch feels is a principle, sadly, out of date, and indeed no principle at all and perhaps a hoax, because it isn't what it was 100 years ago.

    And that is true. The world has turned upside-down a couple of times since then and many other changes. And no concept, I think, in its pure state can last that long. Nevertheless, we believe, the NCAA believes, higher educational institutions believe, that paying a student a grant in aid, a scholarship, is not a violation of that amateurism principle.

    So if we paid athletes to play for us, clearly, they wouldn't be, could not be, amateurs. And we will stay as long, at least as it is possible, by adhering to the principle of amateurism, no pay for players.


    In his piece, Taylor Branch makes the point that these are the players on the field. They wear the logos. They help pack the stands. It's their likeness that's in the video games. Why shouldn't they be able to profit from some of that?


    Well, again, if they profit, they're workers; they're not amateurs. And there is a further huge problem. It's just a practical problem.

    There is no way, short of huge additional outlays, to hire athletes to pay them for what they do. That means not just the stars of division 1A, but the third-string halfback in football or the 13th bench player in basketball and athletes in Divisions II and III. Division III is a non-scholarship division, the biggest division in the NCAA.

    And it would come as a surprise to that division and the institutions within it that we're now going to pay your players, whom — to whom we wouldn't give and shouldn't give — that's the principle of Division III — scholarships.

    In addition, there is Title IX. Surely, if we bestowed dollars on players who make a difference more than other players, we would have a tremendous tussle with the meaning of Title IX, which is equality for women. And to put this into institutions of higher education at a time when, across the country, budgets for higher educational institutions, public and private, are being reduced in double-digit numbers, it's just impractical.


    Right. So, the notion of student athlete that you have referred to, the NCAA has referred to, the critics say this is just legal wrangling so you don't have to get — you can get around the work that they actually do on the field. You give them the pads, the tools to do the job on the football field, but if they get injured there, they don't get workers compensation.


    Well, that's wrong on two counts.

    I mean, it is the case, as Mr. Branch points out, that, in its origins, that was the intention. That was more than 50 years ago. However, it has developed into a centerpiece of athletics in higher education. If we are going to have — if we are going to have students playing sports, we're simply not able to pay them.

    And that's the bottom line. That's the difference. The student athlete is a student athlete these days. The evidence is overwhelming on that score. If you look at academic reforms in the NCAA that have occurred over the last 20, 30, 40 years, if you look at the impact of those reforms, if you look at graduation rates of student athletes, including those in the top subdivision, you find them remarkable.

    In the case of my own institution, the University of Nevada at Reno, our graduation rate is 78 percent. Here and in most, if not all, other institutions in the NCAA, those rates are higher than the rates of the general student population.


    Which brings me to the topic of academics. The NCAA says that the academic performance is really first and foremost. It's secondary to athletic performance.

    If that's the case, a lot of the athletes point to something — a discrepancy. They say, listen, most of the contracts — almost contracts — the agreements or scholarships are one year at a time. If I get injured on the field, I am now unable to finish that great education that I got access to.


    Well, I should point out as well that injuries are covered. They are insured. Students don't have to — student athletes do not have to pay to get better, to have surgery.

    The NCAA also has a multimillion-dollar catastrophic injury policy, which takes care of those really, really severe injuries. But the one year at a time really is no different from the way scholarships are generally given by institutions. Many scholarships are one year, freshman year, typically. There are others that are four-year scholarships, but you retain them only if you perform meritoriously. So you have to continue to be academically solid if you're going to continue to receive that non-athletic scholarship.

    The same applies in sports. If you're not performing meritoriously, the institution would have a right not to renew your scholarship, although I believe that seldom happens.


    All right, Joe Crowley, thanks so much for joining us.


    My pleasure.