Sunday morning, as the final day of the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend began, NBC’s Meet The Press addressed one of the most heated topics facing college sports today, holding a debate about whether college athletes should be paid.
The panel included NCAA president Mark Emmert, U.S. Education Secretary and former Harvard basketball player Arne Duncan, and Obama adviser and former Duke basketball and football player Reggie Love, the lone voice on the panel who took the players’ side. But to call it a debate is putting it kindly, because the panel failed both viewers and college athletes because it framed the debate incorrectly, focusing on compensation instead of the more relevant question about whether athletes should have a voice in the system in which they participate and help enrich. And in the end, the show missed the opportunity to have a balanced, pertinent debate because it did exactly what the NCAA has always done on these issues: it talked about ways to reform college athletics without giving the athletes a true seat at the table.
Start with the frame: to an outsider, it makes sense to ask the question of whether athletes should be paid. That’s the frame much of the debate in the media has taken, and it’s controversial enough that it will attract viewers. But it isn’t the question athletes who are trying to change the current system are asking, because they recognize, as I’ve written before, that college athletes are already compensated in the form of athletic scholarships, and they have been for the last half-century.
The question facing the NCAA right now isn’t about whether athletes should be paid but about whether they should have the fundamental right to have a seat at the table when decisions are made about compensation, health care, education, and every other issue that affects them. That is the main thrust behind multiple antitrust lawsuits challenging the NCAA. It is also the primary reason athletes at Northwestern University, led by quarterback Kain Colter and with the backing of the National Collegiate Players Association, are seeking to form the first players union in the history of collegiate athletics. Both the lawsuits and the union drive ask a simple question: if athletes are compensated for their labor, as they appear to be, shouldn’t that make them employees under American law? And if they are employees, shouldn’t they have the right to bargain with their employers?
Ramogi Huma, director of NCPA, the decade-old organization that has fought for players’ right to have a voice in the NCAA system, identified that as an immediate problem with the Meet The Press debate.
“The way it was framed fell right into the NCAA’s talking points. What we say – it’s not whether college athletes should be paid. What we say is that college athletes are already paid. I think there are few Americans that would disagree with that. Even the people who don’t want to see them get paid more recognize that they are receiving compensation. No one says they don’t,” Huma told ThinkProgress. “Whether or not that applies as pay under the law and gives players labor rights, that is the primary question. And then what does that lead to? It leads to players having to have a seat at the table to discuss things the NCAA has been running away from.”
That’s the way Huma and NCPA have always talked about reform — in a way that doesn’t just ask about compensation but about players’ rights to advocate for changes on other issues too. NCPA’s web site lists issues, including education, health care, and scholarship protections, on which the organization thinks athletes should have a say. Huma highlighted the NCAA’s failures to boost graduation rates or improve educational opportunities and its willingness to ignore concussions (the subject of another major lawsuit facing the NCAA) as areas where giving players a voice could help improve their lot inside the system.
NFL veteran and former NFL Players Association president Dominique Foxworth echoed those thoughts, noting that his college adviser at the University of Maryland tried to steer him clear of his desired major because it wasn’t football-friendly, and also to the health care problems many athletes face when they are injured on the field, because the NCAA doesn’t require schools to cover health care costs or to continue scholarships for athletes whose careers end due to injury (though many do). Those are issues, both Foxworth and Huma said, that players could address if only they had an avenue to do so.
“You’ll always have a group that has no voice, which is what the players are in this case, that will continuously be taken advantage of. That’s why I’m not necessarily for a blanket, ‘let’s pay the players and move on (solution),’” Foxworth, who helped produce a film about the rights of college athletes, told ThinkProgress. “What they really need is a voice to advocate for their rights. Just giving them money will silence a lot of people, but it won’t address the issue at hand. The 90-plus percent of players who don’t play professionally will still be forced to go through an education process where their major is pretty much chosen for them and they’re forced to miss a substantial amount of classes, have 5 a.m. workouts the day of an exam. These are real issues that affect the lives of our players and affect their lives going forward.”
The NCAA and Emmert, its president, prefer to keep the debate centered on compensation rather than on players’ rights, in part because the NCAA has failed on the issues NCPA raises. But it’s also because that framing makes the athletes’ argument more popular. In a Washington Post/ABC poll released last weekend, the idea of paying college athletes received just 33 percent support against 64 percent opposition. By contrast, the idea of giving athletes a say in the system via a union was split evenly at 47 percent support and 47 percent opposition.
So why didn’t Meet The Press address the question of players’ rights? Likely because no one was present to do so. Love was the sole member of the panel arguing on behalf of the players, but the segment did not feature anyone currently working with or on behalf of players. Huma said Meet The Press representatives contacted him last week about appearing on the panel. He told the show he was available, only to find out later that Love would appear instead. That, Huma said, created a void that left a true voice for players absent from the debate.
“I’ll say this – I’m glad that Reggie Love was there and that he tried to speak on behalf of college athletes’ rights,” Huma told ThinkProgress this week. “And I think as a former player he definitely has that perspective. But there was definitely a void given everything that’s going on and that we’re the only organization that’s been advocating for players’ rights with the players themselves – current players. And I was surprised that the forum did not include a representative (from NCPA).”
Without that voice, Emmert was allowed to frame issues of players’ rights the way he wanted when they did pop up.
“Basically it was a big sounding board for the NCAA is what it ended up being,” Huma said. “(Emmert) had full reign to blast the idea of a union without any resistance at all, without any challenge whatsoever. And he made it a point to bring up the unionization idea and try to discredit it without any resistance. That was frustrating. And we obviously have a strong counter argument to the things that he put forward.”
In other instances, when the discussion turned to issues outside of compensation, little was said about whether athletes should play a role in reform. Duncan, the education secretary, brought up the NCAA’s failures on education, highlighting low graduation rates and a system that gives coaches and administrators more financial incentive to win games than to educate athletes. And Love supported the idea of an education trust and more player access to revenues they help generate. But neither offered the idea that athletes should have a say in how their reforms were implemented or if they were the right way to go.
The exclusion of a voice for players wasn’t because of a lack of options. Aside from Huma, the panel could have included any number of others working close to the issue. Like Kain Colter, the Northwestern University quarterback, or Ed O’Bannon, the former UCLA basketball star who is currently suing the NCAA, alleging that it violated antitrust law by improperly using players names, images, and likenesses without compensating them. Jeffrey Kessler, the labor lawyer who is suing the NCAA on behalf of college athletes in another antitrust case, could have been another option. Or there’s Taylor Branch, the author and civil rights historian who has produced a film, a book, and an in-depth magazine feature taking on the NCAA’s current system.
Instead, the debate remained focused where the NCAA wanted it: on whether athletes should be paid. But as Huma noted in our interview, that question was settled long ago, when the NCAA allowed its schools to start offering scholarships in exchange for athletic services. The question now isn’t whether athletes should be paid, but whether they should have a basic voice in the system that generates millions of dollars in revenue on their backs but often fails to fulfill the promises it makes to them, both financially and educationally. If you only watched the Meet The Press panel Sunday, you’d have no idea that’s the case.