A group of top NCAA athletic directors is having its gala at Trump’s hotel to prevent athlete pay

“It’s large, it’s got capacity and obviously I’ve had relations with the president-elect for 30 years.”

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney talks to Deshaun Watson during the second half of the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Alabama Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. CREDIT: AP Photo/David J. Phillip
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney talks to Deshaun Watson during the second half of the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Alabama Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. CREDIT: AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Lead1, a group of top NCAA athletic directors seeking to block any proposals that would allow student-athletes to be paid, is holding its first “Congressional Gala” in the Trump International Hotel’s Presidential Ballroom, the Washington Post reported Monday afternoon.

That’s likely welcome news to the coaches and athletics administrators who earn millions in salary from college sports, like Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney, who led his football team to the National Championship after an upset victory over Alabama in a thrilling game Monday night.

After the game, Swinney, who earned $1.4 million in bonuses this season in addition to his $4.5 million base salary, was asked about the prospect of paying college athletes. Predictably, the 47-year-old immediately shut down that idea.

Luckily for Swinney, Lead1 plans to use all of the tools in its arsenal to keep the status quo in place — including a cozy relationship with the President-elect.


Former Congressman Tom McMillen (D-MD), who played basketball in Division I and the NBA, became the President and CEO of Lead1 in October 2015. McMillen says he wants to help the organization gain influence in Washington, leveraging his own experience in Congress to build closer relationships with elected officials on the Hill and in the White House, form a political action committee to fund candidates for the House and Senate, and host swanky events in DC. It comes as no surprise, then, that McMillen has no problem leaning on his relationship with Trump, who he has known ever since Trump donated to McMillen’s 1985 congressional campaign. And what better way to get in the president-elect’s good graces than to host Lead1’s gala in Trump’s ballroom.

“It’s a great venue,” McMillen told the Post. “It’s large, it’s got capacity and obviously I’ve had relations with the president-elect for 30 years.”

The decision fits a disturbing pattern of diplomats and advocates renting rooms in Trump’s hotels in order to gain favor or access with the president-elect. But it also demonstrates the lengths to which those at the top of the NCAA flow chart are willing to go in order to make sure that scholarship athletes, who have turned college athletics into a mutli-billion dollar industry, don’t get paid a cent.

Lead1, an association of athletic directors from 129 schools that sponsor NCAA Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) programs, has been around since 1986, but since McMillen took over, it has undergone a “rebranding process”. According to McMillen’s own LinkedIn page, his appointment “represents a new era with renewed emphasis on the traditional ideas of the well-being of the student-athlete.”


According to an interview (also published on LinkedIn), McMillen said that when he first took over as the head of the organization, he surveyed its members, and many were concerned that “athletic directors, despite all they good they have accomplished, were losing the public relations battle.”

So McMillen teamed with a fancy marketing agency to change its name, refocus its mission, and generate an “active” social media presence. McMillen says that so far, “without a doubt, it is working.” Exhibit A: This all-caps, “12 Days of Christmas”-themed tweet directing readers to—you guessed it—a LinkedIn post.

McMillen and Lead1 want to make sure the “entitlement” that Swinney and others are so concerned about—players being compensated fairly for their work—never manifests itself. In his mind, it seems, there is no need for student athletes to get any monetary compensation because things are already so much better than they were when he was a college athlete in the 1970s; they already get such luxuries as food, warmth, and the ability to see their family members in case of an emergency.

Athletes today are treated much, much better: the best in the history of college sports. When I was in school, we received $15 per month in laundry money. Today, student-athletes receive the full cost of attendance and many other benefits.

The academic counseling is better, too.

No one attempts to take their scholarships if they do not start on a team. There is millions of dollars for emergency expenses such a winter coat or flying home for a family emergency. The food is unlimited and better: LEAD1 members UCLA and Virginia Tech were just rated as having the best food service in the country. As another recent example, the NCAA just announced that it would again pay travel costs for the family members of those playing in The Final Four.

That, and much, much more, never happened before!

Of course, McMillen fails to mention that college athletic departments are making more money today than anyone in 1970 could have ever dreamed of. Sports Day reports that in 1973, TV rights for the NCAA basketball tournament (March Madness, as its more commonly known), generated only $1 million. Today, that number is over $1 billion a year. (Notably, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports reports that 85.9 percent of FBS athletic directors are white, while 53.4 percent of college football players are African American.)


Fixing the broken amateurism model—which leaves many athletes with subpar educations, no long-term health insurance if they are injured, no free time to get a side job, and no ability to profit off of their likeness until they graduate or decide to leave school and become a professional—will not be an easy task, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

While President Barack Obama hasn’t supported ending amateurism altogether, he did advocate for student athletes to get many more rights than they currently have. Trump’s position on the issue is unclear. However, thanks to the President-elect’s unprecedented conflicts of interest, an organizations like Lead1 will be able to pay for favor instead of paying its employees.