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A League of Fans Special Feature

Joe Nocera

Joe Nocera is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, been a business writer, and served as a writer and editor for Fortune magazine for 10 years. He frequently writes about the NCAA and college sports issues, including a lengthy piece earlier this year for The New York Times Magazine entitled, “Let’s Start Paying College Athletes.” A former high school basketball player, Nocera tangled with college and pro stars Marvin Barnes and Ernie DiGregorio while growing up in Providence, Rhode Island.

Nocera’s college sports reform plan for football and men’s basketball has five elements: 1) A free-market approach to recruiting that would allow college programs to offer athletes actual contracts just like pro teams do; 2) a salary cap for every team, including a minimum annual salary for every scholarship football and men’s basketball player; 3) Six-year scholarships which could be used to complete a bachelor’s or get a master’s degree; 4) Lifetime health insurance for players; and 5) The creation of an organization to represent both current and former college players.

Nocera was interviewed by Ken Reed, League of Fans’ Sports Policy Director.

Ken Reed: What made you start researching and writing about issues in college sports?

Joe Nocera: In looking at the NCAA it became apparent that they have a bunch of egregious rules when it comes to the treatment of players. The current system basically screws a bunch of kids, a lot of them disadvantaged kids. They have a labor force that does all the work but doesn’t get paid. It’s a plantation system. The NCAA has lost their sense of mission.

This is not really a sports issue. It’s a civil rights issue. It’s a race issue and justice issue. It’s about American values and the right way to treat people you have power over.

KR: Most sports reformers look at the scandals and problems in college sports and see a fairly complex issue. You seem to think the solution is pretty straightforward, correct?

JN: I do. I think the college situation can be fixed fairly easily. The NCAA is a heartless organization. But it’s overseen by the universities who could fix it tomorrow.

First, they have to change the way they think about amateurism. They’re hanging on to this old idea of amateurism for dear life. The Olympics was the same way but they gave up their view of amateurism a long time ago.

Another obvious problem is that universities are ill-equipped to run a $6 billion entertainment business.

But the big issue is that everybody’s trying to deny there’s a marketplace here. They look at big-time college football and basketball like it’s an extracurricular activity like chess club.

Look, if you pay the players, 95% of wrong doing goes away. If you allow players to be paid, the booster stuff goes away. And who cares if an agent pays for Mom to go on a recruiting trip with her son?

KR: If you pay football players and men’s college basketball players aren’t you looking at Title IX issues?

JN: First, title IX is about equality of opportunity, not equality of money. Second, if you walled off football and men’s basketball and classified them as employees of the university I don’t think there would be a Title IX issue. They wouldn’t be part of university life, they’d be part of a giant entertainment complex.

KR: What about the women’s basketball programs that make money?

JN: Women’s basketball makes money on maybe five campuses. If women’s basketball becomes a revenue-generating sport on a larger scale, include them and make them university employees too. We’re a long ways from that.

KR: What’s your take on the universities that say they can’t afford to pay athletes?

JN: I don’t have patience with schools that say they can’t pay players because they don’t have the money. A lot of these schools pay their coach $4 million. If you can’t pay the players then get out of the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision).

Right now, the idea of paying players is a foreign concept in college sports. The NCAA can adapt. Major League Baseball (MLB) was against free agency. They adapted. With MLB, the players had to fight for free agency in order to get more money. College football and basketball players don’t have an organization to fight on their behalf. In the end, the labor force has to stand up for itself. But these are 18-year-old kids looking to make money in the pros, their future’s in front of them.

KR: How do you think this issue plays out?

JN: Reform will probably come from the courts in the form of antitrust legislation against the NCAA. And a players’ organization in some form – driven from outside the sport – will evolve to fight for the players.

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