It’s impossible to read Joe Nocera’s economic history of the NCAA without seeing an implicit metaphor for abusive industrial capitalism. We have a proletariat, valorized for their unceasing hard work. We have a managerial class, who perform intellectual and technological gymnastics to keep the proletariat’s wages artificially low, while acclaiming the market forces that commercialize the game. And there’s the bourgeoisie of Division I coaches and athletic directors, made rich from the other classes’ labors.
Nocera, a veteran business journalist and pro-business moderate who has recently examined sports issues for the New York Times, is joined here by junior Times contributor Ben Strauss. The extra hands probably help unpack a complex issue which affects so many people who possibly don’t realize it. Though dissatisfaction with the NCAA’s business model has become increasingly commonplace, few fans probably understand how we reached this impasse. This historical illiteracy makes fixing the problem difficult.
Anecdotes about NCAA abuses of unpaid “student athletes” (a term coined specifically to avoid calling players “employees”) abound, though it’s difficult to derive meaningful statistics, since the intensely private NCAA keeps its books closed. We know the Association forbids its members to unionize, a position inconsistently supported by the Department of Labor, since the players’ one compensation, academic scholarships, aren’t considered taxable income by the IRS. College players aren’t paid, given workers’ comp, or contracted.
Even without statistics, however, it’s possible to determine patterns. This book runs rather long, and lush in narratives, partly because Nocera needs to establish a pattern of circumstantial evidence. This includes players’ personal experiences, public and private quotes—some quite long— from NCAA officials, and numbers where they exist. The Association’s secretive policies make smoking-gun proof elusive. But recurring narratives, accumulated across decades, makes a persuasive case for the NCAA as profiting off “amateur” athletes.
Nocera’s accumulation of anecdotal evidence is both huge, and frequently bizarre. Players get targeted for accepting groceries, car rides, and discounted pants. While denying players enough pocket money to buy toothpaste (Nocera estimates eighty percent of student-athletes live in poverty), the Association basically ends college careers for students accepting dinners from booster organizations. And the Association’s investigators, including former federal agents, are disproportionately likely to target poor black students, whom it expects to remain poor.
Meanwhile, the NCAA’s academic requirements are both onerous and inconsistent. The Association maintains strict academic accomplishment policies, to justify that student-athletes are scholars first. Its standards reach back to 9th Grade for many players. Like amateurism demands, academic requirements are enforced with racial differentiations, though in the opposite direction. Well-off white students are more stringently policed, while poor blacks from struggling, underfunded schools often get waivers. You’d almost think the Association supported racial divisions. Hmmm...
Nocera is quick to assert that, in writing all this, he doesn’t describe every sport. Collegiate water polo and tennis, though prestigious in their circles, aren’t money makers, and thus not particularly abusive. His criticisms specifically describe what he terms “the revenue sports,” football and men’s basketball. These two sports employ over 15,000 uncompensated players, mostly poor, netting revenues measured in the billions. Though again, monetary numbers remain vague with the NCAA’s notoriously closed books.
Nevertheless, the accumulation of evidence is overwhelming. The NCAA makes literally billions off laborers whose work remains perennially unpaid, and takes remarkable steps to ensure market forces never influence the bottom. It demands off-the-books overtime from workers too poor and disorganized to oppose management. While some revenue subsidizes less-prestigious sports, top Division I coaches make more than some NFL coaches. And almost no revenue reaches academics. The consequences are almost Marxian in their pervasive devastation.
Nocera is an excellent storyteller. He weaves players’ personal anecdotes, some of which are almost Stephen King-ish in their bleak tone, with journalistic passages of statistics and quotes. His investigative prowess doesn’t overwhelm the human costs of the Association’s practices. As he notes, recent history has the patterns getting worse rather than better. This mix of history and current events will make a brutal wake-up call, for sports fans and believers in economic justice alike.