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Thursday, March 17, 2016
Professor Michael Carrier reviews Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion against the NCAA
Michael Carrier has authored the following review of Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss new book, Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA.
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The NCAA’s Exploitation of Student-Athletes
Michael A. Carrier*
“Amateurism.” “Student-athlete.” Such phrases conjure the finest ideals. Sound body, sound mind. Top-notch educations and athletic contests.
But what if it’s all a façade? What if the powers-that-be neglect the “student” and exploit the “athlete”? What if amateurism is an empty phrase the NCAA hides behind in its embrace of commercialism on the backs of athletes?
These are the questions at the heart of Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss’s gripping new book Indentured. The authors rip the lid off the NCAA’s celebrated morals, weaving a complex—and sad—story of student exploitation, extravagant riches, and blatant hypocrisy.
NCAA football and men’s basketball are big business. The NCAA generates $900 million in annual revenues while coaches make millions and ESPN pays billions. Schools flee long-standing conferences to receive more money. Gleaming new football facilities boast full-size indoor practice fields and lounges with every possible amenity.
But this big business does not come from nowhere. It comes from the athletes, who put in 50-hour workweeks. It comes from “voluntary” practices that are “mandatory in everything but their name.” It comes when coaches push severely-injured players back onto the field and don’t allow them to see a doctor.
Students suffer not just physically but also financially. More than 4 of 5 football athletes on full scholarship live below the poverty line. But they are not allowed to eat university-provided food at any time other than three specified times a day. And they must pay out of pocket to treat their injuries.
The disconnect between the NCAA’s riches and the athletes’ poverty would have been jarring enough. But the authors heap insult upon injury in their methodical discussion of the 400-page rulebook the NCAA uses as a hammer or, alternatively, ignores.
The NCAA allows athletes to maintain a 20-hour week during football road trips by magically capping time related to a game event (such as travel, play, and team meetings) at three hours. It ignored its own rules (pretending amendments passed that did not) in signing a promotional deal with Pontiac. And it looked the other way to protect the “untouchable” John Wooden-led UCLA basketball team when a prominent booster arranged for food, clothes, and housing and provided players with cars, stereos, airline tickets, and money.
On the other hand, when the NCAA decides to punish a school, it pulls out all the stops. A USC coach was punished on the basis of “completely made up” witness testimony, unethical communications, and conduct deemed by a court to be “malicious.” UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian found himself a target, as the NCAA threatened witnesses and used “largely discredited” testimony because they “really want to get him.”
In addition to vendettas, the NCAA has applied its rules in ways that ignore common sense and decency. A Mississippi State football player was suspended for three years for unknowingly receiving a $12 discount at a thrift shop. A University of Oklahoma baseball player lost his eligibility for “profiting” from a book he wrote detailing his struggles with brain and stomach cancer. The University of Nebraska received two years’ probation for covering the costs of books recommended (rather than required) by professors.
Today, the shackles are—ever so slowly—being loosened. The most powerful conferences have guaranteed four-year scholarships, enacted a concussion protocol, and agreed to allow schools to pay a few extra thousand dollars covering the full cost of attendance. And while the Northwestern football players’ attempt to form a union was not successful, Congress continues to look over the NCAA’s shoulder and antitrust litigation seeking even greater player compensation than received in the O’Bannon trial (payment up to the cost of attendance) is underway.
Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss have done a masterful job exposing the contradictions at the heart of a commercial NCAA built on the backs of impoverished student athletes. Though appearing to be a radical title for a book about college athletes, readers will walk away from Indentured shaking their head at just how unfair the system is.
* Distinguished Professor at Rutgers Law School, author of Innovation for the 21st Century, co-author of IP and Antitrust treatise, and signer of Ninth Circuit brief on behalf of the O’Bannon plaintiffs.