April 1, 2016 - Two national sports analysts argued to a draw Friday on whether collegiate athletes should be “paid to play” in a lively debate hosted by the University of Houston Law Center.
Joe Nocera, a New York Times columnist and author, and Len Elmore, a former NBA basketball player and commentator for ESPN and CBS, differed on whether college athletes should be compensated for their talents that bring in millions of dollars to colleges or whether a free education is payment enough.
“This is one of the things that law schools and universities do best,” said Law Center Dean Leonard M. Baynes in introducing the two, “bringing people together to discuss important issues.
“My basic position is fairly simple,” Nocera said in his opening remarks. “College athletes should have the same rights as everyone else in society, including economic rights. The players should participate in the financial windfall that they generate for everyone else.
“The answer is that they can’t be paid because they are students. My question is why not? If other students can have work study programs, why are student athletes alone? The idea that education comes first is just not true,” he continued. “The money is there and players should participate in the windfall.”
Elmore said changes have been made in providing for student athletes, and reform is gaining momentum, but “pay for play is not the solution.” The question is, “Are athletes getting a value?” he said. In return for playing, they receive tax free aid in the form of tuition, room and board, books, and medical benefits in addition to the value of the degree itself, he said, and they emerge from school debt-free unlike most other graduates.
“Instead of ‘employer’ and ‘employee,’ let’s consider ‘benefactor’ and ‘beneficiary’ where the athlete promises to perform on the field and in the classroom,” he said. “What’s wrong with that?”
Nocera pointed out dismal graduation rates for athletes at some colleges and instances where players are registered for useless majors and are assigned to classes that never meet.
“I am incensed when schools allow students to be exploited,” countered Elmore, a college All-American, NBA veteran, Harvard-educated lawyer, and former New York prosecutor. “Exploitation does exist, but young athletes need to be advocates for themselves. Those who claim they are being exploited should stand up and demand an education.”
The two agreed that college athletes should not give up rights to their names and likenesses, though differing on how and when they should be compensated when schools and the NCAA use them for lucrative marketing.
“This is a no brainer,” Nocera said. “Of course you should have the rights to your name and likeness. This is America. You should not give up your right to your name and likeness because you want to play college sports.”
“No one should give up their rights and identity,” Elmore agreed, “unless they feel that what they are gaining is better.” But, he said, the money should be placed in escrow until the athlete graduates.
Elmore said college sports contribute to the greater good with revenue from the big money sports, football and basketball, going to support other sports programs. He said 93 percent of NCAA revenue goes back to the schools for scholarships and other purposes.
UHLC Professor Michael A. Olivas, director of the school’s Institute for Higher Education Law & Governance and current acting president of the University of Houston Downtown, served as moderator. He cited a number of cases in which schools were found in violation of NCAA rules and placed on probation, forced to forfeit winning records, and even given the so-called death penalty, sitting out an entire season as SMU did for a “slush fund” scandal in the 1980s. He also noted the important role lawyers and judges play in resolving these issues. Olivas asked the two debaters about efforts to unionize student athletes.
Elmore said such a move would cause chaos and jeopardize athletes’ education while Nocera agreed unionization would prove unworkable, adding, “It’s not going to happen.” He did, however, support the concept of an organization that would have some authority to advocate on behalf of the players. The NCAA makes so much money because “it’s a free labor force in a multi -billion dollar business and the education aspect at many of these schools is secondary.
”We need to share some of that money with the players,” said Nocera, author of Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA. “There is no reason you can’t get educated and get paid.”
“No one is twisting anybody’s arm to go to college and play sports,” Elmore said in conclusion. “You go there because of the scholarships, to live in the dorms; you have those rights until you step over that threshold.
“There are rights and there are privileges, if you want to go to college then that privilege is given to you, but there are rights that you have to give up, or you can keep all those rights and forego those benefits, and then go to the NBA another way.
“If you want the best route, then you have to accept that you have to give up your rights, with the reforms that are in place it is a grand bargain. Education gives athletes an advantage and to be on the field shows students leadership, which are things that have value.”
One student athlete in the lecture hall could not be accused of bias as she praised both sides of the debate. Ayana Howard, who played volleyball for LaSalle University, is Elmore’s niece.
She said a number of issues would need to be resolved, including any disparities in funding between large universities and smaller schools like her alma mater. Also, the future law student said, if football and basketball players are compensated, how about a champion debater?
“There is still a lot of work that needs to be done.”