March 10, 2016
Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss, authors of "Indentured." (Fred Conrad photo / Penguin Random House)
People go to college for lots of reasons: to continue a family tradition or to grasp at bootstraps to raise themselves. To prepare for medical school or law school. To study a beloved subject or to play a favorite sport.
If a young person falls into that last category, their education will be fraught with financial, practical and legal complications thanks to one of the most powerful non-governmental organizations in the United States, the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The NCAA, with its 400-page rule book, has power over almost every aspect of an athlete's life, from high school curriculum (the NCAA mandates high school core courses) to college schedule (forget about taking any class offered during mandatory, or even "volundatory," practice times) to financial situation (don't try to make any money on your own athletic ability or reputation or you'll be ruled ineligible and lose your scholarship).
Many people in academia and the sports media have long held up the NCAA as an exemplary system, one that maintains the purity of college sports by insisting that players be amateur student-athletes rather than paid professionals.
But a growing number of people — including a former head of the NCAA, an erstwhile shoe-contract promoter, active and retired athletes, as well as economists, lawyers, judges and journalists — have begun to question and combat this status quo.
Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss' blistering new book, "Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA," tells the stories of these rebels. In their vivid portraits and page-turning narratives, Nocera and Strauss clearly demonstrate how the NCAA belies its own purported ideals in ways that betray fundamental American values.
To keep things academic here, I will examine "Indentured" as a proposed curriculum for an interdisciplinary study of sports in higher education, to show what it has to teach its readers, dedicated NCAA fans or sports agnostics alike.
Four academic disciplines matter most for Nocera and Strauss: Economics, law, media studies and history.
First, economics: They agree with many critics who claim that the NCAA is a cartel, an organization of economic entities that cooperate to fix prices or wages for its own benefit, beyond what is "reasonable and necessary." Nocera and Strauss make extensive use of the work of economists Andy Schwarz, Dan Rascher and Ernie Nadel, whose article "Neither Reasonable nor Necessary: 'Amateurism' in Big-Time College Sports" laid the intellectual foundation for a critique of the NCAA's business model. These writers were outraged by the fact that television networks, schools, conferences and coaches make millions of dollars, while the athletes do not directly share in the vast profits their labor creates. Such cartel behavior violates basic free-market principles.
One example: the mistaken idea that television rights are so expensive because coaches' salaries are so high (in most American states, the highest paid state employees are the flagship universities football and men's basketball coaches).
Schwarz writes that "(c)ollege sports broadcast rights are not expensive because it costs a lot to hire coaches .... Coaches are well paid because college sports broadcasts sell for good money and a good coach helps get those broadcast contracts — and the fund-raising that comes with a good team." Nocera and Strauss continue: "Schools wanted money, says Schwarz, and then blamed the market they themselves created."
As for the arguments against paying players, Schwarz utterly demolishes them in "Excuses, Not Reasons: 13 Myths About (Not) Paying College Athletes," which is included here as an appendix, along with his essay comparing college athletes to colonial-era indentured servants, the source of Nocera and Strauss' title.
Of course, labor economics comes into play, and the book explores former Northwesternquarterback Kain Colter's attempt to unionize football players, with the help of longtime activist Ramogi Huma, founder of the National College Players Association, and theUnited Steelworkers union. (Full disclosure: Northwestern is my employer; I have had no extensive personal or professional contact with the NU players, coaches or administrators depicted in this book.) The National Labor Relations Board's final ruling is a study in paradox, as it simultaneously acknowledged that "the players worked long hours under the direction of their coaches and were paid for it (in the form of scholarships)" and rejected their attempt to unionize by saying they student-athletes, not employees.
Second, there's law: Nocera and Strauss depict several lengthy courtroom dramas that could have been as dry and boring as the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offenses that once defined the Big Ten. Instead, their vivid portraits of the lawyers, plaintiffs, NCAA officials and judges bring these courtroom dramas to life.
Readers get a legal education: we learn the difference between a Supreme Court ruling about pay for assistant coaches and a dicta (a judicial digression, apart from the judgment and theoretically irrelevant) about the theoretical value of amateurism. We explore the world of due process — "the idea that people have legal rights that the state must respect, including the right to defend themselves when accused of wrongdoing" and how the NCAA denies that right to the athletes it investigates. Their stories of many victims of the NCAA's zealous and arbitrary enforcement officers, especially perhaps Ryan Boatright and Aaron Adair, will break any reader's heart.
Then there's NCAA media studies: The NCAA clearly shows that it's not about the story, it's about how you tell the story.
For example, various "reform" efforts, led by the likes of late NCAA President Myles Brand, were merely the reframing of narratives to make the NCAA look as though it were reforming itself. The NCAA increased graduation rates by redefining the relevant span from six to eight years, and subtracting athletes who didn't flunk out but transferred. Sportswriters, long invested — even complicit — in the NCAA's story, paid little attention to such maneuvers.
And so, in Nocera and Strauss' course, we learn how it took an investigation into the NCAA's practices by journalists who were not sportswriters to expose the hypocrisy of coaches and administrators making millions while athletes go to bed hungry (due to NCAA regulations limiting when they could be fed).
One especially egregious example: An athletic director at Ohio State University got a bonus of about $18,000 (an extra week's pay) because a wrestler won an individual NCAA championship. If he'd given one dime of that money to the athlete whose thousands of hours of practice and competition and sacrifice brought that windfall, the athlete would have lost his eligibility and had his championship voided.
Then there's history: Nocera and Strauss also walk us through the NCAA's own forgotten annals and then connect the organization's practices to the fundamental American issue of race.
Once, scholarships — now used to justify not paying the players — were considered a violation of the intrinsic values of amateurism. Back in the day, the NCAA established its authority over universities and made millions of dollars by limiting the number of football and men's basketball games that could be shown on national TV. Then cable TV happened, followed soon after by a revolt of football-centric universities and conferences, which have made billions of dollars more by scheduling games whenever networks will pay to televise them.
But the strongest point in "Indentured" is the way Nocera and Strauss make it crystal clear that the NCAA's injustices have an undeniable racial component.
They summarize the critique of the NCAA by Sonny Vaccaro, the man who first conceived of exclusive shoe contracts, then dedicated his retirement to fighting the NCAA:
How could the basketball establishment deprive young men, most of them black and poor, from being able to make a living when they wanted to? Why was it always black athletes who were targeted? So many of the NCAA's rules surrounding amateurism discriminated against players who lacked money and means. Black athletes from disadvantaged neighborhoods were the ones most likely to struggle in college, because they had gone to subpar high schools — and they were also the ones most often accused of academic fraud. And of course they received no remuneration even as they were making everyone around them rich.
They continue on to cite an explosive 2011 Atlantic article by Taylor Branch:
"Look at the money we make off predominately poor black kids," Dale Brown, the former basketball coach at Louisiana State University told (Branch). "We are the whoremasters." In the most incendiary line in his article, Branch wrote that the NCAA lets off "the unmistakable whiff of the plantation."
In the end, as millions of Americans fill out their office betting pool brackets for the NCAA men's basketball tournament, not everyone will want to hear about these issues. Discussing whether a No. 16 seed will ever upset a No. 1 seed is far more fun.
But to be truly educated requires confronting uncomfortable realities. Anyone interested in higher education, college sports and fundamental American values of due process, fairness and equality should read Nocera and Strauss' book to hear the case they so forcefully and eloquently make against the NCAA.
Bill Savage teaches Chicago literature at Northwestern University.
By Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss, Portfolio/Penguin, 369 pages, $30
Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune
A version of this article appeared in print on March 13, 2016, in the Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune with the headline "Flunking the NCAA - Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss' `Indentured' hits the mark in investigating college sports" — Today's paper | Subscribe