Books: “Indentured” Explores How NCAA Exploits Players

Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA

By Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss

Portfolio Penguin

Joe Nocera has been a leading voice against the NCAA for the past four years in The New York Times.

Nocera’s main focus in his columns has been on why players are not paid and the underhanded tactics the NCAA takes against players seeking rights, and that is explored in his new book, “Indentured.”

The book also delves into the business side of college sports, and the outsize role television played early on, leading to merchandising and sponsorships, while the NCAA remained constant on one thing: that the players would not receive a penny of the billions thrown around.

Nocera wrote of the mission of the NCAA, “Since the 1950s, the NCAA has served as the powerful overlord of college sports, with one central tenet: that college athletes, whether gymnasts or quarterbacks, must be unpaid amateurs, for whom sports is little more than a sideline to their academic pursuits. as the NCAA puts it in its bylaws, ‘Student participation in intercollegiate athletics is an avocation, and student-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises.’ The NCAA’s long-standing insistence that amateurism is the ‘core value’ of college sports has always been more than a little hypocritical – as has the idea that the NCAA was somehow preventing (as opposed to enabling) their exploitation. Has there ever really been a time when the athletes in the so-called revenue sports that are the focus of this book – football and men’s basketball – weren’t expected to put theur sport first and their studies a distant second, while helping to bring money and glory to their school?”

“Indentured” documents a lot of cases in which players, like Ryan Boatright of UConn, were railroaded by NCAA investigators.

Boatright was set to start playing for the University of Connecticut in the fall of 2011. The school, not the NCAA for various reasons, declared him “ineligible” due to questions about his recruitment.

NCAA investigators targeted Boatright’s mother in a way that would make the FBI blush, and were on a mission to embarrass her and her son.

Nocera describes the investigation as such, “The NCAA likes to say that because it lacks subpoena power, it has to find other means to get people to cooperate with its investigations. But it has far more power than a mere subpoena. It controls the fate of eighteen-yea-old athletes, many of whom have dreams of playing professionally someday, but whose careers the NCAA can destroy on a whim, simply by declaring them permanently ineligible. What mother can stand up to that kind of raw power?”

There are plenty of examples throughout the book that are placed at the end of chapters to continue the overall theme of the work.

Players have been victimized in so many ways. Some lost scholarships due to injury and forced to go into debt to continue their education. Others were placed into sham classes that robbed them of the education they were promised.

The most absurd case was when Larry Gillard, a freshman football player at Mississippi State, paid $25 for two shirts, and received about a 20 percent discount. He went back to the same store and got the same deal. Gillard was penalized for accepting an unauthorized discount and received a three-year suspension, which basically ended his college career. Gillard sued the NCAA and lost because he did not have due process rights. A lot of the cases Nocera documents involve how players tried to earn due process rights in their cases.

Nocera made some conclusions about the NCAA that shaped his thinking and set the tableau for his columns and this book.

The first one was “that the NCAA  was a classic cartel, the OPEC of sports, which existed in no small part to artificially suppress the wages of its labor force – namely the players.”

The second was that “the ubiquitous term ‘student-athlete,’ which the NCAA had first trotted out in the mid-1950s, was a farce. College football and men’s basketball players worked fifty hours or more a week on their sport, and they knew full well that their university expected them to make athletics their top priority.

The third conclusion by Nocera was “that the hundreds of bylaws in the NCAA rulebook – ostensibly aimed at furthering the amateur ideal and ensuring competitive balance on the field – were more appropriately seen as a means of keeping players in their place.”

Nocera said of the final conclusion, “The fourth thing I came to understand was that for all the seeming glory that surrounds them, college athletes in the revenue sports were exploited. It was as simple as that. ‘When you are profiting off someone else, while restricting them from earning a profit, that’s exploitation, one of the most prominent reformers, Jay Bilas of ESPN, told the Wall Street Journal.

The NCAA was founded in 1906, but it did not begin its ascent until 1951 when former sportswriter Walter Byers took over as its first executive director.

Byers “invented the term ‘student-athlete,’ which he coined to evade efforts by several states to classify athletes as employees, and thus allow them to collect workers’ compensation if they were injured.”

Byers is a major player in the “Indentured” because he set in motion the forces that turned the NCAA into a behemoth.

“He negotiated television contracts, cut licensing deals, and helped elevate the NCAA’s college basketball tournament into the commercial spectacle we now know as March Madness, where fans are not allowed to bring a drink to their seats that is not from a tournament sponsor, and where even the ladders that the players climb to cut down the nets at the Final Four are made by an official NCAA sponsor,” writes Nocera.

“Indentured” gives detailed accounts of all the television contracts, the way bowl games were packaged to maximize value, such as the Bowl Championship Series; the evolution of conferences, including why the Big East broke up a few years ago, and all the various scandals, including at Penn State, Miami, and the North Carolina academic scandal.

Another reason the NCAA became bigger than ever was the rise of ESPN over the last three decades.

ESPN was founded in 1978, and Nocera says of that, “There is no event in the modern era that would have a more profound effect on college sports.”

Nocera wrote about its growth, “By the middle of the 1980s, ESPN was regularly broadcasting weekday basketball games, and in 1987 branded its Monday night showcase as Big Monday, featuring a prime-time doubleheader with teams from the Big East and the Big Ten. Indeed, the Big East, a collection of basketball schools from the Northeast, was founded precisely to take advantage of ESPN’s unquenchable thirst for college sports programming – and was ESPN’s first major deal with a conference, which helped legitimize the new network. Nearly thirty years later, Big Monday is still a staple of ESPN’s lineup, as is another weekly doubleheader called Super Tuesday. ESPN also inked a Thursday night deal in 1987, putting college football regularly on weeknights.”

“By the mid-1990s, ESPN’s dominance as a sports network was unquestioned. Acquired by Disney in 1996, it had vastly increased resources – and it could also combine forces with ABC, which Disney also now owned. With insatiable need for “product,” ESPN signed up smaller conferences like the Mid-American and Conference USA to help fiull weeknight time slots. Those schools, desperate for the publicity, were more than happy to sign on – and to play games midweek, even late at night. But ESPN also had to find new ways to market college football to earn a return on its investment. In 1989, SportsCenter covered a young high school prospect’s college commitment decision in Gainesville, Florida. The running back, future NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, held a press conference to announce he would attend Florida. Today, “national signing day” is a staple of the network’s programming,” writes Nocera.

The money that college sports generates is staggering: $13 billion a year, which is actually more than the NFL.

The NCAA generates $900 million in annual revenue, with athletic conferences owning their own networks, coaches that make $5 million (Jim Harbaugh of Michigan football), $7 million (Nick Saban, Alabama football), and $10 million (Duke’s Coach K). ESPN is currently paying $7,3 billion over twelve years for the rights to the new College Football Playoff.

The book also showcases the leading reformers who have taken on the NCAA:

The tale of Sonny Vaccaro, the charismatic sports marketer who convinced Nike to sign Michael Jordan, is a running theme in the book. Vaccaro was angered by how the NCAA treated its athletes and used his knowledge to blow the whistle in a major legal case.

The Ed O’Bannon case is documented at length. O’Bannon was a star at UCLA who realized years later that the NCAA was profiting from a video game using his image. His lawsuit led to an unprecedented legal ruling.

Andy Schwarz led a team of economists that looked behind the facade of the NCAA and saw it for what it is, a cartel that violates the core values of free enterprise.

Ramogi Huma, who played football at UCLA founded the National College Players Association because he felt that college players should have the same collective bargaining rights as other Americans.

Huma said in 2001 when the Collegiate Athletic Commission (original name of the NCPA) was formed, “We appreciate the athletic gifts that we possess and we appreciate the opportunities that are available to us that are not available to others as a result of those talents. But we also put our bodies on the line for what we do. As a result of our effort and hard work, we bring tremendous resources to both the NCAA and our respective individual institutions. Stated simply, we only want what is right for college athletes.”

That pretty much sums up “Indentured,” that players deserve to be taken care of, through cost of attendance, taking real classes, and to be taken care of when injured.



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