The NCAA Will Never Fix Itself

The presidential candidate Cory Booker, a former Stanford athlete, thinks big-name college sports have gone awry—and he wants Congress to step in.

Cory Booker
Eric Thayer / Reuters

If anyone can understand what’s wrong with college sports—and why Congress should step in and help—it’s a former college athlete who’s now serving in the U.S. Senate. Long before he started running for the Democratic presidential nomination, or any public office at all, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey was a former high-school all-American who played tight end on the Stanford football team.

“I still have a shoulder injury,” Booker told me in an hour-long conversation on my podcast, Jemele Hill Is Unbothered. Friends of his, he said, suffered knee and brain injuries. “You’re paying the medical bills, you know, five years out, six years out. When you have these chronic illnesses, you’re dealing with all of that. And meanwhile, they’re still making money off you with your likeness and image on Madden,” the popular football video game.

Top-tier college football and basketball programs are receiving an education—just not the one they thought they’d signed up for. The athletes they’ve recruited have turned the NCAA into a multibillion-dollar business. Schools have been able to get away with exploiting them because they’ve persuaded the public to view sports as just sports—and therefore not important enough for state legislatures or Congress to regulate more aggressively.

The NCAA is never going to fix itself. Government intervention may be what finally shames member schools into creating an equitable system for college athletes—or forces them to do so. On Thursday, Booker’s campaign released a “plan to end exploitation in sports.” It would address health, safety, and equity issues at all levels of sports, including the pay disparities protested by the U.S. women’s national soccer team. But Booker would focus mostly on college athletics. The issue of compensating college athletes—in money, not just in scholarships that don’t cover all of an athlete’s expenses and come with many strings attached—has begun to resonate nationally, and Booker’s plan would, among other things, allow college athletes to be paid for their name and likeness.

Booker is somewhat piggybacking off California’s Fair Pay to Play Act, recently signed by Governor Gavin Newsom. It grants college athletes the ability to make money off their name or likeness starting in 2023. Several other states, such as New York, Florida, and South Carolina, are considering similar proposals.

The inequities that pervade college sports are harder and harder to deny. “I think that these are young people that deserve to have fairness, equality and not be exploited, especially when you start looking at its disproportionate impact on the money generating sports, which are disproportionately African Americans,” Booker told me. “The lies that you’re told—I remember, in season, working 60, 70-plus hours a week. There are people that do run scams on [athletes], allowing them to get degrees or to move forward, but then they leave them again without an education. There’s a lot of injustice that’s going on.”

So far, though, the NCAA doesn’t seem at all interested in finding some middle ground with college athletes. After the California legislation passed that state’s Senate, the NCAA Board of Governors sent Newsom a letter that simply doubled down on the status quo. In the letter, the board wrote: “If the bill becomes law and California’s 58 NCAA schools are compelled to allow an unrestricted name, image and likeness scheme, it would erase the critical distinction between college and professional athletics and, because it gives those schools an unfair recruiting advantage, would result in them eventually being unable to compete in NCAA competitions.” The board also said: “The NCAA has consistently stood by its belief that student-athletes are students first, and they should not be employees of the university.”

That position might once have sounded reasonable; today, it’s just an excuse for blatantly taking advantage of college athletes. The time most college athletes dedicate is practically identical to a professional schedule, particularly in big-revenue sports such as basketball and football. In 2016, Turner Broadcasting and CBS Sports, which had already locked down the rights for the NCAA basketball title game until 2024, agreed to an $8.8 billion contract extension for another eight years—a deal that, for the first time, put the economic value of the tournament at more than a billion dollars a year.

When exploitation of college athletes is emerging as a campaign issue for a presidential candidate, and is starting to become a priority in state legislatures across the country, the NCAA should understand that, sooner or later, it will lose this fight.

Public support for the current system is eroding steadily. A poll released by the Sharkey Institute at Seton Hall earlier this month found that 60 percent of people surveyed believe college athletes should be allowed to profit off their name, image, and likeness. While 60 percent of those surveyed also said a college scholarship was a fair trade-off for college athletes, that still represents an 11-point drop from 2013.

Whether Congress or other public bodies should police the NCAA is a more divisive question. Only 27 percent of people surveyed in that same Sharkey Institute poll believed the government should be the driving force behind athletes being compensated for their name and likeness. But government and sports are already intertwined—and government and higher education are even more so. Legislators don’t need to stand aside and wait for the NCAA to fix a problem that it refuses even to acknowledge.

“I think we are the only ones that can do this,” Booker told me. “Clearly they can’t reform themselves from within, because these issues I’m bringing up were being brought up when I was a student, and the reforms are creeping along because nobody is calling them to the mat.”

The NCAA and its member schools are adept at pretending that figuring out a way to compensate athletes is as impossible as time travel. “It’s an incredibly complex issue. It’s like health care in America,” the Gonzaga head basketball coach Mark Few recently told Jeff Goodman, a senior college-basketball reporter for the digital sports network Stadium.

But the truth is far simpler than that. The NCAA has no interest in sharing its vast wealth with its labor force. The system may change only if elected leaders—first Newsom and now Booker—step in and force the issue.