In June, the Supreme Court issued a narrow ruling on college sports: Student athletes will now be able to receive educational benefits such as free laptops and paid internships. The decision may have seemed relatively small, but in this episode of the Experiment podcast, the Atlantic staff writer Adam Harris explains how it could change the way we think about college athletes.
College sports rake in billions of dollars a year for schools. But athletes themselves have historically been barred from making money by the NCAA in order to preserve their amateur status. “Amateurism” has long been a central idea of college athletics: Student athletes play for the love of the game and an education, never for compensation. The myth (and marketing) of the “student athlete” has grown over the past century, but starting in 2010, a scandal gradually shifted how the country saw college sports.
This week on The Experiment: The Atlantic staff writer and former college-basketball player Adam Harris explains how the myth of the amateur athlete was created, and why it may finally be on its way out.
This episode’s guests include Adam Harris, a staff writer at The Atlantic; Andy Thomason, an assistant managing editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education and the author of Discredited; Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA football player and the executive director of the National College Players Association; Mary Willingham, a former student-athlete academic adviser and whistleblower at the University of North Carolina.
Further reading: “The Shame of College Sports,” by Taylor Branch
Be part of The Experiment. Use the hashtag #TheExperimentPodcast, or write to us at email@example.com.
This episode was produced by Kevin Townsend and Julia Longoria. Editing by Katherine Wells. Reporting by Adam Harris. Fact-check by William Brennan. Sound design by David Herman.
Music by Laurie Bird (“Jussa Trip”), Parish Council (“Durdle Door” and “Walled Garden 1”), Keyboard (“Freedom of Movement,” “Mu,” and “World View”), R McCarthy (“Cold” and “Big Game”), and Column (“Sensuela”), provided by Tasty Morsels. Additional music by David Robidoux (“Rivals (B)”), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (“Milan String Quartet No. 4 in E-flat Major”), and Claude Debussy (“String Quartet in G Minor”). Additional audio from MSNBC (clip 1 and clip 2); Fox News; CNN; Kennedy; CNN (clip 1, clip 2, and clip 3); NBC, via AirTexas; NCAA (clip 1, clip 2, clip 3, and clip 4); ESPN (via vslice02 and JD71andOnly); March Madness; WRAL; ACC Digital Network; Fox8; NPR; and Oyez.
A transcript of this episode is presented below:
(Drumsticks click on the edge of a snare drum. A loose cymbal echoes. Then, after a moment of silence, a marching-band drumline plunges into a full-bodied rhythm.)
(A news montage plays.)
News host 1: Breaking news from the Supreme Court on this Monday morning: a rare unanimous decision …
News host 2: A decision involving money, sports, and power that could be a game-changer for student athletes across the country …
News host 3: A huge Supreme Court decision could change college sports as we know them today.
News host 4: … college sports as we know it. What that means for the athletes…
(The news montage ends.)
Julia Longoria: So I—I called you because the Supreme Court made this historic decision about college sports, and I was told that Adam Harris is the person to call about this. [Both chuckle lightly.] Why is that? Why do you think that is?
Adam Harris: So I’ve covered education for several years. And, before that, I was a college athlete myself.
Longoria: You were? What—what did you play?
Harris: (Chuckling.) I played basketball.
Longoria: Atlantic staff writer Adam Harris did not always dream of being a journalist.
Harris: I mean, my ultimate goal, of course—I was born in San Antonio, so [Laughing lightly.] I wanted to be the starting point guard for the Spurs.
The moment I knew that I was a Spurs fan was the Memorial Day Miracle, which—If you don’t live in San Antonio, you probably are like, “Well, Memorial Day Miracle—what is that?”
Announcer: (From old tape and over the sounds of basketball, cheering crowds, and referee whistles.) Duncan, Elliott, Robinson, and Kerr on the floor!
(Electric-organ music plays, repetitive and plodding. As Harris narrates, it shifts, becoming magical—full of movement and wonder.)
Harris: So the Memorial Day Miracle: They’re playing the Portland Trail Blazers. Sean Elliott catches the ball, tiptoeing near the three-point line. He turns, hand in his face. I remember the call: “Elliot! He fires the three. And he hits it!”
Announcer: (From old tape, over more crowd sounds.) He fires the three! [Almost screaming.] And hits it! What a shot!
Harris: We’re in my house just going nuts. We beat the Knicks in the finals. Me and my family get in the car. We drive downtown. We’re honking our horn. Everybody’s flying their Spurs flags with the Fiesta colors. Like, folks were in the street, just chanting and cheering. We went to H-E-B, ’cause H-E-B was selling commemorative copies of the championship newspapers of the San Antonio Express News, um …
Longoria: What’s H-E-B?
Harris: (In mock indignation, after a pause.) H-E-B? H-E-B’s the best grocery store in the country.
Longoria: Sorry, that’s Publix! [Both laugh.] I don’t know what you’re talking about. Anyway!
(The music fades out.)
Harris: I don’t know. I’ve loved the Spurs and basketball ever since.
(New music enters: One piano chord precedes a collage of intermittent almost-industrial synthetic sounds.)
Longoria: For as long as he can remember, Adam dreamed of being a part of the sport that he loved. And the way to go pro in the U.S. is you start in college. You play in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. You become a scholar athlete.
Harris: Just before college, and into college, I’d really glommed onto this idea of this glamorous college athlete. You’re playing for the purity of the game. That’s a privilege, and that’s payment in itself. You get to go to this great university for free!
Longoria: The idea of the scholar athlete who plays for the love of the game is at the heart of this bombshell Supreme Court decision that came down just a few weeks ago.
Harris: This case was the first time in decades that the Court considered athlete compensation.
Longoria: Specifically, the case was about whether colleges could give scholar athletes things like laptops or books for school—whether that is an excessive payment. Which seems like kind of a small thing to make such a fuss over.
Harris: Yeah. So, on its face, yes, it does seem small, right? A laptop is $2,000, $5,000—maybe—max. But what this actually does is it strikes at the heart of this story that we’ve been telling ourselves since before the country was a country.
(The almost-industrial beats are suddenly awash in the synthesized melody of an electronic organ, windy and open.)
Longoria: This week, Atlantic writer Adam Harris traces the lineage of a big, beautiful story that’s been repeated over and over about sports in our country. It’s the idea that college athletes are amateurs—they play purely for the love of the game.
Harris: I mean, the love of the game is such a powerful force! But I think, over time, I realized that can blind you to a lot of the injustice lying just beneath the surface.
Longoria: And he explains how this seemingly small Supreme Court decision is about something much bigger.
I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment.
(The music quiets as the beat leaves, then the melody.)
Harris: So, in the spring of 2007, when I was 15 years old, I went to one of these tournaments where college coaches can come to watch players in person.
Longoria: Adam was first told the story of what it meant to be a scholar athlete when he was in high school and colleges started recruiting him.
Harris: These tournaments are certified by the NCAA to allow that recruiting.
NCAA-certification-video host 1: (Over funky, dramatic sports-commercial music.) NCAA basketball.
Harris: But, as part of that certification, they have to play this video. NCAA is, of course, the nonprofit organization that runs college sports in America.
Host 1: (Funky, more sparse bass-driven music plays.) If you want to compete in NCAA Division I or II athletics, you must be certified as an amateur student athlete.
Harris: This was one of the first times I first heard the term “amateur student athlete.”
Host 1: (More bass-driven music.) Let’s discuss how you keep your amateur status in the meantime. (Fades under.)
Harris: And they tell you all the things you absolutely cannot do if you want to keep that amateur status.
Host 1: Do not take money for play or accept prize money, even from a simple three-on-three tournament. Stay away from agents, and do not take any type of gift.
Harris: Basically they tell you over and over again: “Stay away from any kind of money. Period.”
Host 1: (Each sentence layered over the other in a montage.) Stay away from gambling and agents. Don’t even commit to a future agreement with an agent. Stay away from it at all costs.
Harris: There were also these rules where college athletes can’t make any money—at all—on what is known as their “name, image, and likeness.” So no sponsorships, or YouTube deals, or really any gift at all, however minor.
NCAA-certification-video host 2: Being an amateur is a huge bonus at this stage because you can develop your game and receive the biggest advantage of all: a college education. So hold on to it with everything you’ve got.
Harris: I went to college on a basketball scholarship, and I totally held on to this romantic story the NCAA told me: I was going to be an amateur, in it for the love of the game.
Longoria: And, like, I guess my question is: Where did this sort of romanticism of the amateur [Chuckles.] come from? Like, how did we get there? Do you know the answer to that question?
Harris: I do. Um, and I learned most of it from reading [Laughs.] Andy Thomason’s book.
Andy Thomason: My name is Andy Thomason. I’m an assistant managing editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Harris: Andy has spent his career reporting on colleges and college sports. He was a big college-sports fan at the University of North Carolina. And for a book he wrote, titled Discredited, he found himself wondering the same questions that we are.
Thomason: I had to go way back, uh, into the history of college sports to try and figure out why do we call this system “amateurism”? Why does the NCAA call it “amateurism”?
(Classical music plays.)
Thomason: Amateurism as we know it has its first roots in England.
(A beat more of classical music.)
Thomason: The earliest colleges in America—you’re thinking Harvard; you’re thinking Yale—um, that sprung up very quickly after America’s founding, they looked to England for inspiration. And what amateurism in England meant was, essentially, an affirmation of the gentleman life of leisure.
Societal elites had this idea that it’s better to be good at a bunch of things—to—to just be a jack-of-all-trades, to—to dabble, right—than to be good at a single thing.
Harris: Because to be good at a single thing would be not amateur. It would be professional. You’d get paid to do one thing.
It’s easy to imagine how, at Harvard and Yale in the 1800s, college sports was a leisurely activity by the landed white men who would grow up to be congressmen and presidents. The Ivy League literally refers to that leisurely sports league they played in.
(The classical music ends on one held string note.)
Harris: But as the country changed, so did college sports.
(Plucky strings play a bouncy melody.)
Thomason: After the Civil War, you had urbanization. A bunch of people moved to cities. You have the birth of mass media in the form of newspapers. And meanwhile, of course, more colleges are popping up across the country, thanks to land-grant colleges. It sent colleges to places that were heretofore remote: to Auburn, to Ames. Imagine you were living in a remote part of America, and imagine that there is a college that sprung up, and now there is a thing to do! And it is to go to the field and watch the kids play football.
Harris: So now the audience for college sports wasn’t just the alumni of Harvard and Yale—it was everyone in America.
Thomason: All of a sudden, there’s now a market.
Harris: Money entered college sports.
(A tonal shift: The lightly plucked string melodies become a little darker, more slurred.)
Thomason: Players are getting enticed to come to colleges—to play football, to play baseball—um, by under-the-table gifts, by outright payments, by jobs. It was really unregulated and everybody knew that money changed hands under the table. There was this very seedy landscape.
Harris: College sports—this earnest, pure thing played by amateurs—was now flooded with corrupt, moneyed interests. The whole idea of sports is an even playing field: That on any given day, any team could win. But with more money at stake, gamblers and boosters would pay for the best players. Colleges would bring in fake students as ringers. Teams would intentionally injure opposing players. It was a mess.
Enter the NCAA. It had been around for a while, and was started to keep players safe. And in the 1940s, it declared amateurs can make no money at all. Not one penny. Not even academic scholarships.
(The music fades out.)
Thomason: One of the problems was people love sports. And they love their alma mater. So you had alumni who were like, “No, this is ridiculous. Why should I be prohibited from enticing a good kid to come play football at the campus that I love?”
Harris: On top of that, by this point, colleges across the country were making a lot of money off of sports. And they wanted to recruit the best athletes to their school. So, by 1957, the NCAA made a change and said essentially, “Just kidding, scholarships are okay. But we’re going to be very, very careful about anything else that could be construed as payment.”
Thomason: It’s pure doublespeak.
Harris: The NCAA was created to protect students. And the story they told for decades was “The way to protect students is to ban money and preserve this English idea of ‘the amateur.’” But when the business interests changed, the NCAA changed their story and created this new population of people on campus—student athletes, a Frankenstein of two different interests: the business of athletics and the ideals of academics.
NCAA-certification-video host 2: Remember, your college education is the most valuable thing you can achieve as an NCAA student athlete.
Harris: This is what the NCAA sold me in that video back in high school.
Host 2: Take advantage of your opportunity to become a professional in something other than basketball, and you will have a truly amazing game …
Harris: That phrase, “a professional in something other than basketball,” pops up in NCAA commercials over and over.
NCAA Commercial 1: (Over an a capella song and the occasional basketball dribble or baseball hit.) There are over 360,000 NCAA student athletes. And just about all of us will be going pro in something other than sports.
NCAA Commercial 2: … a path to go pro in something other than sports. (An announcer yells “Touchdown!” as a crowd cheers.)
Harris: What they were saying to me was “Look, you’re not going to be the starting point guard for the Spurs. And that’s okay! A lot of people aren’t the starting point guard for the Spurs. But you’re going to use your college degree for something else. You can become a lawyer; you can become a doctor.” And that was the student-athlete deal the NCAA was offering. They were saying, “Look, you’re not going to get paid in money. You’ll get paid in something more valuable—in a profession.” And, for the most part, I bought that story.
(A wispy horn-like keyboard line plays. The ambience is dreamy, reflective, quiet.)
Ramogi Huma: I don’t know if I ever bought into the story and the narrative that the NCAA pushes all the time.
Harris: But not every athlete is as naive. This is Ramogi Huma. He played big-time college football.
Huma: I was a linebacker at UCLA from ’95 through ’99.
Harris: In high school, before he got to UCLA, he’d heard stories about college ball.
Huma: I was being recruited by the University of Arizona. And one of my high-school alumni was playing football there. And he came back and told a disturbing story about how a player collapsed during workouts and died.
(The music quickly fades out.)
Huma: They didn’t stop the practice, and they just kept going—kind of treated the whole thing with, um, a lot of callousness. So I kind of came in the system [with] eyes a little bit more wide open than maybe the average player because of that.
Harris: When he got to UCLA, he felt like he understood the deal: He was going to play a dangerous sport for thousands of fans, and in return, he’d get an education.
Huma: I was just happy to be in Division I on scholarship. I really didn’t think that I had much of a shot at the pros. So I was pretty focused on school.
Harris: But when he got to campus, the school part was tough to focus on.
Huma: I played in three games before I saw the inside of a classroom. It was just this big football-first mentality. You went in to talk to your counselor about what classes to take, and it was all about getting around your football schedule and making sure that the classes weren’t so hard—you know, “You’re a freshman. You don’t want to be overwhelmed.” And I wasn’t quite sure how I could perform academically. I had good grades in high school, but if my counselor is saying that I need to take an easy class, then maybe I need to take an easy class.
Harris: Ramogi wasn’t getting the education he expected. He also wasn’t even getting the basics he needed to live.
Huma: The very first sign was that I was hungry. I mean, I was literally hungry. And I was losing weight. I was an undersized linebacker. That was my biggest concern and my biggest challenge. So I went from eating five, six meals a day in high school at home to a meal card where you swipe it maybe three times a day; on weekends, sometimes it was only two a day. And, um, there’s no cash to go buy any more food. So, you know, I’d lost 10 pounds very quickly, you know, within the first month.
Harris: Ramogi wasn’t the only one who complained about hunger. One of their best players, an all-American who came from a low-income background, did a radio interview, and he mentioned how tough it was to pay for groceries.
One day, after a game …
Huma: We walk into the locker room to find out our all-American teammate was suspended. And he was suspended because someone left groceries on his doorstep without his knowledge; his roommate took the groceries in. Somehow the NCAA found out, and when they found out, they suspended him. They said, “Well, you’re in violation of our amateurism rules. You only got that food because you were talking on a radio show about how tough it was to get by and that you were broke and hungry.”
Harris: So this is a violation of what they call “name, image, and likeness.” The thinking goes like this: The only reason someone sent him groceries is because he was a UCLA player. That’s making money off of sports, and so it violates amateurism.
Huma: They said, “Well, you got this because of your name and your athletic reputation.” And—kind of insult to injury—when I found that out, I had walked by the UCLA student store, where they were selling his jersey in the student store. So UCLA was fully capitalizing off of him—his name, image, likeness, and athletic reputation—but he was suspended because the NCAA thought he might’ve got food when he was broke and hungry, uh, related to his athletics reputation.
So it immediately raised questions about the hypocrisy of, you know, my coach can have a Cadillac deal because of his name, image, and likeness and reputation. But my teammate who was struggling for food and from a low-income background can be suspended by the same organization that looks the other way on—on what the coaches are getting.
It was just too hypocritical. And these NCAA rules are the collective will of the schools. They’re all voting to maintain these rules.
So for all this time, every single school was complicit in this injustice. And it just felt like we needed a voice.
Harris: So Ramogi decided to start a club.
Huma: At UCLA, all you need is three people and a mission statement, and you could start any kind of club you want. You could have a Cheese Appreciation Club if you wanted to. All you need is three students there.
(Ethereal music quietly plays in the background.)
Harris: Ramogi thought their goals were pretty basic: to change the NCAA rules to allow a true full scholarship, with funds for stuff like food and toothpaste. And they wanted actual health-and-safety standards to avoid horror stories like the one he heard about a student dying on the field.
Ramogi saw the NCAA as failing to enforce health-and-safety standards, and he wanted a rule that schools had to pay the full medical expenses of athletes who get hurt.
Huma: To be honest, I was pretty naive. I thought, You know what? Let’s put this group together. Let’s expose the underbelly of college sports and pressure them into changing, and we’ll be done with this in about a year or so. (Laughs.)
Harris: But Ramogi was up against the NCAA—and up against a powerful idea: the amateur student athlete.
(A clip from an NCAA commercial plays, with marching band-style music overtop.)
Student athlete 1: Division one student athletes have higher SAT and ACT scores than college-bound students.
Student athlete 2: The number of us receiving diplomas …
Student athlete 3: … is at an all-time high.
Student athlete 4: African American males who are student athletes …
Student athlete 5: … are 10 percent more likely to graduate.
Student athlete 6: Still think we’re just a bunch of dumb jocks?
Student athlete 7: You need to do your homework.
(The commercial ends.)
Huma: The NCAA has been masterful at the propaganda, you know, for, like, a hundred years, since their inception. And propaganda works. It’s some of the things that stand in the way of injustice.
Longoria: How that story finally started to unravel, after the break.
(A strings flourish plays to indicate that the break is over.)
Longoria: I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment. And we are back with a story of college sports from Atlantic staff writer Adam Harris.
Harris: By the time I was watching basketball around 2000, the NCAA had gotten really good at selling the story of the college athlete. And the sort of case study—the proof of this story they were selling—came in the form of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels.
UNC announcer: (Excitedly.) The Tar Heels have won the national championship, right where they won it 11 years ago.
Harris: UNC was known for college sports. Its basketball team won seven national championships. And it promoted its players as these paragons of teamwork, honesty, and excellence.
Thomason: When people turned on their TVs and watched UNC basketball, they saw teamwork. They saw Michael Jordan.
Harris: That’s education journalist Andy Thomason again.
UNC announcer: We’re going for a game-winning shot. [Excitedly.] Jordan! Michael Jordan. [The buzzer sounds.] And North Carolina has won the 1982 NCAA championship.
Reporter: Top-notch teams alongside excellent academics—that’s been the foundation of UNC’s national reputation.
Harris: UNC coaches and leadership would talk endlessly about how its athletes were, first and foremost, scholars. How they got the very best education and played the very best sports at the same time.
ESPN’s SportsCentury reporting: Graduation rate was over 98 percent …
Harris: It was hard to make the case that players couldn’t manage full-time athletics and a full-time education at the same time, because look at people like Michael Jordan. Look at UNC.
Thomason: They have a near-100-percent graduation rate. Okay. So, if this ultra successful team can do what it’s doing, then amateurs are real, right? Amateurs are real.
Harris: The story of how that myth was undone has an unlikely protagonist.
Harris: First, could you introduce yourself?
Mary Willingham: Sure. My name is Mary Willingham, and I’m a teacher—a reading specialist. Uh, once upon a time, I worked at the University of North Carolina. And I still love, love the university, even though they don’t love me back. (Laughs.)
Harris: Mary has always been a bit of a rebel.
Willingham: I’ve always spent time in—in trouble. I’m a middle child. [Harris laughs.] I mean, you know, we just like to stir things up, so. I grew up with two brothers. And I would say my prayers at night that, like, “Please, Lord, don’t let the boys make the all-star team this year, because I can’t sit through any more of these baseball games.” So I’m not really a big sports person at all.
Harris: Her gateway to sports came late in life—through teaching. She took a job as a tutor for the athletics program at UNC.
Willingham: Once I know the people on the teams, then it’s more fun for me. You know, then it’s like, I better follow the teams, so I know—did they win? Did they lose? Then when they come into study hall, you know, I at least kind of know what’s going on.
(UNC’s alma mater song plays.)
Harris: Can you explain what that atmosphere was like at the games?
(The song continues—students chant “U-N-C!”)
Willingham: I mean, game days are spectacular.
(More crowd sounds.)
Willingham: People were so happy, cheering, dancing, their faces are painted in Carolina blue and they’re wearing all these crazy Carolina-blue headdresses and—and outfits.
(Cheering from the crowd.)
Thomason: The last time I went to a UNC basketball game …
(Crowd noises end.)
Harris: Andy Thomason went to UNC around the same time.
Thomason: … I started to think about how similar it was to going to church, because there’s music and you stand up and you sit down a lot, and you feel similarly to the way you might feel if you get caught up in a church service, right?
Announcer: Numbers for Carolina. Give and go. Paige, back to Johnson.
Thomason: They show you old clips: They show you Michael Jordan hitting a jump shot in 1982, UNC winning the national title in 2009, 2017.
Willingham: Everybody says, “Carolina’s sky is blue, and it’s like being in heaven.” If you—if you drank the Kool-Aid, you would say that. [Harris laughs.] Yeah.
Harris: Mary was there to give the athletes the thing they were promised: a world-class education. But she quickly found out that the myth of the amateur student athlete was different from the reality.
Willingham: We spend a lot of time waking kids up. You know, they would be sleeping under the table during study hall. I mean, really, they were exhausted. Kids were just hungry. They were tired.
Harris: She realized that the education part of the deal had to be squeezed in between games and workouts.
Willingham: For me, it was always just trying to catch the students—you know, 20 minutes here, 20 minutes there, 30 minutes here.
Harris: And instead of real learning, it was more like she was giving them hacks just to get through.
Willingham: For example, if you’re taking a multiple-choice test and you’re really not good at multiple choice, 70 percent of the time, the longest answer is correct. Who knew that, right?
Harris: It all seemed a little absurd to her.
Willingham: I had all these questions in my mind about the why. You know, why are we doing it this way? Why can’t you just go to school part-time or go to school later? Because it doesn’t seem right, like, I—I couldn’t have done it.
I did feel sympathy all the time for—for the athletes. They knew that. They probably played off of that a little bit, but that’s okay. [Harris laughs.] That’s okay. I can own that. I can own that. Yeah. So …
Harris: And as she tutored the scholar athletes, she got an education herself—in the rules of college sports.
Willingham: The NCAA is like a book of riddles to me. So [Both laugh.] you know, “Riddle me this!” You know, “You can have this, but you can’t have that.”
For example, I had a football player who needed to have his tonsils out. I broke protocol by taking him to the surgery, waiting for him, driving him back. And a women’s-basketball player who had cancer, she would call me, and she needed some help bringing her food.
Harris: By NCAA rules, she was allowed to give students water and fruit, but not a sandwich.
Willingham: If students were in the pipeline to have cognitive or psychological testing, I was not allowed to drive them the mile and a half to have that appointment. And the bus didn’t go there. And I drove them. Sometimes the kids drove my car. I mean, that’s totally breaking the rules. That just didn’t make any sense to me. Like, you’re saying they have to do these tests in order to get these accommodations, but then you’re saying, “You can’t provide them transportation.”
Harris: Early on, she kind of rolled her eyes at the book of riddles and helped students however she wanted to.
Willingham: I had probably been there for maybe a semester and a half. Not very long.
Harris: Until one day she was talking to a women’s-basketball player.
Willingham: In the hallway right outside my original office, and I knew she was not very strong with reading. And she was sent to me to look at this paper that she was turning in to an African American Studies course.
And so I asked her about the course, and she said, “Oh, yeah, we don’t really go to class. We just have to—we just get this prompt, and we turn in these papers at the end of the semester.”
Harris: The student told her these classes were called “paper classes,” meaning there weren’t lectures or meetings. All the student had to do was turn in a single essay at the end of the course, and they’d get credit.
Willingham: Most often, they were history prompts about slavery, about maybe the Great Migration.
Harris: And many times, students weren’t even writing the essays themselves.
Willingham: They were recycling the same papers over and over—just changing the name to their name.
And, you know, I was like, “What? What are you talking about?”
I thought, Well, you know, if I just tell them what I’m seeing, if I just tell the authorities here—my boss and his boss and the head of admissions and some deans—if I just tell them how I think it could be fixed, they’ll just do it because that would be the Carolina way, to do the right thing.
Harris: So she went straight to her supervisor’s office.
(Soft but serious music plays quietly in the background.)
Willingham: I said, “What is this all about? This paper”—I’m holding the paper—“This paper is not okay.” And she wasn’t even surprised. She didn’t even look upset or, you know—it was just this very calm way to say to me:
“Yeah. I mean, that’s—that’s what they do over in African American Studies to help us out. And it’s, uh, not a good idea. And just don’t go there. Just don’t look at the papers. Don’t have anything to do with it. Just stay clear of all of that.”
Pretty much, I just did what she told me to do.
(The music plays up for a moment.)
Willingham: I always felt that the athletes were getting such a bad deal, because, in exchange for their talent, we’ve promised them a world-class education so that they can go to graduation and have their moms there and have their families there and be joyful. And then always have a backup plan in case their athletic abilities didn’t pay out to play professional ball, which, 99 percent of the time, it doesn’t. It was just crushing that we weren’t providing them with what we were promising them, in any way, shape, or form. And now I’m part of it. Now I’m part of the corruption.
(A solemn moment of music.)
Willingham: I started to really think about the whale that was swimming just below the surface in all of this, too, which is race.
It’s a lot of old, white men that are making millions and millions of dollars off the backs of these young Black athletes. I mean, it just should be so in-our-face obvious that it’s a system of racism.
And as I got to know more and more of the players and their stories, it just made it even worse that we were sending many of them right back to the same community that they came from without a legitimate degree, and without any kind of profession to lift them out of poverty, which, for me, is what I believe education can do—and should do.
(The music quietly fades down and out.)
Willingham: I hung in there for a pretty long time because I was really brainwashed [Laughs.] by people around me that, like, having a job at the university was the greatest thing in the world. And it took me a good five—five and a half—probably close to six years before I just said, “I can’t do this anymore.”
CNN’s Sara Ganim: This is, hands down, the largest academic fraud scandal in the history of college sports.
CNN reporter: The level of academic fraud is nothing short of stunning. Three thousand students, many of them big-time college athletes, over the course of almost 20 years, getting good grades in classes that didn’t exist.
Interviewee: This is a historic moment for North Carolina, I think for college sports, and, obviously, for the NCAA. If they don’t come down hard …
Harris: In 2010, Mary got in touch with an investigative reporter and helped reveal the story of a massive scandal, a cover-up by the university that made national news.
Willingham: I just saw them lying, and I thought, Well, this is a great opportunity to say the truth, be honest, and then fix what’s broken.
Ganim: UNC has insisted that it does not believe this whistleblower, Mary Willingham’s, research.
CNN reporter: The university demoted her. She filed a lawsuit on Monday saying UNC attacked her character and retaliated against her for blowing the whistle.
Ganim: Willingham has also received death threats. And so it’s not surprising that some of the people that we’ve talked to in the last few days haven’t wanted CNN to use their names. But we did speak to …
Willingham: I had death threats and hate mail. And it was very uncomfortable to be on campus. I stuck around ’til 2014. I stuck around for a couple of years after all of this. And I was very disliked.
(Harmonica-esque music fades in and out of focus, then echoes and extends in loops.)
Harris: After Mary spoke out, the paper classes went away, and UNC faced heavy criticism. But after investigations and legal battles, the university didn’t face any punishment from the NCAA.
Willingham: But I do think that the conversation about college sport has shifted. And I hope that I have had a hand in that, um, at least a little bit. Uh, I don’t know.
Harris: For fans around the country, when news of the scandal came out, it changed how people saw college sports.
Huma: Twenty years ago, you know, there was no sympathy from fans on these issues. But a lot of things happened over the course of that time.
(The music fades out.)
Harris: This is Ramogi Huma again. His small student group at UCLA wasn’t able to change things for his fellow football players back in the ’90s.
But over time, that group grew into the National College Players Association. And as public opinion changed, he launched a series of legal challenges to the NCAA’s rules on amateurism.
The strategy has been to argue that the NCAA rules are actually illegal price fixing.
(A wavering bass line enters. Moments later, a looping string of notes begins overtop.)
Huma: Since 1984, the NCAA has claimed to be exempt from antitrust law—meaning the NCAA, unlike other entities in America, believes it can price-fix anything going to college athletes.
Harris: In 2014, his organization argued in a case that the NCAA was acting illegally when it restricted players from getting paid for their name, image, and likeness. And they won. A federal court said the NCAA was acting like a cartel.
Huma: While that was going on, Taylor Branch—civil-rights historian—wrote an article called “The Shame of College Sports” for The Atlantic. And there was an immediate shift in the media.
Harris: Then, he helped an effort to formally unionize players.
Huma: For the first time, we got a ruling in our favor that college athletes are employees. And it shook up the notion of amateurism and the legal standing of what the NCAA has been claiming athletes are in college.
I can’t tell you how many people say that, you know, that was the first time they thought about the issue.
(The music intensifies.)
Huma: So, um, we—right now, some of the progress … (Huma’s phone rings.)
(The music rattles to quiet.)
Huma: Ah, you know what? I actually have to go. This is on my 10:45. Um …
Harris: Right now, Ramogi is a busy man. When we spoke with him, the changes he’d chased for two decades were finally becoming a reality.
This spring, he helped a student sue the NCAA, and that case was merged into one that made it all the way to the Supreme Court. The suit was basically about laptops, but really it was about challenging this whole idea of amateurism: the idea that colleges don’t need to, or can’t, pay players.
Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh: I start from the idea that the antitrust laws should not be a cover for exploitation of the student athletes.
Harris: There was a 9–0 decision. And Justice Brett Kavanaugh said, “Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate.”
Huma: This was a major victory at the Supreme Court. In America, we’re based in a free-market economic system where competitors aren’t allowed to get together and make agreements and collude.
The NCAA has a national price fix in place, agreed to by all the schools, to say, “Hey, we’re not going to pay these players anything above a scholarship.” That’s illegal. And the Supreme Court made that very clear with a 9–0 ruling in our favor, saying, “Yes, that’s illegal. The NCAA is not special. Amateurism is hypocritical, and you need to go figure out something else.”
(Slow, ethereal music plays, the sound of echoing and a distant shoreline past a highway.)
Harris: Days after the decision came down, the NCAA passed a rule that they’re going to suspend amateurism when it comes to the name, image, and likeness of players—meaning athletes will be able to make money off their own names, like selling their autographs or jerseys.
Huma: Which has a nice ring to it. [Both laugh.] That’s the sound of justice: Suspending amateurism when it comes to name, image, or likeness, and basically walking away from its restrictions and letting the schools decide how they want to deal with name, image, and likeness.
Now that is America: schools deciding on their own. Competitors not colluding and harming other people in the process.
It’s almost unsettling. In some ways, we’re crossing a threshold right now that I know are pretty much irreversible. You know, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, which is a good thing. That tube is a prison for college athletes, economically and otherwise.
But my guard is not down at all. To me it feels like maybe the third quarter, you know, of a game.
(The music fades out.)
Longoria: So this small Supreme Court decision has already opened the door to players getting more pay. I wonder, Adam, if we keep on this path—continuing to, like, let go of this story of the amateur—where do you think college sports is headed?
Harris: Well, there are a couple of directions that folks advocate, right? Some people are pushing for players to be employees, much like regular campus employees—that education is a benefit that they can receive. Some don’t go that far. They just want more compensation. They want better pay for players—or pay at all for players.
Um, the Supreme Court kind of opened this door to potentially new problems as well: Okay, how are we going to fairly pay football players compared to people who participate in our Olympic sports, which don’t generate as much revenue, right? How do you deal with potentially weird, kind of seedy endorsements that come up? How do you police students’ potentially being taken advantage of in this new landscape, where they’re able to monetize their name, image, and likeness?
But, ultimately, sort of at the end of the day, this is about people being paid for the work that they do. So whatever arguments against paying players, they sort of pale in comparison to this more baseline moral piece of people being paid a fair market rate for their labor.
Longoria: How come you never went pro? I take it you’re not currently the starting point guard for the Spurs. [Harris laughs.] So—so how did that happen?
Harris: Not yet. So after [Both laugh.] you know, all of my training in high school, during the summers, you know, none of it can sort of prepare you for how hard it is to be a college athlete. And when I first went to college, I—I basically had three full-time jobs, because I was a student, I was an athlete, and I was also working a—a part-time job in the theater department to help supplement my scholarship. And so I had to pick, right? I had to choose which of those I was going to do. It’s like, you know, those memes where it’s like, “Pick one: your time, your fun, or, um, your school,” right? I actually had to pick two of them. And I chose school and the one that was going to pay me. And so I was able to keep a job basically throughout college.
And I think maybe we’re in a place where student athletes no longer have to make that choice.
(A soft horn melody plays over a slow ambience.)
Kevin Townsend: This episode was produced by me, Kevin Townsend, and Julia Longoria, with editing by Katherine Wells and reporting by Adam Harris.
Fact-check is by William Brennan. Sound design by David Herman. Music by Tasty Morsels.
Our team also includes Tracie Hunte, Gabrielle Berbey, Emily Botein, and Natalia Ramirez.
If you enjoyed this episode, please be sure to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.
The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thanks for listening.
(The music plays up and out for a long moment before fading out as the episode ends.)