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Questions Of Race, Fairness Complicate Student-Athlete Pay Debate


Every year, March Madness brings in big ratings and a ton of money for the NCAA, the TV networks and the coaches. But what do the players get? Supposedly, a free education. It's a perennial debate. Should we pay student athletes? But let's look at this debate through another lens. Those student athletes, particularly the ones on the best teams - many of them are black. But the coaches who train them, the schools they attend, the audience who watches - mostly white. It's a dynamic that raises all sorts of questions about big-time college sports, race and fairness. NPR's Gene Demby and the Code Switch team tackled this in a recent podcast. And he's come on the program to talk about it. Welcome.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, Gene, let's start by looking at the money involved in big-time college sports. You looked specifically at the Power Five.

DEMBY: Yup, the Power Five conferences - the SEC, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pac-12, and the ACC. They win all the trophies, and they make all the money. According to ESPN, in 2015, they made $6 billion.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Six billion?

DEMBY: Billion with a B. And they have their own cable channels. I mean, they're major sports players. And almost all that revenue comes from two sports, men's basketball and football.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So where does all of that money go?

DEMBY: Not to the student athletes. Under NCAA rules, they're amateurs. They cannot be compensated beyond their scholarships and the cost of attending college. But it goes to coaches' salaries. It goes to facilities. It goes to the conference commissioners who all make an excess of $2 million now. There are a lot of people who are millionaires because of these sports. And so everyone gets paid except for the student athletes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how does race factor into all of this?

DEMBY: I mean, race is all throughout this conversation in the way people think about it and who the actual players are literally in this case. So Shaun Harper, who is a scholar on diversity in higher education at USC, said that, you know, many of the schools in the Power Five were either officially or effectively segregated for most of their histories. And that has really tangible consequences for the way campus life looks. And so these are conceived as white spaces. Their fan bases are white. Their alumni bases are white. Their cultural spaces are white. And so black students will be players in football and basketball. They'll be on the court and the field but they won't be in the stands.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you're saying black people will be players. What do those demographics look like?

DEMBY: So most of the players in the money sports, in football and basketball at the Power Five schools, are black. So 56 percent of the basketball players - men's basketball players - are black. Fifty-five percent of the football players are black. But 2.4 percent of the students at these schools are black men. And so this is -


DEMBY: Only 2.4 percent. I know. That was shocking to us, too. But there's this weird paradox that happens, right? So you have black men on these campuses who are basically invisible in the classrooms. But at any given time and during any given academic year, the most high-profile undergraduate at one of these universities is likely to be a black basketball phenom or a black football star.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What did you find out about if these stars are actually getting the education that they've been promised?

DEMBY: So Shaun Harper, the diversity expert from USC we were just talking about, crunched these numbers. And he found that at the Power Five schools, almost half of the black students in these two revenue-generating sports are not graduating from college. You'd almost be - you'd be better off actually being a black male student who was not on one of these teams. And that's important because the NCAA and supporters of not paying these athletes often talk about - that student athletes are more likely to graduate from college. And that might be true for some students, but it's not true for black male athletes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So why? What's keeping them from graduating?

DEMBY: We've talked to a bunch of people who talked about how hard being a student athlete is. People are dedicating 40 to 50 hours a week officially, you know, to being student athletes, to going to practice, to training. And then after they've done all those things, they have to go to class. They have to still be students. And, you know, they're often shuttered into classes that are maybe not the majors they want to be because those classes don't align with when their football and basketball schedules are. And so they're not graduating from college, and part of that is because the incentive structure is set up for the schools to value them as athletes before they value them as students.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, obviously, there is divided opinions about whether or not student athletes should be paid. Do we know anything about how these opinions break down?

DEMBY: Most Americans do not want to pay student athletes, but there is a big racial split. Sixty percent of white people are opposed to paying student athletes. That's according to The Washington Post and ABC News poll from last fall - while a small majority, about 54 percent of African-Americans, want them to be paid.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Have there been any studies looking at why certain groups are responding in certain ways?

DEMBY: So there was a study done last year by some researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst that looked at whether racial resentment was informing how people answer this question. And they found that the strongest indicator for opposition to compensating student athletes among white people - the strongest indicator was racial resentment towards African Americans. And there's a way that these sports are racialized because the most high-profile college athletes in these sports are black players.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gene Demby, the lead blogger of NPR's Code Switch, thank you so much.

DEMBY: Thank you so much, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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