Joe Nocera on Why College Athletes Should Be Paid, How the NCAA Is Like Enron, and What It Was Like Being Pushed Out at the Times Op-ed Desk

New York Times Schools For Tomorrow - Day 2
Joe Nocera. Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

This week, the NCAA found itself enduring its latest embarrassment when the men’s March Madness bracket leaked part way through the (very lengthy) official announcement. The scandal was another PR hit for an organization that has been dogged with criticism that it’s exploiting student athletes while universities, coaches, and television networks profit. Joe Nocera, late of the New York Times op-ed page, has been one of the most persistent, and eloquent, voices documenting the NCAA’s dark side. Nocera joined the op-ed desk in 2011 from the Times’ business desk after being in contention to become editor of The New York Times Magazine. While business was his primary beat, he ventured to other topics, including e-cigarettes and fracking (he was in favor) and guns (he was against). But his tenure wasn’t without controversy. In 2014, the Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan called a Nocera column about Warren Buffett “intrinsically flawed” for taking a Buffett quote out of context to attack the billionaire. Last fall, the Times announced Nocera was leaving op-ed to write a weekly column on the sports page. 

I recently spoke to Nocera about his tenure on the Times’ op-ed page — this week the newspaper announced that longtime section head Andrew Rosenthal was stepping down and Atlantic editor and Times vet James Bennet was replacing him — and his new book on the NCAAIndentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA, published by Penguin last month. 

Why did you start writing about the NCCA?
I’m a lifelong college-basketball fan. I had written a magazine story, which was a thought exercise about if you were gonna pay college athletes, how would you do it? I spent months on it, and in the course of doing it I had my eyes opened on how the NCAA operates. I got so mad, really. One thing I’ve discovered is when people look at the NCAA for the first time they’re just shocked that an organization can operate this way in America. 

You’ve written a lot about institutional corruption, from Enron to Merrill Lynch. How does the NCAA compare? 
[Laughs.] No one is going to go to jail for what they did. But I do think there’s a kind of ruthlessness. The NCAA’s core problem is not that it’s trying to evade the rules; its core problem is that it has this absurd 400-page rule book which it enforces with a Javert-like doggedness. Even if they’re unfair, even if they have racial implications, they just don’t care. 

In the book, you document the vast amounts of money sloshing through the college-sports world. The NCAA generates $13 billion in revenue. ESPN paid $7 billion for college-football broadcasting rights. Coaches like Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh make $5 million per year. Why do we even pretend college sports aren’t professional?  
Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it? The reason is because for a hundred years college athletes have been amateurs, and nobody in the system wants to give up the ghost on that. I agree that one of the things the fans are really rooting for are the players who are enrolled in the college. But I don’t think fans give a shit if the players are paid or not. 

Lurking behind this conversation obviously is the question of race. The NCAA has been called Jim Crow by another name. How central do you think race is to this subject? 
I think it’s incredibly central. The NCAA is not what you’d call a consciously racist organization. But the actions it takes have enormous racial implications. Take the Ryan Boatright example. If the mother of a white middle-class player wants to visit the school where her son is being recruited, she buys a plane ticket. But if a single mom like Tanesha Boatright, who’s raising four kids in a disadvantaged neighborhood in Aurora, Illinois, wants to visit UConn where her son is being recruited, she doesn’t have the money. The only way she can go is if someone gives her the money. And that act is a violation of NCAA rules. Every year in college basketball and football there’s questions about the eligibility of players coming in. When was the last time you saw a white player under that cloud? It’s never white players. 

What about the argument that big-time college sports finance science wings and scholarships and even smaller sports? If you get rid of the revenue-generating sports won’t those programs be cut?
I do agree with people who say college sports — football and basketball — are the front porch of the university. There’s no question that a team like Butler, who comes out of the blue and goes to back-to-back Final Fours, will lead to more people applying to the school. Donations go up. Alumni are happy. It’s a good thing for the school when that happens. But the argument that there should be a wealth transfer from poor disadvantaged black kids who play football up to middle-class white kids who play lacrosse? If universities feel lacrosse is valuable they should pay for it, just like they pay for the history department. The basketball and football teams should not exist to underwrite the other sports. 

In 2009, former college-basketball star Ed O’Bannon sued the NCAA for the right to compensation after he saw his face used in a college-basketball video game. Five years later, the courts ruled that the NCAA violated antitrust laws, but the ruling stopped short of saying players should be paid. Is the door closed on compensating players beyond scholarships and stipends? 
There is another case coming up the pike being led by Jeff Kessler, the lawyer who helped the NFL players get a union. That lawsuit is going to be an attempt to say it should be left to the universities and conferences to say if and how much they want to pay players. 

How would a compensation system work?
I still think a salary-cap system would work, although it would have legal hurdles. All the players would get a minimum of $30,000 in football and men’s basketball, and then you’d have enough left over in the cap that could be used to recruit players. That’s hard for people to envision, but think about how sleazy the current recruiting system is, and how much it’s based on a song-and-dance routine by coaches making promises they may not keep. You could have a system where a coach says, “I’ll pay you $50,000 to come here and sign a three-year contract.” There’s no reason money shouldn’t factor into a decision, just like it factors into decisions by millions of students who go to schools based on what size scholarship they get.

Ultimately, doesn’t the question about whether players are being exploited come down to the fans? Look at the ratings. Last year the NCAA posted the highest March Madness viewership in two decades. If fans want to stop colleges from taking advantage of student athletes, shouldn’t they stop watching?
Realistically, that’s never going to happen. If you went to Alabama or Mississippi, there is no appetite to pay the players. They think it’s just fine the way it is. It’s really not different from when Major League Baseball players were advocating for free agency. The fans were totally against it and thought it would destroy baseball. But [the economist] Marvin Miller and the players forced it to happen anyway. If change will happen, it’ll happen through the courts and with the players themselves. My ultimate fantasy is some team would refuse to go out and play in the Final Four. If that were to happen, the system would change in about an hour. 

Being a New York Times columnist is in many ways like making it to the Final Four. What was that experience like for you?
I loved being on the op-ed page. There was something exhilarating about being able to sink my teeth into issues that were beyond the purview of strictly business. 

What was it like losing the column?
I wasn’t happy about it. Dean Baquet wanted me to come down to the sports department, and, let’s face it, Andy Rosenthal was perfectly happy to have that happen. 

What was your relationship like with Rosenthal? 
Distant. We would meet mostly when there was some issue or problem. I know he liked my NCAA stuff, but didn’t get the impression that he was crazy about other things I wrote about that strayed from business.

What do you think of the news that Rosenthal is stepping down and James Bennet is replacing him?  
I know Bennet a bit and really admire what he’s done with The Atlantic. I look forward to seeing what he does with the page. Andy had a great, long run — longer than anyone in that job since who knows when. Being an editor of something important is a little like being a baseball manager — eventually you’re going to be replaced.  

Okay, back to basketball. Who’s in your bracket for the Final Four?
I don’t do brackets. I’m rooting for the Providence Friars because that’s where I grew up and that’s the team I’ve loved all my life. But I find doing brackets is frustrating because I get them all wrong. 

* This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Joe Nocera on Why the NCAA Is Like Enron