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Author Joe Nocera On The NCAA And The Case For Paying Student Athletes

The NCAA makes billions of dollars, but the college athletes who help generate that money don’t see a penny. That’s the focus of “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA,” a new book by Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss.

Nocera will speak in Louisville next week at the Kentucky Author Forum. He spoke with WFPL News about the history and culture of the NCAA.

Listen to the interview in the audio player above.

The NCAA was founded by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect college athletes from injuries and deaths. But Nocera says by the mid-20th century, the focus of the NCAA had changed.

“It didn’t become powerful until the 1950s, but in my view it became an institution that exploits athletes while allowing everyone else in college sports to become quite rich,” Nocera says.

And, he says, that has been hard to address. Changes have happened recently, as some conferences have gotten more autonomy and begun providing better health care and scholarship stipends for student athletes.

But Nocera says the NCAA’s prevailing argument has always been that student athletes are students, and sports shouldn’t be their profession while in college.

“The NCAA and many people in college sports believe that paying the players would change the nature and joy of college sports, and make it less attractive to fans. They think of amateurism as the special sauce that makes college sports different and wonderful,” he says. “I think the crucial ingredient is that the athletes need to be a student. I think there’s something about rooting for somebody who’s a member of the community, who goes to class and who plays sports as part of the university, I think that’s the secret sauce. I don’t think anyone would care if the players were getting paid.”

The issue could be settled for good in the next several years, as there are numerous lawsuits that address student athlete compensation coming down the pike. One — in which former UCLA standout Ed O'Bannon is suing the NCAA — could wind up in the Supreme Court. It argues that the NCAA’s “amateurism” argument violates U.S. antitrust laws.

"It’s hard to know right now how the courts ultimately will rule on this question, but I do think we’re going to find out in the next four or five years how the courts generally think about this issue,” Nocera says. “That could portend enormous change, but that could also portend a kind of legalizing of the current system.”

Joe Nocera will speak at the University of Louisville Kentucky Author Forum at the Kentucky Center Monday April 18 at 6 p.m.

Bill Burton is the Morning Edition host for LPM. Email Bill at bburton@lpm.org.

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