'Indentured': On the mistreatment of college athletes

2014 March Madness
Here, Duke and Virginia face off during March Madness 2014. Joe Nocera estimates that the NCAA takes in a billion dollars each year for the tournament.
Gerry Broome | AP

The story of Ryan Boatright is what first stoked Joe Nocera's anger about the NCAA, the governing body of college athletics.

As a freshman basketball player at the University of Connecticut, Boatright was suspended by the NCAA for nine games for receiving an "impermissible benefit."

He didn't accept money or a brand new car or even shoes; it was his mother who was the target of the investigation. Tanesha Boatright, a single mother of four children, had accepted money from a family friend — who was also her son's coach — to travel with Ryan to the schools that were recruiting him.

"Just like any other mom wants to do with their college-bound children," Nocera said. But the NCAA ruled it was a violation of its rules.

"I was offended that this would be against the rules: It's not illegal, it's not wrong, it's a friend helping a friend, and yet in the eyes of the NCAA, something bad had happened," Nocera said.

Nocera, a sports business columnist for the New York Times, wrote about Boatright's case as it unfolded. Now, he's co-authored a book with Ben Strauss: "Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA." The book tells the stories of people like Boatright, who were targeted by the NCAA — but who pushed back.

He joined MPR News guest host Luke Burbank to discuss "Indentured" and the difficulties facing college athletes.

On the investigation into Tanesha Boatright

"There's no due process, there's no sense of fairness, hearsay evidence is fine," Nocera said of the NCAA's investigation procedure. The NCAA began looking into Boatright's mother when her ex-boyfriend called in a tip to the organization as an "act of revenge" after they broke up. He accused Tanesha of violating the rules while Ryan had been in high school.

"They knock on her office door, they call her at all hours, they wound up interviewing her in a hotel room — four white guys and her — and she's not allowed to make a phone call for five hours," Nocera said. "She loses her job, she becomes depressed, she's frantic: 'What have I done that has potentially ruined my son's career?'"

The NCAA asked to see her financial records in their entirety for three years, which was difficult because she didn't have a bank account.

"At one point, she got cash from friends when she was out of work so she could buy Christmas presents for her other children," Nocera said. "The NCAA went to the workplace of the people who gave her that money to verify that's what happened. It couldn't be more offensive. They put this woman through hell."

"Ryan did eventually get back on the court, after a series of humiliations for him and his mom."

On the NCAA's rise to power

"It began in the mid-50s with a man named Walter Byers, who was a 29-year-old former sportswriter who was put in charge of this toothless organization called the NCAA," Nocera said.

Byers quickly changed that: "He did two things to make the organization almost instantly powerful."

The first was to create an enforcement mechanism for the association's rules. When basketball players from Kentucky were involved in a point-shaving scandal, Byers convinced "every other school in the country not to play Kentucky basketball for one year."

"If they don't play, Kentucky basketball is dead," Nocera said. That fear made schools agree to NCAA rules.

"Everybody had to join, everybody had to follow the rules — or at least supposedly follow these rules — even as the rules got more ridiculous," Nocera said.

Byers' second act was to gain control over the television rights of college football games. "Now he had a second source of power: Who was going to be on TV, how often they would be on TV, how much money they would get."

Under his leadership, "schools lived in fear of the NCAA" and Byers himself, who "wanted to run the NCAA like J. Edgar Hoover ran the FBI."

On the issues of income and race in NCAA rulings

"There is no question that the NCAA is far more suspicious of African-American athletes in the revenue sports — which are football and men's basketball — who come out of disadvantaged neighborhoods," Nocera said. "They are suspicious of them academically, and more to the point, they're suspicious of them financially, for the obvious reason: They don't have any money."

"Amateurism says: You can't take any money. That's the essence of amateurism. No money. For a middle-class white kid, that's no problem. Mom wants to go on a recruiting trip? She buys a ticket. For the disadvantaged black kid with the single mom who has three other kids, that's a huge problem."

On the benefits that should be available for college athletes

"There should be lifetime health insurance for athletes, as a matter of moral responsibility by the universities, and there isn't," Nocera said. "Very often, the university will pay, even after an athlete has gotten out, for the second or third or fourth surgery. But then, at a certain point, they say: 'We're done.' And the athlete still needs the fifth surgery and sixth surgery."

"You know how hard it is to get health insurance if you're a former college athlete who has a problem? It's like impossible."

On how the money in college sports is distributed

College sports is a $13 billion business, Nocera said. In the next three weeks, for March Madness, the NCAA will take in a billion dollars alone.

That money does not go to players, though. It goes to the universities, to the administration of the NCAA, and to the coaches.

"A typical college coach now makes two or three million in basketball, and maybe even more than that in football," Nocera said. "Athletic directors make two to three million. The defensive coordinator at Alabama makes $1.5 million. My view: Everybody's getting rich, all the adults are getting rich, and yet the athletes get nothing. To me, that is fundamentally exploitative and wrong."

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