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An Argument For Not Allowing College Athletes To Earn Compensation


The NCAA makes close to a billion dollars in revenue each school year, but college players see none of that money. Now that might change. Yesterday, the NCAA's Board of Governors voted to permit student-athletes to benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness. Now, some see this as addressing an unfair practice of exploitative behavior by the NCAA. Others see this as a lousy idea.

Here to discuss is Ekow Yankah. He's a professor at Cardozo School of Law. He has written about this, an essay in The New Yorker back in 2015 titled "Why NCAA Athletes Shouldn't Be Paid." He joins me now from London.


EKOW YANKAH: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: What did you make of this announcement yesterday?

YANKAH: Like most people, we're all sort of waiting to see what the announcement means. The NCAA often tries to do the vaguely right thing when it has absolutely no other choice. So I take it that this is a capitulation of what they see coming down the pike in terms of a slew of laws that are passing from state to state and threatened federal action.

KELLY: But I gather you think this is a lousy idea. You're in the lousy idea camp. How come?

YANKAH: Well, I'm torn about the name and likeness issue, which is slightly different than paying the athletes. But at bottom, the reason I'm concerned is because I think this will be awfully hard to distinguish from salaries. I consistently worry about the continued professionalization of college athletics.

Look; there's no question that the current system is deeply exploitative and deeply problematic. I guess my baseline worry is many people - I think people in good faith - see the exploitation, and they say the answer is to pay these young athletes some amount of money while they're playing football or basketball. I look, and I say the answer is to make sure that these young men - and with the revenue generated in sports, it's typically young men - that they get the thing that they were promised that was of value. That is to say they get a college degree that was of value.

And one of the things I worry about is how many of, at least the listeners to NPR, those who have opportunity and resources - how many of them would trade a college degree for their child for three years of their child being paid in college? I doubt that's a trade that your listeners would make. Those are not the dreams I have for my children.

KELLY: So in your view, should anything change in the current system?

YANKAH: Yeah. I think everybody agrees that the current system needs to be changed and that the corruption of the current system is untenable and, indeed, deeply racially scarred. I'm not interested in whether or not even my beloved Wolverines crank out three or four professionals a year. I'm interested in universities that can crank out generations of black lawyers and doctors and engineers.

It seems to me that the best way to make sure that we are actually serving these young men is to do our best to support and create a true minor league system.

KELLY: Similar to the way it works in Europe already.

YANKAH: Similar to the way it works in Europe. Young kids who want to play for Manchester United are playing in soccer camps from when they're young. Every year, they get cut down. But the ones who dream of playing on the big stage pursue through the minor league system - and similar to the way it works in baseball and, by the way, similar to the way it works in hockey in the United States.

KELLY: I want to make this personal. You played soccer a little bit in college. New college athlete - would you have wanted to get paid?

YANKAH: Maybe in this way I'm a little bit pushed the other way. I played very briefly when Michigan was a club team. In order to keep playing, I would've had to pay money to play. I was working a full-time job in college on top of scholarships. I would've been thrilled to be able to play, just not to pay. And so in this way, I am one of the people who truly thinks that sports are actually a part of an education. You know, we don't think of the dancers as not students, and we don't think of the chess players as not students.

KELLY: The chess team isn't bringing in a billion dollars every year, though.

YANKAH: No, that's true. That's absolutely right. And I think, you know, that's a concern. On the other hand, if there was a true professional league where the students who wanted to make their money could go make their money, then the university could look the student-athletes in the eye and be quite clear that the revenue generation was more about the university than any particular student-athlete. That is to say if your skills are the kind for which you can get paid, you can go to the minor league and get paid.

KELLY: That's Ekow Yankah. He is a professor at Cardozo School of Law, and he wrote an essay for The New Yorker titled "Why NCAA Athletes Shouldn't Be Paid."

Ekow Yankah, thanks.

YANKAH: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.