According to a poll conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News, a large majority of the general public does not support college athletes being paid salaries beyond the compensation of an academic scholarship.
Per Alex Prewitt of the Post:
Only 33 percent support paying college athletes. At 64 percent, opposition is nearly twice as high as support, with 47 percent strongly against the idea. Nearly every demographic and political group opposes it except non-whites, for whom 51 percent support. The breakdown among whites (73 percent oppose, 24 percent support) tilted strongly in the opposite direction, echoing the perspective of NCAA President Mark Emmert.
“We have long heard from fans that there is little support for turning student-athletes into paid employees of their universities,” Emmert said in a statement. “The overwhelming majority of student-athletes, across all sports, play college athletics as part of their educational experience and for the love of their sport — not to be paid a salary.”
Given the direction and (assumed) public sentiment toward labor reform in college athletics the past few months, these numbers come as a bit of a shock.
From the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit to Kain Colter's petition for a players union at Northwestern to the antitrust claim filed against the NCAA by Jeffrey Kessler last Monday, everything seems to be heading toward a world where college athletes are viewed, treated and compensated as employees instead of amateurs.
Does the majority really disagree at such a magnitude?
But the numbers in the poll do come with a few potential caveats. For one thing, as noted by Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated, there may have been some response bias since the question used the word "salary" instead of something more delicate:
But note that the poll defined "pay" as "salary." Responses might differ if asked about stipends or outside sponsorship opportunities.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) March 24, 2014
There's also the matter of informedness.
Only 56 percent of the respondents identified themselves as fans of college sports, which means the remaining 44 percent may not have been following closely as "pay-for-play" has become seemingly more inevitable.
Without hearing the bevy of arguments against non-compensation, especially after seeing the word "salary," that group might have been more inclined to vote against players making money.
An example of those arguments against non-compensation, cited by Prewitt in his piece, comes from ESPN analyst Jay Bilas:
It’s laughable, but it’s not funny. They pay the scholarship, which is the amount the school pays to itself. They’re not out a nickel. The athletics department pays the school. Then they claim that they’re poor. Then they pay themselves these outrageous salaries that are market-based, but they say they don’t have any money to give to the players, but they have $8 million to give to a football or basketball coach and $1 million to give a baseball coach.
Whatever your opinion—whether you side with Bilas or the majority identified in the poll—and no matter what happens in the courts, this argument is not going away for a long time.
We are still in phase one of a lengthy, urgent discourse.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT