'Zion Was the Breaking Point': Why U.S. Senator Called for NCAA to Pay Players

David Gardner@@byDavidGardnerStaff WriterApril 2, 2019

DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 20: (EDITORS NOTE: Retransmission with alternate crop.) Zion Williamson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after falling as his shoe breaks in the first half of the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 20, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Long before he was Senator Chris Murphy, D-Conn., he was Commissioner Chris Murphy. When he was 10 or 11, Murphy formed a fantasy football league with his friends in middle school. This was in the days before the internet, of course, so he would spend hours putting together giant draft boards and writing out the available players at every position. In high school, he turned his attention to the NCAA tournament.

As a freshman and sophomore in high school, he ran a March Madness pool that he says attracted a couple hundred entries each year. Each night of the tournament, he'd sit in front of the stack of papers and tally the results by hand. "And there was no money involved!" he exclaims in mock exaggeration. He says there's no money involved in this year's office pool among his Senate staff either, and that's a good thing for Murphy. He picked Michigan State, Gonzaga, Tennessee and UNC to reach the Final Four and finds himself 23rd out of 32 entries.

Murphy's mind is on the NCAA for more reasons than just the Madness. Last Thursday, the first day of the Sweet 16, he released a report calling on the NCAA to pay its athletes. Later that day, Bleacher Report sat down with Murphy in his Senate office to discuss why he views player compensation as a civil rights issue, how Congress could get involved and what he sees for the future of college sports. (The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

The NCAA did not respond to repeated requests for comment.


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Bleacher Report: Zion Williamson was mentioned at the top of your report. Does your interest in the issue go back further than that?

Chris Murphy: I've been angry about this for a while. Zion's injury and all the conversation around it prompted me to decide to finally put out this report that I've been noodling over for years. I couldn't help but notice that this industry has gotten so big and so profitable in a really short period of time. I pay attention to the TV contracts that get signed. There's no way around the fact that there are more and more people making millions of dollars off a sport that's supposed to be amateur.

Zion was the breaking point for me. One kid slipping on the court caused Nike's market valuation to drop a billion dollars. No amateur unpaid athlete—no amateur unpaid worker—should have that kind of impact on an industry.


B/R: What would a legislative option look like to address player compensation?

Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) believes the NCAA's policy of not financially compensating athletes is a civil rights violation.
Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) believes the NCAA's policy of not financially compensating athletes is a civil rights violation.Susan Walsh/Associated Press

CM: I think it's too early to know what that is. This is much better done by the NCAA. And I'm not alone—there's a growing level of discomfort inside and outside the political arena about how students are being treated. But they've got some real antitrust issues. It's not clear to me how they continue to survive court challenges when they're the only game in town. At the very least, it seems crazy that these kids can't make any money off their own branding and likeness. There's been legislation put forward in the House of Representatives to give them ability to at least make money off their own personas' being marketed. There's some merit to that.

But I've met with the NCAA. They've sat right here. They know how I feel. I'd like to give them the chance to make this right or chart a path to making this right before we introduce legislation in the Senate.


B/R: Is it enough of a fix just to let players profit from their names and likenesses, or would you ultimately want to see them paid too?

CM: I'm being careful not to set the boundaries for what's an acceptable solution. I'd love to see the NCAA try. They're not even trying. Once the NCAA moves forward with some options, we can evaluate what makes sense. Obviously, letting kids make money off their licensing or merchandising would only benefit a handful of players. The LSU linemen are probably not going to make a lot of money off their jerseys being sold, but they're just as much a part of the moneymaking operation as the quarterback and the running back are.


B/R: Of course, a player like Zion would make more money than just about anyone else in college basketball. But that LSU lineman could sell his autograph to boosters, right? That's more money than they can get right now.

CM: I think there's a legitimate question if you want to put all these kids in business for themselves or whether you want to guarantee them all some basic share of the profits. If the new system is entirely reliant on merchandising, then that puts an enormous business burden on the kids. That may be the right way to go, but there also may be a way to share the profits without requiring each student to become their own personal LLC.


B/R: Have you given some thought to the Title IX implications of paying players?

CM: It's one of the many interesting and complicated questions about how a compensation scheme would ultimately be arranged. There's lots of really complicated questions that you have to get beyond, and Title IX is one of them. But the existing system is complicated and convoluted, and everybody except for the kids gets paid from that system. I'm sure we can figure it out.

While Sen. Murphy said figuring out the Title IX implications of paying college athletes is one of many complicated questions that would need to be answered, the income a team like the UConn women's team generates demonstrates the need to answer them for all college athletes.
While Sen. Murphy said figuring out the Title IX implications of paying college athletes is one of many complicated questions that would need to be answered, the income a team like the UConn women's team generates demonstrates the need to answer them for all college athletes.Stephen Dunn/Associated Press/Associated Press

And you know, in my state, the women make as much, if not more, for the state than the men do. The women are pretty profitable in the state of Connecticut. (Editor's note: According to UConn's annual financial statement to the NCAA, both basketball teams at UConn operated at a deficit in 2018, although the women lost less money overall.)


B/R: You described the NCAA as the only game in town. Do you agree with Judge Claudia Wilken's decision last month that said schools were violating antitrust law by refusing to pay their athletes above and beyond their scholarships?

CM: The NCAA is a monopoly. It uses its monopoly powers super-effectively in order to make a small handful of adults super-rich at the expense of kids. It uses its monopoly power to keep the profits from the kids who are, by the way, largely black—in football and basketball—and enrich a small handful of adults who are, by the way, largely white. That's why this is an issue of monopoly power and also an issue of civil rights.


B/R: Is the racial aspect of this what makes it a civil rights issue to you, or is it because of the labor aspects of it? This is America, and people aren't being paid for their labor?

CM: It's both. You've got people not being compensated for their labor, so that's a civil rights issue. This is also a civil rights issue because of the racial composition of the players being very different than the racial composition of the coaches and the CEOs of those sports businesses that are making lots of money.


B/R: It was interesting that you spent time in the report talking about the money being spent on facilities. It seems like you believe schools are prioritizing other ways to spend their money instead of paying players.

CM: It's one of the things that got me interested in the subject, watching this race to the absurd that's happening with football facilities that will soon become the norm for basketball facilities. We're just seeing the beginning of this. Clemson may have the most ludicrous facility today (Ed. note: The $55 million football operations center includes a miniature golf course, playground slide and bowling alley), but UConn will have one in 10 years. If you're going to compete, you have to have the bells and whistles that speak to 18-year-old kids. … I don't know how that's connected to the academic mission of the institution of the athletic mission of the institution.

It just becomes this race to the top—or the bottom, depending on how you look at it—that no school will be able to avoid. And this report doesn't get into that dynamic as much, but future reports will. That's another important piece of the story. The pressure that is put on UConn to act like Alabama to compete is really damaging. Georgia State raised fees on every single student in order to pay for their Division I programming because they didn't make enough money off the licensing fees and ticket sales. They asked all their students to pay more simply for the privilege of having a decent sports program.


B/R: Is the timing of this report from you related to the ongoing FBI investigation into illegal payments to high school basketball recruits?

CM: There's a lot of contributing factors to this breaking point arriving. Everyone knows—and has known for years—that college basketball recruiting is often a cesspool. There are a lot of different entry points to this debate, and it seemed the right time to introduce it to the Senate.


B/R: It's an interesting position for you to be in because the Department of Justice has argued in court that the schools are being defrauded by these payments to high school players. The fact that those defendants were found guilty or pleaded guilty was a win for the NCAA's definition of amateurism.

CM: Most of the scandals you hear about connected to college sports cast the students as the villain. It's always the students who have run afoul of these byzantine rules. Now there are exceptions to that—UNC—but the kids are not to blame here. They're stuck in a system in which it's hard to follow the rules, and there's lots of reasons to be pretty envious of everyone else, who are making money at your expense.


B/R: Given everything else that is happening in our country right now, why press on this issue now?

CM: This is not the most important issue that America faces today. I'm fully cognizant of that. But to me … it's another example of where a wealthy power structure has made themselves rich at the expense of people who have been purposefully denied adequate compensation.

As coaches such as Rick Pitino have made exorbitant salaries, players do not receive what they rightly should given the value they generate for schools, argues Murphy.
As coaches such as Rick Pitino have made exorbitant salaries, players do not receive what they rightly should given the value they generate for schools, argues Murphy.Robert Franklin/Associated Press

I think there are all sorts of industries in which the rich are getting a lot richer and the haves are getting a lot more and the have-nots are getting left behind. To me, this speaks to a broader problem in society whereby a very small handful of folks in America are rigging the rules for their benefit. Coaches and these apparel company CEOs and the broadcast executives are rigging the rules to enrich themselves. That's happening in other parts of our economy.

A lot of people care about this sport who don't care about politics. And maybe it's a way to talk about civil rights and social justice to folks who don't always care or pay attention to those issues.


B/R: Looking forward, how would you like for college sports to look?

CM:  I don't know that I want college sports to get much bigger than they are today. I hope that college sports don't become even more dominant on campus, and I say that as a big college sports fan. And I hope we find some way to adequately compensate the players, and there are a million ways to do that. I hope we're not sitting here today 10 years from now with parents of athletes in the NCAA tournament not being able to afford plane tickets to see their kids play.


B/R: Should we separate colleges from athletics?

CM: I love college sports. Less so today, but for a long period of my life, my emotions rose and fell depending on how the UConn basketball team was doing. I wouldn't trade that for the world. There's a sense of state patriotism that comes from following college athletics. You get tied to your state in a totally nonpartisan way because of your love for the University of Alabama or UCLA. It brings Republicans and Democrats together. The last thing I want to do is to tear down this country's love affair with college sports. I think it does way more good than harm. This, in the grand scheme of things, is a minor adjustment. And the NCAA is wrong to suggest this would crash down their model. You can find a way to do right by students, and people will still show up out of allegiance for Michigan-Ohio State.


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