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College Athletes Should Get Paid. The Pandemic Proved It.

Joe Nocera
·7 min read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In Detroit, Laurence Deitch is what’s known as a macher.

A highly regarded corporate lawyer, he’s had critical behind-the-scenes roles at institutions ranging from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to the Michigan Democratic Party. His closest association, though, has long been with his alma mater, the University of Michigan, where he spent 24 years on the board of regents, including several as chairman. When he was defeated for reelection in 2016 (yes, Michigan regents are elected), he was named “emeritus regent.”

Deitch’s love for his university very much includes the Wolverine football team. But as a regent, he was never a rubber stamp for the athletic department. Indeed, when I first met him in 2013, it was clear that he had become disillusioned with the big business of college sports.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association was “a corrupt cartel,” he told me bluntly at the time. “It uses amateurism to justify giving no workers’ comp to injured players.” Deitch wanted scholarships to extend beyond players’ athletic eligibility so they could have time to get a real education once their playing days were over. He wanted college athletes to be allowed some spending money. And while he wasn’t yet ready to call for college football and basketball players to be paid, he was tiptoeing in that direction.

On Friday, Larry Deitch took the leap. Responding to a New York Times column about the Big Ten’s decision to play football — after earlier deciding to delay the season because of the pandemic — Deitch wrote a letter to the editor that scoffed at the conference’s supposed rationale. (From the Big Ten press release: “Our goal has always been to return to competition so all student-athletes can realize their dreams of competing in the sports they love.”)

No, he wrote, the real reason was that “major college football is a multibillion-dollar money machine for the universities, their highly paid coaches and the television and apparel industries that profit from the audiences football provides them. The universities’ decision was an economic choice, plain and simple.”

And that being the case, he concluded, “there must be fair compensation paid to the student-athletes whose talent and effort make the whole extravaganza possible.” He added, “Pay the athletes!”

Say this for the pandemic: It has put an uncomfortable spotlight on any number of societal inequities. Remote learning exposed the divide between students who had broadband internet and those who didn’t — and why that mattered so much. Poorly paid “essential employees” were risking illness and possibly even death by going to work while highly paid elites were able to work from home. And, yes, college football players were being pressed into action so that the big athletic conferences could fulfill their lucrative television contracts — even as Covid-19 outbreaks were forcing universities to send the rest of their student bodies home. Talk about essential employees! Except, of course, they’re not employees — not under the NCAA’s definition. They’re unpaid “student-athletes.”

Thus the pandemic has ripped away the last remaining veneer of “amateurism.” Over the summer, as colleges debated whether or not to play football once the fall semester began, I wondered what would happen if other students had to learn remotely. Would they dare bring football players to an otherwise empty campus? Wouldn’t that destroy, once and for all, any remaining argument that athletes were merely ordinary students who played football for the love of the game — which is the rationale for not paying them. I thought that the major conferences wouldn’t have the nerve to field teams when the rest of the student body was away or locked down — not even with all that TV money at stake. The hypocrisy would just be too much. But I was wrong.

The Big 12, the Southeastern Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference never really flinched. The two remaining Power 5 conferences, the Big 10 and the Pac 12, decided that the Covid-19 risk was too great and chose to postpone fall sports. The Big 10 leaked the news that some of its athletes who had come down with Covid-19 had contracted a dangerous side effect: myocarditis, a heart ailment.

Instead of being applauded for putting the health of its athletes over money, the Big 10 was widely condemned for its stance. A handful of University of Nebraska players sued the conference. Prominent coaches, including Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Ohio State’s Ryan Day, were said to be unhappy about the decision. (Harbaugh, in fact, kept his team practicing the whole time.) Conservative commentators blasted the Big 10 for succumbing to Covid-19 fear-mongering. And, of course, President Donald Trump weighed in with a series of tweets — and a phone call to Big 10 Commissioner Kevin Warren — demanding that the conference start playing football.

Meanwhile, at Big 10 member Wisconsin, more than 2,000 students tested positive and all classes are being held online, at least temporarily. At Big 10 member Michigan State, 30 dormitories were in quarantine because of a Covid-19 outbreak, according to the Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga. “The surge in cases we have seen in the past few weeks is alarming,” a county health official said.

Nevertheless, last Wednesday, the Big 10 announced it would bring back football this season after all. Among other things, the players will be tested for the virus every day, an important benefit no other student on campus is afforded. Then again, no other students are on many of these campuses. Oh, and tens of millions of dollars doesn’t ride on the health of a history major, unlike a football player.

“I’ve really enjoyed seeing sports come back,” Deitch said when we spoke over the weekend, mentioning in particular the U.S. Open tennis tournament. But, he added, baseball, basketball and soccer are all sports played by professionals who are represented by unions. “They’ve negotiated protections for themselves as they continue to entertain and thrill the public,” he said.

No one is paid to look out for the best interests of college athletes. Deitch said: “They are being asked to assume more risk than other students. And they are 18- to 20-year-olds living in campus communities where Covid is widespread. They are providing a service to us — entertainment. I don’t have any particular idea how to compensate them. But they should be compensated.”

Why am I devoting a column to one man’s revelation about the need to pay college athletes? A large part of the reason is that Deitch has spent a good chunk of his life as an important decision-maker at a university with one of the great athletic departments in the country. If he’s now ready to say it’s time to pay the players, how many others just like him — machers at colleges across the country — are ready to say the same? How many find the hypocrisy of sending students home because of the pandemic — except the football team — more than they can bear? My guess is that this could well be a moment when the tide turns for good.

That’s also what Deitch is hoping for. “Major changes take place in this country when a societal consensus develops that something is fair.” Gay marriage was a good example of this, he said. Now, thanks to the pandemic, that moment might be arriving for college sports. Better late than never.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."

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