When Sen. Chris Murphy watched Duke basketball All-American Zion Williamson crash to the floor with an apparent injury during a late-February game against North Carolina, he couldn’t help but consider the 18-year-old’s future.
Williamson had emerged as the most exciting player in college basketball and the likely No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. If he stayed healthy, he would soon be a millionaire. But if the injury sapped his famous athleticism, a teenager who had already generated millions for Duke, for TV networks, for advertisers and for the NCAA could be left with little for himself.
It is with Williamson in mind that Murphy planned to release the first in a series of reports about what he calls a “broken” college sports system. The report, titled “Madness, Inc.,” includes anecdotes, statistics and a call for sweeping change that would lead to paying college athletes. Murphy does not specify who should pay the players and how he would like that to work, but he questions how universities can spend lavishly on coaches salaries and sports facilities while restricting compensation for Williamson and other top athletes.
“Here was a kid who had already made so much money for his college, [Nike], the broadcasters,” Murphy said in an interview. “And had that injury been a little more serious, he would have gotten nothing. Everybody would have made millions of dollars off of Zion Williamson and he would have gotten nothing.”
Williamson returned after only a few missed games, avoiding the worst-case scenario, but his injury underscored for Murphy something he’d already come to believe over years of watching college sports: that the athletes who power the $14 billion college athletics industry deserve a slice of the revenue they generate.
“This is a civil rights issue,” Murphy said. “These are kids who may not officially be employees but are essentially working for a for-profit industry who aren’t getting compensated.
“It’s also a civil-rights issue because the majority of these athletes, at least playing big-time football and basketball, are African-American,” he continued. “And the vast majority of the people getting paid and making millions off of them are not. When everyone that’s making money is white and most of the people who are doing the labor and not getting compensated are African-American, that’s a civil rights issue.”
Murphy has been consistent in criticizing NCAA “amateurism,” tweeting as far back as September 2017 that, “Everyone is getting paid — above and below the table — except the kids.” In December, he tweeted that it was “immoral” for college coaches to be paid millions while players were compensated only in scholarships.
Murphy isn’t the first public official to propose allowing college athletes to be paid, though he is among the most prominent. Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC) introduced a bill earlier this month that would let athletes profit from their images and likenesses, such as through sponsorship deals. Legislators in California and Washington state have proposed similar legislation. And long-shot Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang has gone a step further, arguing that players should be compensated by the NCAA directly.
As the idea of paying college athletes has gained support among players, politicians and the public (while also making progress in the federal court system), it has faced fierce resistance from most college sports power-brokers, including the NCAA itself. Opponents argue that allowing top athletes to be paid would be unfair to smaller athletic departments, that it could violate Title IX’s guarantee of equality between men’s and women’s sports, and that it might undercut the reason some fans enjoy college sports.
“Part of the magic is that they are playing for some other reason other than personal compensation,” said former University of Hartford president Walter Harrison, who serves as part of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. “And if you start to compensate them then obviously they’ve lost some of the luster, and you’re really making them professional athletes.”
Harrison said The Knight Commission, unlike the NCAA, supports allowing college athletes to be compensated for their names and likenesses.
Polling data shows that fans are split on whether athletes should be compensated beyond the value of their scholarships. A 2017 Washington Post poll found that only 38 percent of American believe players should be paid based on the revenue they generate but that 66 percent say they should earn money for the use of their names and likenesses.
To Murphy, the argument over how athletes are compensated should be about what the athletes deserve, not necessarily what fans want.
“This isn’t ultimately about making viewers happy, it’s about the fundamental unfairness of kids who are providing a service to a for-profit industry not getting any of the rewards,” Murphy said. “The cat’s out of the bag. College sports isn’t a not-for-profit endeavor. This isn’t simply about kids playing sports for the enjoyment. This is about adults telling the kids that they’re playing sports for their enjoyment and then the adults going and becoming filthy rich off the kids’ athletic endeavors.”
Murphy may have a high-profile ally in Connecticut, where UConn football coach Randy Edsall has been one of the few college sports insiders to publicly support the idea of paying college athletes. Last March, Edsall railed against the NCAA in a lengthy press-conference diatribe and argued that players deserve a cut of the revenues they generate.
“You see all the money that’s being made by the conferences, that then gets distributed to the universities. None of that has really gone to the players,” Edsall said. “I’ve got an issue with that.”
Murphy notes that the fight for college athletes compensation can appeal not only to liberals who see it as an issue of labor rights and social-justice but also to conservatives who believe in free markets. He said as he continues to publish reports he will continue to discuss the issue with colleagues.
“There may ultimately be a need for congress to move legislation,” he said, “but it would be much better if the NCAA took steps on their own.”
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