The Broken Culture That Broke Mary Cain

Runner and sports historian Victoria Jackson on Nike's Oregon Project, Alberto Salazar, and abusive coaching

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Mary Cain is speaking out. But will her story—and her message—bring about needed change?

In a New York Times video essay published last week, Cain, a former high school track phenom who competed in the 2013 world championships at age 17, claimed that she was physically and emotionally abused while training with Nike’s Oregon Project, a now-defunct track and field training group run by coach Alberto Salazar.

According to Cain, she was told by coaches in the program that she would have to become “thinner and thinner and thinner” in order to win races—and that Salazar would “usually weigh me in front of my teammates and publicly shame me” if she weighed more than 114 pounds.

Cain also claimed that Salazar attempted to give her birth-control pills and diuretics to assist with weight loss.

As a result of Salazar’s abusive coaching, Cain said, she missed her period for three years, broke five bones, and developed an eating disorder that prompted suicidal thoughts.

Cain joined the Oregon Project, she told the Times, because she “wanted to be the best female athlete ever.”

“Instead,” she said, “I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike.”

In statements to the Times, The Oregonian, and Sports Illustrated, Salazar has denied many of Cain’s claims and said that he supported her health and welfare.

Following publication of the Times essay, Nike said that it would investigate Cain’s allegations of abuse.

The Oregon Project, which was based in Portland and owned and operated by Nike since 2001, was shut down in October after Salazar was given a four-year ban by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for experiments with supplements and testosterone that were bankrolled and supported by Nike, along with possessing and trafficking testosterone, a prohibited performance-enhancing substance.

Also following publication of Cain’s essay, other runners and individuals within track and field—including former Nike coach Steve Magness, who worked under Salazar—have spoken out on social media and to Sports Illustrated supporting her contention that the Oregon Project had a toxic and abusive culture.

Meanwhile, The Sunday Times of London spoke to several British athletes, who said that:

… they were not surprised by Cain’s revelations and that they saw it as part of a wider culture that encouraged excessive weight loss in the name of performance and perpetuated the idea that “thinner meant faster”. Many had lost their periods at points.

One athlete, who wished to remain anonymous, said her coach had deliberately bought race uniforms in “small” sizes so that athletes felt pressured to fit into them. “If I look at them now, I’m absolutely horrified,” she says. “I hope to God I never fit into them again. They are like a child’s clothes.”

Holly Rush, a former marathon runner who competed at the European Championships and Commonwealth Games in 2010, told the Sunday Times that she:

… suffered from eating disorders during her sporting career and did not have periods for eight years from the age of 20. By 22, she had been diagnosed with osteoporosis in her spine and osteopenia in her hip, consequences of her weight loss. “If you’re looking tired or gaunt, that was always a great thing,” she says. 

She said the fact that she wasn’t having periods was perceived as a good thing because “it didn’t hamper my training”. She knows of many athletes who are told to lose weight. “I’ve heard stories of people being weighed at sessions, which is appalling,” she says. “It’s just degrading, will make you feel worse and then you restrict even more and overtrain even more. It’s a horrible cycle. Anyone who goes to a training camp or session where that happens needs to walk away.”

Just how common are stories like Cain’s? Will her coming forward encourage track and field to take a harder look at—and a harder stance against—abusive coaching and an unhealthy, dangerous culture around athlete body weight?

To get a better sense of why Cain’s claims resonated so deeply and what needs to change going forward, Hreal Sports spoke to Victoria Jackson, a history professor at Arizona State University and former collegiate and professional distance runner who has been outspoken on Twitter and elsewhere about athletes’ rights.

(The following conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity).


Hreal Sports: You were a NCAA Division I distance runner. So was your sister. As far as I can tell, you’re still plugged in to the running community. When you first saw Mary’s story, was was your immediate reaction?

Jackson: Oh, goodness. We all knew there was something wrong with the Nike Oregon Project—because those of us who competed, both collegiately and professionally over the last 15 years, we all know somebody involved with it.

[Oregon Project runner] Dathan Ritzenhein, I knew him since high school. I didn’t know him well. But we went to the national high school cross country championships together. My senior year, he won and I placed second. He was one of those athletes who was known for his ability to push himself more than anyone. We all would be amazed at how he would run to the point of collapsing. That was all before he joined the Oregon Project.

After Mary’s story came out, I went back and read about a leaked interim report from the USADA [United States Anti-Doping Agency] into the Oregon Project. Some of Dathan’s testimony was in it. He talked about how he was going to be suspended by Nike because he was injured. I had heard rumors [as a professional runner] about Nike athletes being told, ‘you are underperforming, you have to join one of our programs.’

So I think Dathan knew that he kind of had to do this stuff—take hormones and medications and drugs to please Alberto. He knew that Alberto could go to his boss at Nike and say, “Dathan is working really hard and he is getting back on a path where he’s world class. You don’t have to suspend his contract.” That’s the messaging Dathan received. And the program has a secretive nature. The athletes in the Oregon Project were not even allowed to tap to each other about what types of medications they were taking.

So you have a rotten culture. What Mary describes is a system of emotional and physical abuse. Athletes already are pushing themselves so much to begin with. And then to throw a teenage girl into that and expect her to excel instead of being broken by it? 

The nature of distance running is pushing yourself and building a tolerance to pain, building a capacity to kind of transcend pain. It’s kind of what we do. And that holds the the potential to turn rotten—maybe more so than in other sports. I think this is a moment of reckoning for the elite running community. Rather than looking the other way, or enabling coaching staffs and collegiate athletic departments and other people who have jobs despite building rotten cultures, maybe we should be doing something about them in order to get them out of the sport.

Mary said that Nike “is not acknowledging the fact that there is a systemic crisis in women’s sports and at Nike, in which young girls’ bodies are being ruined.” Is she right, and if so, how and why?

I don’t know. That gives me pause. There is so much power—the potential for power for girls who engage in the sport is so rich. But that means creating a culture so they can tap into that power in a positive way.

At Nike, I think we can point to specific structural issues, like the fact that they were suspending contracts of people who were injured. That reinforces the potential for bad behavior. If you are economically dependent on people who are doing things that are putting athletes in harmful situations—like the medical stuff Salazar was doing from the USADA report, having runners on medications where there is a literal warning that if you take these two types of medications at the same time, the risk of heart failure is really hight, and also they are prescription medications, and yet Salazar is giving out both and he’s not even a doctor!—then that is a serious problem.

My professional introduction to Nike was at the 2006 track and field championships in Indianapolis. It was my first meet as a pro wearing a Nike kit. I went in there with blinders on, trying to focus on how I had signed with the coolest company in the world. And then I read about how at that meet a Nike employee beat up a massage therapist because—and I don’t know if they believed this or were trying to create a cover story—the therapist supposedly massaged [performance-enhancing drugs] into Justin Gatlin.

Oh, and another time one of the coaches with the Brooks Beasts track club was also threatened by a Nike employee at a USA Track and Field outdoor championship. That is not a cool culture.

I do think part of the reason that athletes have been reluctant to speak out about problems with Nike is that in our sport, Nike is USA Track and Field and USA Track and Field is Nike. And I don’t know how much USA Track and Field listens, anyway. My first time at a meeting organized by them as an elite, professional athlete was at a rookie camp in Cancun, [Mexico]. I went to that and then to a USA Track and Field annual meeting, and you literally had USA Track and Field employees shouting down athletes trying to bring up legitimate issues with the sport because they didn’t want to have a conversation. So there is something rotten there, too.

As far as Mary saying there is a crisis in girls’ sports, just thinking about it historically, there is a problem with young girls in that—as a society—we don’t know what to do with athletically excellent young girls. There’s a tension in elite youth sports: we have girls who already are at a level where they could theoretically be competing on a world stage, but all of the stuff that comes with that, all of the potential pressures, it’s virtually impossible to navigate the obstacle course of that. Yet we assume that it’s just what someone like Mary should do—and hopefully, she makes it out on the other side.

I don’t know the solution to that conundrum. But it’s certainly not throwing girls into an elite training situation that is also harmful.

I went back and read a [2015] New York Times magazine profile of Mary. She started running really fast as a freshman in high school—qualifying for the world junior championships, breaking an American junior record, kind of scratching at world class. She couldn’t really have training partners wit her high school girls’ team. Could she train with the boys’ team? It turned out that was a violation of New York high school federation rules. That rule might have been adopted with good intentions. It might not have been. Who knows? But Mary had no one to run with on her team. The article also said that her high school coach—for reasons no one would talk about—didn’t even prescribe workouts for her. She just made them up on her own.

So then Alberto Salazar calls her house. She’s somebody who isn’t being coached, has nobody to train with. Then she gets a call from a guy who says he can help. In the moment, he is heaven sent. It only turns out to be tragic in retrospect.

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Mary recalls arriving in Oregon to train with Salazar at age 17. She’s coached by an all-male staff. She says that they told her in order to better her performances she needed to become "thinner and thinner and thinner." She also says that Salazar would publicly shame her in front of teammates if she did not weigh 114 pounds, and even attempted to give her birth-control pills and diuretics to assist with weight loss. 

As someone who has been in and around the culture of elite running, why would any of that be considered a good idea?

It’s not! Lauren Fleshman—who is a former Nike athlete and is now a coach with Oiselle—Tweeted something that is so obvious yet needs to be said.

At the bottom she wrote, “weight fixation is lazy coaching.” I would argue that it literally is not coaching. The idea that Alberto Salazar was the world’s best coach for the word’s best company? We’re now seeing that is Nike marketing. There is not a real basis for that. If anything, the fact that some of his athletes were actually able to survive and succeed to do what they did is an amazing testament to them!

Like I said before, in our sport’s culture, we celebrate the pushing of ourselves and the pain that comes with it. And that can be great if done in a healthy way. But it has such potential to turn into something rotten so quickly. I can think of a handful of college programs that I heard about when I was in college where the coaches were abusing the athletes in this way. Telling them they had to lose weight. Weighing them in front of their teams. Buying uniforms that were too small and forcing bodies into them. Yelling at their athletes. 

We didn’t say it was abuse. But it totally was. And I really feel for the athletes who end up in programs where the coach is creating this sort of culture. Let’s say ou are a sub-elite high school runner. You don’t have your pick of where to go to school. Your family has financial stress. So you go to the school that offers the most money, and this school has one of these negative cultures. You’re now in college, and you’re trying so hard to not let it get to you. It’s hard to transfer. You are tied to the program because they offered you money. How do you survive that?

In what ways are athletes in general, and runners in particular—especially when they are young—mentally and emotionally vulnerable to the kind of abusive and unhealthy coaching that Salazar seems to embody?

It’s hard to generalize, so I don’t know if I have an answer to that. As a runner, I always found myself admiring and jealous of the runners who didn’t have these vulnerabilities, who still had balanced, healthy relationships with running and also well-rounded lives.

I do think there are parallels between excellent young athletes and young people who are prodigies in anything, the demands placed on those young people, and how we don’t know what to do with them.

I remember playing violin. I played in an orchestra. And I played with people who aspired to become the equivalent of runners for Nike, but in classical music. We were just in middle school, and already they were developing carpal-tunnel syndrome and had to wear wrist braces. They had the expectation of practicing hours and hours and hours a day. I don’t know if that is healthy at all.

In Mary’s case, the demands placed on her and the mental and emotional abuse she suffered didn’t actually make her faster or better—they badly hurt her physically and mentally.

So from a purely devil’s advocate, sociopathic, winning and performance-based perspective, I still have a hard time understanding why she was treated the way she was treated. Nobody even got the supposed short term benefit of her becoming a better runner! Not Mary, not Nike, not Salazar. She just got destroyed. 

Is there some sort of unspoken cultural understanding within elite running that we have to subject athletes to abusive training, and that some will thrive on the stopwatch, and others will be totally crushed, and so be it, that’s just the way it is?

I think there are people who believe that. Yes. There are people who have consumed everything about this story and will walk away thinking, “well, Mary Cain just didn’t make it. Too bad. She got a shot and her body couldn’t handle it. Alberto was trying to help her. That is what we do in our sport. It churns people up and it spits them out and the ones who make it are excellent and that is just what this is.”

First of all, that’s not ethical. It’s horrifying. But also, the science of running doesn’t back it up. People have created this myth about what they believe about what it takes to win, and they want to defend it, but it has no basis in reality. It’s a win at all costs mentality, without the winning!

And you see it in the day-to-day decisions that athletes make, too. I’ll check in with them when I speak at colleges. I’ll ask, “have you been injured in the last 12 months?” And 95 percent of the hands go up. Then I’ll ask, “did you feel sad when you were hurt?” Every hand stays up. It is so hard when your identity is tied up in that. As athletes, we want to push and push and push. You feel miserable and sad when you can’t. That doesn’t mean we should.

I’ve felt that way myself. Say I have a nagging injury or am feeling lethargic. I might know, deep down inside, that I’m about to overtrain. That overtraining will make my body shut down, and it will take months for me to recover. But I really want to run today! It’s so bound up in my identity. I need those endorphins. I’m irritable, I’m pissy, I don’t like myself, my body feels soft—I want to run today for that short-term jolt of feeling good. 

I used to joke that when I was recovering from an injury, I would go on angry marathon bike rides, because I was pissed off I wasn’t running. But the whole reason I was doing that was because there was a number of times I could have taken a day off from running and didn’t, because I chose the immediate benefit of running. I’ve spoken to other runners and they feel the same way. 

It can be so hard to say no to that. To say no to that for your future self. To have that discipline. And that is why we need coaches to protect us. It is so important to have a coach who is your champion, who makes those really hard long-term decisions for you. A coach who knows that a super-talented athlete training at 85 percent is better than one who is broken from having redlined for too long.

Mary Cain says that “I got caught in a system designed by and for men, which destroys the bodies of young girls.” She also says that “we need more women in power. Part of me wonders: if I had worked with more female psychologists, nutritionists, even coaches, where I would be today.” Is she right?

I think she’s right about Nike and Salazar, specifically. It was gendered there. All the people who enabled it were men. And in college, you do end up with men coaching a lot of the combined gender sports programs like track. The people who make hiring decisions in athletic departments are more likely to hire men to coach across genders—the assumption is that men won’t want to be coached by women. It’s also the case that the women hired into supporting coaching roles are paid less. So women often leave. If you are a poorly-paid grad assistant or post-collegiate runner who is volunteering, you’re probably not going to stay in coaching.

That being said, men and women who coach should know about young women athletes’ bodies and normal changes and what a healthy body looks like. Part of that means pretty dramatic bodyweight fluctuations in the course of a week! They should know about the female athlete triad.

[Hreal Sports note: According to the National Institutes for Health, the female athlete triad is an interrelationship of menstrual dysfunction, low energy availability—with or without an eating disorder—and decreased bone mineral density that is relatively common among young women participating in sports. Diagnosis and treatment of this potentially serious condition is complicated and often requires an interdisciplinary team].

If we think about young athletes, especially ones going from high school to college, they are undergoing a number of changes. One, biological changes in their bodies. Two, the pressure of elite sports. If you feel all these changes in your life and you feel out of control, that is when you see disordered eating habits. Athletes turning to restriction of their food as the one thing they can control in their life. And also to harm themselves—I know I shouldn’t be doing this, but I feel badly about myself so I will hurt myself.

If you don’t have a nutritionist on staff who understands what a teenage woman’s body looks like or a teenage athlete’s body looks like, a healthy body, that’s a problem and it can contribute to this. And it’s not just a problem for women—there is as much disordered eating in male distance running communities as with women.

Let’s talk about your story. When you were an undergrad at the University of North Carolina, you stopped competing in track and cross country after two years because of disordered eating. What happened?

I was very fortunate. I was in a healthy culture that saved me from myself.

My depression and eating disorder were separate from my love of running. I developed anorexia when I was nine years old. I stopped eating. I was hospitalized when I was 10.  I didn’t know what it was. My mom told me. I literally walked to the public library to read what it was. Didn’t learn from TV or teammates or cultural signals. 

I was depressed, and I think restricting my eating was a way to hurt myself. That transition from high school to college was another trigger. I was lucky to have healthy teammates and a good culture at Carolina. Two of those teammates, Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky, are now making these cookbooks that I think are so important and part of the solution to this. They’re providing education to young runners that food is fuel, and food is health, and food comes from a place of love. They’re creating wholesome, positive energy around cooking and eating with people you love. I needed that when I was struggling.

And how that Shalane is transitioning into coaching, I know she’s creating a healthy culture at the Bowerman Track Club. That training group all qualified for [The Rio Olympics]. So they are kicking ass, and doing it from a healthy place. It’s not a coincidence. Success flows from culture. It’s not the winning; it’s making sure people are okay. And the the winning comes from that. But also, who cares about winning? You have these great relationships.

Recently I retired from professional running and I’m now in the position of leader and coach, for The Nike Bowerman Track Club. This new role has had me think about the contributions I intend to have on my athletes, community, and sport.

I am deeply saddened and shocked to learn about the struggles Mary Cain faced while running professionally. Unfortunately many male coaches don’t understand the importance of nourishing the female body. An athlete as young as Mary needed more support and guidance and it’s heartbreaking that her team didn’t have female role models and a nutrition coach. I’ve been lucky to have positive support from women throughout my career and coaches who understand the importance of maintaining a healthy weight.

As a new coach, I vow to be a positive role model for the next generation of young women. Time and again in my career, I’ve seen how disordered eating habits can quickly break women with so much potential. That’s what inspired me to write cookbooks for female athletes. I hope I can help put an end to harmful body shaming in sports and teach coaches everywhere that food should be celebrated not feared.
At Bowerman we have created a culture that is safe, loving, caring and compassionate. We invest in one another and care deeply about each other’s well being and happiness.
We have leadership that holds us to the highest standards and the message is clear. It’s great to be fast, but better to be a great person.
November 10, 2019

Going back to Mary’s story—the reaction from the running world and from the public at large was, I think, momentous. It seemed to me like an outpouring of support, and also of other people stepping forward and saying this is the tip of the iceberg. Did you get that same sense, and is this the tip of an iceberg?

I think so. I think a lot of people thought this kind of abuse is just part of the sport. But because of the way Mary spoke so powerfully, and used specific language, and didn’t dance around it but called it what it was—people are thinking about their own experiences and realizing what it really was. That it was harmful, that it was not okay, that it’s not inherent to the post. That sports do not have to be that way.

And this is happening in the broader context of conversations we’ve all be having the last few years. This awakening to abuses of power and power dynamics, inside and outside of sports. 

Nike took a lot of criticism—and I think rightfully so—for their statement in response to Mary’s story. Let me read it:

“These are deeply troubling allegations which have not been raised by Mary or her parents before. Mary was seeking to rejoin the Oregon Project and Alberto’s team as recently as April of this year and had not raised these concerns as part of that process. We take the allegations extremely seriously and will launch an immediate investigation to hear from former Oregon Project athletes. At Nike we seek to always put the athlete at the center of everything we do, and these allegations are completely inconsistent with our values.”

Olympic runner Kara Goucher blasted Nike, writing on Twitter that the company was victim-shaming Mary. I think she’s right! What did you think of Nike’s response?

I’m glad you brought that up. To me it signaled, okay, there has not been a corporate culture change at Nike. Not yet. Because this did not get before someone who understands what it is like to be a victim of abuse. It came from a bully culture. If you have put out a statement like that, you clearly have not thought about Mary Cain as a person. You’re in defensive mode, and you’re going on the attack.

Nike says it will investigate accusations of abuse. What level of confidence should any of us have that it will be a real, hard-nosed, find-the-truth investigation, and not just a way for Nike to bury a bad story and avoid any potential legal liability?

It’s gotta be an independent investigation. It can’t be USA Track and Field. It can’t be Nike themselves. They have to hire an outside firm with no connections to the company, the culture, the sport. I think that is the only way to have a legit investigation.

I have no idea if we will see that. There has to be ongoing pressure from the outside. From what I understand, Nike won’t do that on their own.

Essentially, Mary was whistle-blowing. You’re a historian. History teaches us that things usually don’t turn out well for whistle-blowers, no matter how right they are or how important their message is. Mary says she plans “to be running for many years to come.” Is she going to be ostracized in the running world going forward?

It certainly helps that Alberto is serving a four-year ban [for doping violations]. He can’t be around track meets. And I think there will be a rallying around Mary. I hope so. 

Thinking about, historically, all the high school girls who were cast aside when they didn’t make it through, all the people whose names we have forgotten—well, the running community hasn’t forgotten those names. And I think that even people who are skeptical about Mary’s story—and they shouldn’t be!—I think they have the awareness that you can’t go after somebody who has shared that this has happened to them. I think potential critics will keep that to themselves. That would be good. It will crate a space for those who will embrace and help Mary if she continues to compete.

One more thing that really stood out to me about Nike’s response—because it reminded me of something we’ve seen in stories of physical and sexual abuse brought to light by the MeToo movement, something we’ve seen in stories about surviving and escaping cults, something we’ve seen across a wide spectrum of human existence. Nike noted that Mary was trying to rejoin Salazar and his Oregon Project this spring. Why? Well, Mary wrote that:

“I wanted closure, wanted an apology for never helping me when I was cutting, and in my own, sad, never-fully healed heart, wanted Alberto to still take me back. I still loved him. Because when we let people emotionally break us, we crave more than anything their very approval.”

I feel like this is the key psychological dynamic to all of this. That the core abuse here—the core betrayal of trust here—is the twisting, manipulating, and hijacking by Salazar, by other abusive coaches, by the bigger systems of exploitation around them, of the deeply fundamental and fundamentally healthy desire we all have to be accepted and loved. 

What do you think?

I totally agree. Steve Mangess [a former Oregon Project assistant coach] called the Oregon Project a cult.

It could be that Alberto believed that he cared about Mary. I don’t think that really matters. Regardless of whether he was doing what he did from a place where he thought he was helping, he obviously wasn’t and he should have known it. Especially when she told him everything that was going on.

Going back to that leaked USADA report, what you see is this strategic deployment of affection and withholding of affection by him. If you weren’t performing well or weren’t—in his mind—at the right weight, he would ignore you. But then if you won a race or lost a little weight, you were back in his good graces. That’s not good coaching. I don’t know what that is. It’s crazy not to talk to someone because they didn’t hit the times you wanted them to hit.

Athletes are so craving of that positive feedback. I think some coaches really believe withholding it, playing games with it, that is the way you get them to break through to the next level. So if we really think about Mary’s story and have the hard conversations we need to have about it, it’s going to force us to reconsider a lot of the practices of coaching that we think mean success in our sport. Just because some athletes are resilient and can handle that, it’s still exhausting for them. You shouldn’t be physically and psychologically exhausted from a hard workout. It’s not the right way to coach just because some athletes can survive it.


This has been Hreal Sports, a weekly-ish newsletter written by Patrick Hruby about sports things that don’t stick to sports. If you have any questions or feedback, contact me at my website, www.patrickhruby.net. And if you enjoyed this, please sign up and share with your friends.

Why James Wiseman and Memphis Should Tell the NCAA to Pound Sand

A lawyer who beat the association in court explains how the college hoops star and his school can do the same

Welcome to Hreal Sports, a weekly-ish newsletter written by Patrick Hruby about sports things that don’t stick to sports. Sign up and tell your friends!


University of Memphis basketball player James Wiseman has decided to fight the National Collegiate Athletic Association over his contested eligibility. But can his lawyers make a winning case in court?

Attorney Richard G. Johnson—who a decade ago beat the NCAA in a landmark court case while representing former Oklahoma State University pitcher Andy Oliver—believes so.

Last Friday, Wiseman sued the NCAA for ruling that he was “likely ineligible,” obtaining a temporary restraining order from a state judge that allowed him to play in a game that night against Illinois-Chicago.

At issue, according to reports, is the NCAA’s contention that Penny Hardaway likely broke association rules governing booster conduct by providing Wiseman’s family with $11,500 in moving expenses in 2017.

In 2008, Hardaway—a former Memphis player and NBA star who became the school’s basketball coach in March of 2018—made a $1 million contribution to the school to help build an athletic Hall of Fame.

Nine years later, Hardaway allegedly gave money to Wiseman’s mother, Donzaleigh Artis, to help her family move to from Nashville to Memphis.

At that time, Hardaway was the coach at a local high school where Wiseman ended up enrolling. Wiseman already had been playing for Team Penny, a Nike-sponsored AAU squad that Hardaway oversaw.

The NCAA reportedly has deemed Hardaway a Memphis booster because of his 2008 contribution to the school. The organization’s rules state that boosters are not permitted to recruit prospects or provide them with financial incentives or “benefits that were not previously provided.”

Wiseman’s attorneys are challenging the NCAA, and Memphis president M. David Rudd is publicly supporting the player, Hardaway, and the school’s basketball program. A court hearing to determine Wiseman’s eligibility reportedly has been scheduled for Nov. 18.

As Wiseman’s story unfolded over the weekend, Johnson posted a series of Tweets outlining how the potential top pick in the 2020 NBA Draft could win a case against the NCAA.

To better understand Johnson’s reasoning, Hreal Sports subsequently spoke to him.

(The following conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity).


Hreal Sports: A lot of the reporting around and reaction to the Wiseman story has hinged on the idea that while people may not like the NCAA’s rules—because they’re petty, dumb, immoral, or all of the above—those rules are still the rules. And those rules were clearly broken. 

But you’re saying not so fast—there’s a winning argument to be made that nobody involved in this case actually broke any NCAA rules. Do I have that right?

Johnson: Yes. I first responded to the guy who writes for The Athletic, Seth Davis. I tried to be polite. But I quoted what he said, and I said, “you don’t have any support for this. You’re wrong.”

If you skip everything and buy the NCAA’s whole storyline, then sure—people are guilty as sin! But you can’t do that. It’s like assuming someone is a killer and then asking, “will he get convicted?”

You can’t assume the predicate. You have to prove the predicate.

Let’s talk about that! The crux of the NCAA’s case against Wiseman seems to be:

  • Hardaway qualifies as a booster under the association’s definition of the term;

  • Hardaway did something boosters aren’t allowed to do, which was to give Wiseman’s mother money to move to Memphis while Hardaway was a high school coach. 

You argue that Hardaway isn’t actually a booster under the NCAA’s own definition. Why not?

The way I understand it, Hardaway didn’t give money to a booster club or the athletic department. He gave money to the University of Memphis to pay for an athletic hall of fame. Where does it say in the NCAA’s rules that giving money to a university makes you a booster?

This reflects how imprecise the NCAA’s rules are. It’s impossible to give money to an athletic department, because athletic departments are generally not legal entities. They are part of universities, which [themselves] are organized as charitable nonprofits under the IRS tax code.

Alternately, if you’ve created an athletic department that is legally separate from a school, then functionally that department is no longer part of the NCAA—because they no longer are under the governance and control of that university’s president.

(Hreal Sports note: the NCAA’s website defines a booster as anyone who has:

  • Provided a donation in order to obtain season tickets for any sport at the university.

  • Participated in or has been a member of an organization promoting the university’s athletics programs.

  • Made financial contributions to the athletic department or to a university booster organization.

  • Arranged for or provided employment for enrolled student-athletes.

  • Assisted or has been requested by university staff to assist in the recruitment of prospective student-athletes.

  • Assisted in providing benefits to enrolled student athletes or their families.

  • Been involved otherwise in promoting university athletics.)

And let’s look at the reason the NCAA’s booster definition and rules exist in the first place. What are they trying to prevent? Recruiting violations and improper benefit violations that a university can’t do on its own, so they do it through a secret network of boosters—basically, people giving money to players so they’ll go to a particular school.

Well, what is an athletic hall of fame? It doesn’t do anything for recruiting. It’s alumni tool. It does a lot for alumni! It gives them a reason to come back to campus. A reason to invite other alumni who may have been of a certain athletic caliber where you could put them into that hall. 

Once you do that, you reestablish a connection with those alumni. And now it’s a fundraising tool for your school. My high school does this. Any smart prep school or college or university does this. These halls of fame are affinity tools to increase alumni affinity to the school—to extend the connection that has been broken or lessened through the passage of time.

The alumni department, the endowment department, the planned giving department—whatever you call at at a particular school, before you can get alumni to give you money, they have to love you. How do you get them to love you? Have a little ceremony. How many alumni won’t come back for their induction? And if they are wealthy, they’ll do a dinner and tour the campus and see the present, and then at some point the school will ask, “will you include us in your will?”

Everything Penny did with that donation has nothing to do with athletic recruiting—and everything to do with alumni affinity, the school’s endowment, and so on. I don’t expect the NCAA to understand those concepts. But I do.

You also wrote that the NCAA’s definition of “booster” isn’t enforceable. What do you mean by that, and why not?

For a court—or for the NCAA—to enforce a booster rule, you have to know who a booster is. You can’t have a definition that is so vague that there is no threshold for it, which in this case means no minimum amount of giving. There has to be a threshold. Otherwise anybody who attends a college game and pays a dollar is now a booster. So every sports fan that attends a college event is now a booster. 

That’s obviously not what was meant when the NCAA’s rules were written, and it doesn’t serve the purposes of what they were trying to stop. But a rule that puts everybody in the category of the criminal is void for vagueness on its face. That is how a court would look at it. It’s so over-inclusive that it has no meaning.

Another way that there’s no threshold, and how you don’t know who a booster actually is? Just for argument’s sake, let’s assume Penny was a booster back in 2008 when he gave money to the University of Memphis. When does he cease becoming a booster? The term booster implies a current intent to act on behalf of the school. If Penny doesn’t give money in 2009, can you infer current intent? Maybe. What about 2010, 2011, 2012, all the way to 2018? If he doesn’t give money, can you say that? When does the booster definition wear off?

This all goes back to what the booster rules are designed to identity. They are designed to identify someone who is going to circumvent NCAA rules to help athletic departments with recruiting and improper benefits. Giving a charitable contribution to the university to build a building is so f—king far away from what the booster rules are all about—especially nine years later.

Moving on from the NCAA’s definition of booster, you write that even if Hardaway qualifies, he didn’t violate the actual NCAA bylaws that regulate booster behavior. What’s the argument there?

Okay, say in 2008 that Penny was a booster, and nine years later he is still a booster. Unless it is a recruiting violation, it doesn’t matter that he gave Wiseman’s family money in 2017. The booster has to violate a NCAA rule. If Penny was in a car on the highway, you can’t pull him over and say, ‘you are a booster and you were speeding.’ You have to be able to show, “I clocked you doing 75 [miles per hour] with a speed gun.’

So, did Penny engage in illegal recruiting by giving the money? In my opinion, no way, no how. He never recruited James in 2017 to attend Memphis. He wasn’t the coach at Memphis. He was coaching high school basketball! And even if that had violated high school athletic association rules—I’m not aware that it did—that doesn’t violate NCAA rules.

Moreover, James was not enrolled in college. So it was not an improper benefit under NCAA rules.

And let’s not forget the context here. From what I have read, Penny is a very generous person. His reputation in Memphis is kind of as a one-man charity. James’ mother is not the only person he has helped. Most of his players when he was a high school and AAU coach were steered away from Memphis, not toward it. If he was a cog in their recruiting wheel, you would have expected to see an unusual stream of players going from his organizations to Memphis. But you don’t see that. There’s no evidence of that. Which also goes back to the question, is he a booster?

We’re taking about Wiseman, Memphis, and Hardaway playing defense against the NCAA. You write that they could play legal offense, too—that all three have actionable claims against the NCAA for breach of contract and tortious interference with contract. In addition, you write that Wiseman’s mother has a claim for invasion of privacy. Can you explain what those claims are and how they potentially apply here?

Sure. Start with James. The contract he has that would be breached is the contract between the NCAA and Memphis, to which he is a third-party beneficiary. That means the NCAA has a duty of good faith and fair dealing that applies to him. That duty is violated if the NCAA acts in an arbitrary and capricious manner.

Well, arbitrarily and capriciously deciding—for no good reason on Earth!—that a charitable contribution in 2008 makes Penny a booster, and that James’ mother’s receipt of a gift when her son had no intention of going to Memphis violates NCAA rules qualifies. The NCAA just made it up.

James’ interference with contract claim is based on the NCAA interfering with his contract with Memphis. His right to attend the school and avail himself of every opportunity that Memphis can offer and chooses to offer. He has a contractual right to play basketball if he qualifies. And he does qualify. And the rules violations the NCAA is alleging are fake. They’re saying that it’s a plausible claim, but it’s not.

Penny’s claims are the same as James’. He is a third-party beneficiary to a contract between the NCAA and Memphis. By making up this essentially false allegation that he is a booster who has violated either recruiting or impermissible benefit rules, the NCAA is failing to act in good faith. The NCAA is also interfering with his coaching contract with Memphis. 

Memphis has a claim against the NCAA for trying to interfere with its basketball program. Again, the NCAA is required to act in good faith and deal fairly with Memphis—but by making up claims about player and coaches, it hasn’t. And it has damaged the school’s ability to compete this year in basketball. It also has brought adverse publicity to Memphis, possibly harming the school’s future ability to fundraise and recruit. There’s just a litany of ways the NCAA’s unfair dealing could affect the program.

James’ mom has an invasion of privacy claim. The NCAA has no right to publicize and disclose that she got help to move because she presumably couldn’t afford it herself. Think about that. She wants to move her family to be closer to James’ sister in Memphis and allow her son to move to a private school where he can be coached by a former NBA star. She is doing what she can for her kid! Is it fair to her that the whole world now knows her personal financial situation and that you and I are discussing it? I would say no. 

My parents got divorced when I was young. My mom taught school. Times were tough. I remember her crying about it. Being a single mother is f—king hard. When you don’t have money and feel like you have to provide for your kids—it is devastating. You feel not good enough. So I think that James’ mom is a big part of this. She’s collateral damage. The NCAA is making her seem like a criminal. This is just a mom trying to do the best she could for her son. I’ve never met her, and I don’t know much about her. But human nature being what it is, I can’t imagine she is not appalled by all of this. And embarrassed. We’re programmed in this country that if you don’t have money, it’s your fault. So there’s a shame associated with it, too. If you asked for a loan because you were out of money, would you want that circulating around? What if that was being discussed on radio and TV?

While we’re talking about James’ mom, we should talk about the legal concept of impossibility.

Okay. What’s that, and how does it apply here?

The law doesn’t allow anything that is impossible. For instance, you cannot legally make a child responsible in the future for their parents’ actions now. That concept has been forgotten here. The NCAA rules in this case are attempting to condition the eligibility of a young adult on something that somebody else did when that young adult was a child—and had no ability to control anything. That is not legally enforceable!

Regarding the claims we just discussed, you write that they would be “tried in state court in Memphis, and the NCAA would get hammered.” Why?

I’ve been a trial lawyer for 30 years. I know how juries respond to information. A David versus Goliath situation where you have the NCAA—which is largely white—picking on two black guys and a black lady without any cause at all, attempting to interfere with their ability to be successful in this world? As long as you don’t get any Proud Boys on your jury, in my opinion, in this world, they’re going to f—king kill the NCAA.

I sue lawyers for a living. The people I sue huff and puff the whole way to trial, but once we get there, they want to talk settlement and write big checks. They don’t want to take the risk with a jury. Because people hate lawyers. Well, people hate the NCAA. You just have to tell a cohesive story to a jury. A story that is factually true, but also creates emotion. You don’t want to—or have to—overstate it. Just state it so the jury gets mad on their own. If you do it right, they almost always do. 

Here, you have a poor black family trying to make it. A wealthy black basketball coach who is charitable and an example of success. And the NCAA is trying to bring them all down. If you just lay out how these people are being treated by a Goliath who wants to stomp on them, that is hatable. 

Plus, because this would be tried in Memphis, you’ll have a local jury—and from what I saw with my Twitter thread blowing up, if you get a cross-section of people in Memphis on the jury, they might physically hang the NCAA. These people are pissed!

You’re speaking from a place of personal experience—a decade ago, you represented former Oklahoma State pitcher Andy Oliver in a high-profile and pretty consequential eligibility case against the NCAA. What lessons did you learn from that experience that you think would be helpful to other people taking on the NCAA in court?

Lesson No. 1: the NCAA is the system. They come into court with national lawyers who have handled their cases for 20 years. They almost always win. They have a strategy of what has won before. And they almost always go against someone representing a player who is a first-timer who has never done one of these cases, because most players can’t afford to hire a big-time law firm that has people flying all around the country handing all of their cases.

So what the NCAA does is file these big, thick briefs that overwhelm the players’ lawyers. And more importantly, they overwhelm the judges. They file so much f—king paper that the judges just want those cases out of their courts. It’s too much work!

But here’s the thing. The NCAA lies. They did this in the Oliver case like 100 times. Lied and lied and lied. They would say that something in another case said one thing, and if actually you went and read it, 95 percent of the time it didn’t say that! Whether the NCAA’s lawyers believe their own bulls—t or just think they can get away with it, I don’t know. But that killed them in the end. All you have to do is go read everything and start chipping away at their credibility. And then the judge stops listening to them.

The other larger lesson is that the NCAA will come into court and say, “sure, people are upset here, and people always complain about us. But we’re just a membership organization. We are like mom, apple pie, and [Chevrolet]. We’re just the umpire here, trying to do our job to stop cheating. Aw shucks, don’t pick on us.”

Judges are programmed to accept that. They are very receptive to law and order arguments. So you have to deprogram the judge. You have to explain what the NCAA really is. Explain how much money there is in college sports. Explain that while they say they are doing this all for the kids and for education, while their PR and advertising has said that for decades, they also say in court they have nothing to do with education. You have to show that they created the term “student-athlete” to fool everybody so that injured football players can’t get workers’ comp, because that would cost the NCAA’s member schools too much money. Think about how insidious that is!

You have to change the narrative from law-and-order, good guy umpire to rich white people who don’t give a s—t about the black labor on the field.

Part of the reason the NCAA has been so successful over the years, and that’s also true in court, is that they actually have subliminally programmed people to believe their bulls—t. That’s why I call it deprogramming. Every time I would see the judge in the Oliver case, I would have to deprogram him from all the crap talking points the NCAA would keep repeating from our last meeting with him. 

Let’s get back to the Wiseman case. You praised Memphis president David Rudd for standing up to the NCAA. Is that unusual for a school president to do? Why do you think he’d doing it?

Not only is it unusual—it’s unique. I’m not aware of any college present or athletic director at the beginning of an investigation ever taking this kind of position, other than the Texas A&M chancellor in the Johnny Manziel case. And that was purely political. If he had suspended Manziel, he no longer would have been the chancellor. Texas lives for football!

Anyway, what people don’t understand is that the NCAA is run by a concept of presidential control. Only the schools can suspend athletes. The presidents usually try to stay out of these matters and delegate them to their athletic directors and NCAA rules compliance people because they are time-intensive and confrontational. They’re like family law matters. 

It’s not a win for a president to take on the NCAA—they threaten their own members. They are run as a dictatorship out of Indianapolis. Unless you sit on your hands and say, “thank you, spank me again,” they are going to retaliate against you. I think they wear schools and everyone else down.

That’s why I’ve said that this is a watershed moment. The reason to take this stand is to say—and this comes in the context of everything going on nationally with the NCAA—that enough is enough. I am Dr. Rudd. I’m the president of his university. Some bureaucrat in Indianapolis made this decision. But this organization is organized around presidential control. In the end, I get to make the decision. If the NCAA thinks I’m wrong, then file a major infractions case against me.

The tail has been wagging the dog for too long. I think these college presidents are sick of it. If Rudd is wiling to go to the wall on this, other college presidents will see that. 

You can only go against the NCAA when you are 100 percent right. This is one of those cases. You have a poor black woman moving from Nashville to Memphis to better her son’s life—to help him, an unpolished diamond of a basketball player, have an opportunity to get cut and polished. You have Penny’s generosity, doing something good out of the goodness of his heart. And the NCAA is going to try to say that this is wrong and then shoehorn this into some bulls—t definition of a booster with an allegation of misconduct that is provably, demonstrably false? Go f—k yourself.

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The Racial Divide Over NCAA Athlete NIL Pay

Whites are less likely than African-Americans to support college athletes profiting from their names, images, and likenesses

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When it comes to support for college athletes being allowed to profit from the commercial use of their names, images, and likenesses (NILs), race matters.

That’s the conclusion of new social science research by University of Massachusetts, Amherst political science professor Tatishe Nteta and his colleagues, who have found that whites are less likely than African-Americans to approve of athletes cashing in on their NILs—and that white disapproval is strongly influenced by negative attitudes towards blacks.

Analyzing polling results from the 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), Nteta and company found that a majority of the American public (58 percent) supports permitting college athletes to capitalize on their NILs—something that the National Collegiate Athletic Association claims to be considering following the recent passage of a California law, scheduled to go into effect in 2023, that would prevent the association and its members from punishing the state’s campus athletes for receiving NIL compensation.

Yet within that 58 percent majority exists a significant racial divide: 70 percent of African-Americans support California’s approach, while only 56 percent of whites do.

Moreover, the more racially resentful whites are of African-Americans—and the more they overestimate the percentage of black athletes participating in college sports—the less likely they are to support allowing NIL compensation.

None of this comes as a surprise. In previous research, Nteta and his colleagues have found that:

  • Whites are more likely than blacks to oppose college athlete pay-for-play.

  • Harboring negative racial views about blacks is the single strongest predictor of white opposition to paying athletes—more important than age, education level, political affiliation, sports fandom, or even if respondents have played college sports themselves.

  • The more negatively white respondents feel about blacks, the more they oppose pay-for-play.

  • Racially resentful whites who are primed to think about African-American athletes before answering questions are more likely to oppose paying athletes than racially resentful whites who are primed to think about white athletes.

To get a better sense of how this sort of social science research works—and what its conclusions might mean for state and federal lawmakers trying to build public support for college athlete NIL legislation—Hreal Sports spoke to Nteta.

(The following conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity).

Hreal Sports: Much of your research uses the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES). For those who are unfamiliar, what is that, and in what ways do you and your team get to use it?

Nteta: The CCES is a bi-annual, online survey of 60,000 Americans. It has a list of questions regarding demographics of the respondents and their political attitudes. Researchers like us can use that information as a baseline, but what makes it unique is we also can buy in to the survey to ask more specific questions.

So in 2014, 2016, and 2018, we’ve been able to ask samples ranging from 1,000 to 2,500 people questions about the NCAA, racial prejudice, perceptions of college sports, and the like. We can delve more deeply into the reasons people oppose and support college athletes being paid, being able to unionize, and being able to profit off their names, images, and likenesses.

You found that 58 percent of Americans support college athletes being able to profit from the use of their names, images, and likenesses—but that same support divides strongly along racial lines when you compare whites and African-Americans. What kind of divide are we talking about?

The thing to note is like many issues that have racial undertones, there is a divide here between African-Americans and whites—but the divide over NILs is actually much smaller than the divide we’ve found over paying college athletes salaries in addition to the scholarships.

The other and more important thing to note is that a majority of whites also support college athletes being able to profit off NILs. It’s just that an overwhelming majority of African-Americans support it, too.

This finding is unique, based on our previous polling. With pay-for-play or unionization, you find that whites are more likely to oppose those changes, and African-Americans are on the side of supporting them.

Your research seeks to understand why this racial divide exists. What were your guesses going in, and how did you investigate that?

We thought that on this issue [NILs], when people think about the beneficiaries of this change in NCAA policy, the group they believe will benefit the most are African-Americans.

We based that on our previous work on perceptions of college athletes and the beneficiaries of NCAA policy changes. We’ve found that in the minds of most Americans, when they think who is poised to financially benefit from things like pay-for-play, they think about young, African-American men. And to some extent, that reflects who college athletes are, especially in the revenue-generating sports of men’s basketball and football.

So, for some people, this implicitly and explicitly activates their racial considerations.

Such as?

African-Americans have historically been shown to look at the political and social arena thinking about their group more than themselves. So they’re looking at NCAA policy changes as something where not only individual members of their group will benefit, but also there could be community benefits as well.

If you have young, African-American men suddenly making money on par with professional athletes, that is a perceived good for the African-American community. Racial group identity influences their support for these policies.

For whites, we think that race matters—it matters for a portion of white respondents in that their negative attitudes toward African-Americans precludes them from expressing support for the same policies.

I want to unpack those attitudes, but before we do that, do you have any guesses why allowing NIL payments in particular enjoys more support from whites than other proposed changes to NCAA amateurism restrictions?

Yes! We also think that part of this story is a connection with beliefs about how the market should operate. These athletes being taken advantage of by not being allowed to profit off their own fame—we think that for some whites, this violates their beliefs about how people should be able to benefit from their labor.

Another interesting part of this is that NILs don’t raise the same questions that you see with pay-for-play, which we define as a salary in addition to a scholarship. Every time I talk about these issues, there’s always what about Title IX? What about swimmers? What about the backup long snapper?

With NILs, the answer is always the market. The market will define who will benefit and who won’t. Moreover, if you think about past athletes who have attempted to skirt NIL rules, one of the big examples who comes to mind is [former Texas A&M quarterback] Johnny Manziel. So white athletes benefitting from NILs comes to mind in this discussion.

But we haven’t tested any of this yet. We are planning to on the 2020 CCES. There are ways to do it.

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Part of your research involves measuring racial attitudes in three specific categories: racial resentment, white privilege, and belief in structural racism. Can you explain what those categories mean and how you measure them?

Sure. Racial resentment purports to be a measurement of racial prejudice, focused primarily on prejudice toward African-Americans. This prejudice is affective and emotional, and it’s also critical of attempts by African-Americans to use the federal government to attain social and economic equality.

So what we’ll do is ask questions that put forward statements with agree or disagree responses, like: The legacy of slavery has adversely affected African-Americans today. Or: Generations of slavery and discrimination have crated conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.

Those who agree are not viewed as resentful. Those who disagree are.

To measure white privilege, we’ll use agree-disagree statements like: White people in the United States have certain advantages because of the color of their skin. With structural racism, it’s statements such as: Racial problems in the United States are rare, isolated situations.

There are a number of questions like this. Traditionally, they’ve been used in research to get at underlying negative views, simple ways to get at something that is really difficult to measure—group-based animus toward African-Americans.

Why is that hard to get at?

Psychologists have found for decades that expressing out-group hostility and in-group favoritism is a consistent effect of living in societies with scarce resources. But people don't want to reveal their negative views toward other groups—they’re aware that they shouldn’t have these feelings.

Nobody wants to raise their hand and say, “it’s me, I’m the racist.”

Right. That leaves us doing the best we can.

You write that these are common—but also contentious—measures within social science research. Where else are they used, and what makes them contentious?

Generally speaking, they’ve been used in the past to explain white opposition to racialized policies—policies that for whatever reason are linked to non-white groups. Take affirmative action. Racial resentment has found to be the strongest predictor of white opposition to it. The same for busing [to integrate schools].

In fact, a lot of this work grew out of trying to explain why busing became such a widespread debate among whites. While people who didn’t even have children were yelling and screaming about busing. Their opposition wasn’t based in immediate, personal self-interest. So what was it about?

You see the same dynamic when it comes to welfare and crime. These issues on their face are not necessary about African-Americans—but they are understood by the majority of the population to have African-Americans as the main beneficiaries or targets of the policies.

As for what makes this contentious, these measures were crafted in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They rejected a particular time in America. We’re not there now. And some of our measures haven’t really changed with the times. So people have criticized that.

And that’s not the only reason, right?

People also look at whether responses to these measures can be divorced from a person’s political ideology. What I mean is, your answer to a question might not have anything to do with how you view black people, but rather how your view history or the government.

For example, say you get an agree-disagree statement like: Irish, Italians, Jewish people, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.

I can believe—based on my reading of the history of the U.S.—that this is true, that in a simplistic reading of history, these groups did this by pulling their bootstraps up.

Now, African-Americans clearly do not have the same immigration background! But I could believe that as a group, if they begin to reflect the hard work of these other groups, they can achieve the same level of success—and also have positive views of the African-American community.

Or look at the words “special favors.” What are those? In large part, the understanding of that is governmental intervention. Well, if I don’t like the government jumping into society, my answer my have nothing to do with a hatred of black people.

We have newer measures with not as much controversy around them. But I think that people will begin to question those, too—whether they count for negative attitudes toward African-Americans or are simply just registering pride within and of the [white] racial group. A statement like, There is no racism, we live in a post-racial America—you could actually just believe that and love black people!

Churchill had an old statement that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others.” In a way, these are the worst measures of racial prejudice—except everything else we’ve attempted.

Let’s get back to your college athlete NIL study. First, you found that people overestimate the proportion of college athletes that are black relative to the actual racial demographics of NCAA Division I athletes. How much overestimating are we talking about—and why do you think that’s the case?

We asked our respondents to say what percentage of all college athletes—not just athletes in the revenue-generating sports—are white, black, latino, or other.

The idea was, if you think about that, that of course, the majority of athletes are going to be white. Because the overwhelming number of sports under the NCAA are sports that have historically favored whites for reasons of race, economics, and social class.

But what we found is that both African-Americans and whites overestimate the number of African-American college athletes. Whites thought African-Americans made up 47 percent of college athletes and that whites made up 39 percent—but in reality, African-Americans are 21 percent and whites are 57 percent of all athletes.

We believe this reflects the dominance of the revenue sports, where the athletes are predominantly African-American—you say the word college athlete, and what comes to people’s minds is a young black man in two sports. Even though the reality is that the entire group of athletes is much more diverse, and that the opportunity to benefit from your NIL is going to help white athletes, too. A cross-country runner can do a commercial. A swimmer in the summertime can give lessons and get paid.

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So next, you take that finding—what whites believe about the racial makeup of NCAA athletes, and how black that makeup is—and compare it to the racial attitudes of those same whites. What did you find?

What we found—and this is controlling for all the things we think would be important to attitudes toward NILs, like age, education level, political party affiliation—was that those whites who have the most negative views of African-Americans and overestimate the percentage of African-American college athletes are the ones who express the most opposition to allowing athletes to profit from their NILs.

There’s an interaction there. It’s impacting their attitudes toward this policy change.

If I’m a state legislator or someone in Congress who is working to pass a college athlete NIL bill, what lessons should I take from your work and how should I apply them?

The take-home point of our work is that we now know that this issue regarding the NCAA and college athletes has become racialized.

In making the case for supporting NIL laws, a number of the members of the California legislature, and even the [state’s] governor, made an explicit connection with race. Our research suggests that doing so may have some negative effects. If you want to mobile the most support for the policy, you may not want to highlight the racial component.

Instead, put the emphasis on justice, fairness, and rights—but not race. Let that be the undercurrent. People already get the racial part implicitly. African-Americans don’t need to be told. Meanwhile, in order to mobilize a solid majority of voter support, you need to mobilize white support.

We haven’t tested this idea in our research yet. But we think the fact that someone like Mitt Romney coming out in support of this—we think he’s not responding to the racial component. He is responding to the fairness issues.

You’ve been studying attitudes toward NCAA athlete compensation—and the racial attitudes that influence them—for a couple of years. What kind movement, if any, have you seen? Have attitudes changed?

Over time, what we have seen for all Americans is a steady increase in support for NIL changes. And you see the same increase over time among whites and African-Americans.

If you want to look toward the future—the California law, the laws in other states, the potential federal law—public opinion is moving toward widespread support. That is why you see the NCAA beginning to recognize that they need to step up, or else these changes will be made for them.

How do you explain those changes—what’s driving them? 

Great question. We don’t have data that explains it. But we have suspicions. The first thing is one of the reasons we came to the project. Since 2010, we’ve seen quite an increase in the revenues that college sports enjoys. It was always profitable, but with the explosion in March Madness and College Football Championship money, it has become astronomically profitable. Coaches’ salaries, contracts with shoe companies, spending by universities on stadiums and practice facilities, all have exploded.

What didn’t change alongside that was sharing of any of this wealth with players.

Second, athletes have begun to speak about this. Not just pros like [NBA player] Draymond Green and [NFL player] Richard Sherman. But also college athletes like Shabazz Napier form UConn. Or the Ben Simmons at LSU documentary. They’re making the case that the system is unfair. You had Johnny Manziel being penalized for attempting to use his notoriety to be paid. You see athletes stating they will not play in bowl games, and taking control of their financial futures.

Then you have the Ed O’Bannon case laying bare how the NCAA has profited off the NILs of college athletes. You have political elites talking about these issues. You have the issue of race coming into this, with Bomani Jones, Jemele Hill, Howard Bryant, and yourself (Hreal Sports note: we’re flattered) talking about these issues.

This all interacts to get to a point where people now are more informed about these issues—and are being provided with solutions to this particular problem. They’re beginning to see the case for changing the status quo relative to maintaining it.

Now, things haven’t changed completely. Financial compensation for athletes—salaries—in addition to scholarships is not supported by a majority of people. But you see changes on NILs, unionization, profit-sharing for broadcast revenue. I bet if we asked a question about sneaker deals in the future—based on Zion [Williamson] losing a shoe at Duke—we’d see more support there as well.

Going forward, the movement is all toward more progressive attitudes on these issues. I think the NCAA recognizes this. I assume they have folks polling on this. With NILs, regardless of race or partisanship, an increasing majority of Americans support allowing athletes this one benefit. So the NCAA can either lead or get out of the way. Thats where we are at.

We’ve been discussing the NCAA, but in some ways I feel as though the racial divide we see in attitudes toward college athletes mirrors the racial divides in our current politics. There’s a fear of change with both. Is there a connection there, and what exactly is going on?

What researchers are finding in Trump’s America is that people are like, “yeah, we are in a fight, and I increasingly need to protect my group’s benefits. And my group is white people.” There is a researcher at Duke University who has found that this was happening even before Trump began his run for president, in response to demographic changes, and reports of those changes, and the election of Obama, and fundamental changes in the way we operate in the world.

Remember how MTV didn’t show black people for a very long time? Black people were on the periphery of mainstream culture. Now American culture and black culture are almost synonymous in ways they weren’t in the past. And I think that makes people some recognize—and be fearful—of what is coming. Out groups are no longer going to be on the periphery or be silenced. That is a fundamental change to how politics and social relations are going to work in America.

I think what Trump has done is tap into fear about that. And he’s also activated this ability to be proud about your racial group among whites.

Going forward, this will be one of the central issues that the nation has to face. How and whether we will be able to truly integrate—not just politics, but social relations and economic understandings, and what that will mean for the groups that that have benefited from the status quo for centuries.

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More to the Story

It’s NCAA NIL week at Hreal Sports! Here’s everything I’ve written so far—click the links and enjoy:

The NCAA Isn't Surrendering on Athlete NILs

Why an announcement on "modernizing" amateurism rules is the beginning—not the end—of a fight

Yet while the NCAA’s announcement was made under obvious duress—essentially, a legislative gun to the head—it’s anything but a white flag. Rather than signaling a willingness to stop stealing from college athletes by recognizing that they have the same personal property rights to their own names, images, and likenesses as everyone else in America, the association is attempting to maintain control. Fine, the NCAA is saying, we’ll let athletes get something more for their NILs. But only in a manner that we—an unelected group of university administrators and suits in Indianapolis—see fit.

To put things another way, the association is preparing to do what it always has done. Chisel athletes out. Dollar by dollar, bylaw by bylaw, condition by condition, until the schools keep all of the power and almost all of the money, while somehow the athletes who do the actual on-field work that makes college sports so damn lucrative are supposed to feel gratitude for the crumbs they’re permitted to receive.

“The NCAA Empire Strikes Back”

Why California’s college athlete endorsement law may not be a game-changer

“I think [the California law] is a bunch of bulls—t,” says Richard Johnson, an Ohio-based attorney who represented former Oklahoma State pitcher Andrew Oliver in a landmark 2009 case against the NCAA

“The NCAA knows that it can sit back and do nothing for the next four years, because the law doesn’t go into effect until then. Then when there’s a lawsuit, they can kick the can down the road for another decade. That’s what they’ve always done.”

“Strength in Numbers”

Group licensing for college athlete NILs could restore EA Sports' football game—and much more

On Monday, the National College Players Association (NCPA), the nation’s largest campus athletes’ rights group, announced that it has entered into a partnership with a marketing subsidiary of the NFL Players Association, REP Worldwide, to explore how to maximize NIL rights, with the ultimate intention of providing group licensing representation to “every college athlete whose state passes a law to allow it.”

Among the areas the NCPA and REP Worldwide intend to explore? Merchandise, gaming, and broadcast revenues.

The latter would be a big freakin’ deal.


The Immortal Life of Deadspin

Deadspin is done. Perhaps you’ve heard. The web’s premium destination for shit-stirring, muck-raking, guy-remembering, bear-celebrating—I could go on for a very long time; the site truly contained content multitudes—very good blogs went out in a blaze of glorious solidarity last week, with its mass resignin’ staff flipping their private equity vampire overlords a series of delightful (and delightfully fitting) birds on their way out the door.

This sucks. I’m bummed for my friends who worked there and for everyone else who’s out of a job; I’m bummed about all of the great pieces I’ll never get to read: I’m bummed over the loss of a shop where the love, pride, and sheer, giddy give-a-shit of the people who made it on a daily basis bled through the screen; I’m bummed because I don’t expect Politico to adopt the BIG WET PRESIDENT tag.

Many people have written many smart things about what we’ve lost. There isn’t much more I can add. But I do know this: Deadspin’s unique and refreshing sensibility will live on. It will live on with its editors and writers, of course, wherever they go and whatever they do next (I expect great and enjoyable stuff). It will live on with a readership that now expects as much. And it will absolutely live on through all the ways it already has influenced journalism and will continue to influence whatever comes next. This section is over!


Department of Shameless Self-Promotion

I published a very weird—and very fun—piece on the physics and biomechanics of, uh, basketball flopping. Link below:

“Inside the six-figure project to solve the mystery of NBA flopping,” The Guardian

Could a group of scientists help refs by figuring out when basketball stars were acting? Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wanted to find out ...

Ken Clark did it for science.

It was 2014, and Clark, then a doctoral student at Southern Methodist University, was part of a biomechanics group tasked by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban with studying – and perhaps fixing – flopping, basketball’s dark, daffy art of fooling referees into calling fouls that aren’t.

Like all researchers, the SMU team needed data. Specifically, collision data. The underlying idea, Clark tells the Guardian, was “what if we just imagine people like billiard balls and go from there?” And that’s how Clark, his colleagues, and some hardy student volunteers found themselves in a campus lab, slamming each other off their feet, over and over again, as sensors captured every pileup.

My mother is a longtime physics and astronomy professor. Hopefully this piece makes her something adjacent to proud—and barring that, I hope I didn't screw anything up.


Department of Corrections

A long time ago in a journalism graduate school far, far away—Northwestern University, circa 1999—I spent the first two weeks of my intro quarter getting Fs for misspelling names and/or making extremely minor (but no less real) factual errors. Looks like I’ve unlearned what I’ve learned!

  • A previous edition of Hreal Sports identified California Attorney General Xavier Beccera as “Javier.” ARRRRRRGH! By which I mean: Apologies to Xavier for the error.

  • A previous edition of Hreal Sports stated that California’s new college athlete NIL law:

    … prevents college athletes from signing NIL deals that are “in conflict with a provision of the athlete’s team contract.”

    In other words, if Stanford’s basketball team is outfitted by Nike, then its point guard can’t sign a shoe deal with Adidas.

    Robert Gammon—communications director/policy adviser to California state Sen. Nancy Skinner, the bill’s author—wrote in to clarify that the law:

    does not include a full ban on college athletes signing sponsorship deals that conflict with their school's deal—rather, it only bars a college athlete from signing a deal that conflicts with a school's deal that governs official team activities.

    In other words, if a school has a deal with Nike, an athlete can still sign a deal with Adidas, but they can't wear Adidas during a game or practice -- only during their free time. Here is the exact language in the new law:

    "A team contract of a postsecondary educational institution’s athletic program shall not prevent a student athlete from using the athlete’s name, image, or likeness for a commercial purpose when the athlete is not engaged in official team activities."

    Hreal Sports appreciates the clarification.


We Here For You

Reader email! Kelly Ford writes:

I appreciate your writing and reporting and your willingness to expose the facts behind much of what we hear.

I think it is fundamentally wrong that college athletes do not get their share of the pie.  Here in Madison, countless businesses along with all the jobs in the athletic department benefit from what goes on every football Saturday as I'm sure you know.

I am curious though about one area.  All the different talk about athletes being able to sign deals and such, doesn't seem to address one thing.  Namely, great athlete X can sign a deal to use his or her likeness and such.  But doesn't the university still own the images/likeness of the team logo and university?  Maybe this is too simplistic but what stops a university from saying great show up all you want but our logo and such can never appear.

BTW, on your contact pages there is a typo in the link for work inquiries.

Thank you for all your content.  If there are ways for readers to support you financially please let me know.

Ack! Another typo. Hreal Sports needs a copy editor. Anyway, thank you for the kind words.

As for the actual question, it’s a good one. The short answer is that great athlete X and their school likely could make more money by partnering up for deals.

Take Wisconsin football. The team’s star RB is very likely worth more to a local car dealer appearing in a TV commercial wearing his Badgers jersey than wearing a generic red-and-white one.

Could the school’s athletic department refuse to participate in said ad? Sure. But why sit on the sideline when it could instead join the game and collect cash, an activity that school athletic departments very much seem to enjoy?

Regarding financial support, Hreal Sports is free. The impetus behind the newsletter is simple: as a freelancer, I make a living with a mix of journalism (which you see) and corporate editing and writing work (which you mostly don’t).

In many ways, the latter buys me the opportunity to do the former. And that’s great! But it also takes time to do right by my corporate clients—time that I don’t have to report, write, and send out bunches of detailed freelance journalism pitches to busy editors who in turn may or may not have time to read them, let alone give them a thumbs up or down.

Only here’s the thing: I’ve been an enterprise writer for 20 years. Over that time, I’ve built up a lot of knowledge, sources, reporting, and story ideas. More stuff than I could ever fully pursue, even with a full-time job doing just that. (Note: very few of those jobs exist, anymore). Anyway, it kills me inside to just sit on that stuff. It’s just the way I’m wired.

This newsletter is a way to put some of that stuff out into the world—so long as I can fit it around my paid work. I’m giving my best effort, but you’re only getting what I can spare. As such, I haven’t considered asking readers for money.

Now, if money is something people want to give me in exchange for the newsletter, fantastic! That would buy me more time to spend on it, which in turn would make for better and more frequent articles.

So: If paid subscriptions are something I should consider at some point in the future, you all should let me know—and especially let me know what would make Hreal Sports worth your hard-earned money.

If nothing else, this newsletter is resolutely anti-amateurism.

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This has been Hreal Sports, a weekly-ish newsletter written by Patrick Hruby about sports things that don’t stick to sports. If you have any questions or feedback, contact me at my website, www.patrickhruby.net. And if you enjoyed this, please sign up and share with your friends. 

The NCAA Isn't Surrendering on Athlete NILs

Why an announcement on "modernizing" amateurism rules is the beginning—not the end—of a fight

Welcome to Hreal Sports, a weekly newsletter written by Patrick Hruby about sports things that don’t stick to sports. Sign up and tell your friends!


In the television show Succession, there’s a scene in which media mogul Logan Roy—a power-obsessed sociopath played with delightful aplomb by the actor Brian Cox—is negotiating to buy a bundle of local television stations from some other business guy.

The other guy wants to sell. And he’s satisfied with price that Logan is offering. Logan’s quick-witted jerkoff son, Roman, wants his father to take the deal.

Only Logan is irritated. Pissed, really. Pissed because the other guy looked happy. And he shouldn’t. Nor should he be smiling.

Logan tells Roman to walk the guy to the elevator—and to make a new, lowball offer en route.

“You screw them out,” Logan says. “You chisel them out. You fuckin' hurt them. And then you watch them squeal.”

On Tuesday, the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s top decision-makers voted unanimously to begin a process of updating the association’s amateurism rules to allow college athletes to benefit from the use of their names, images, and likenesses—something that is currently prohibited.

The vote comes following the passage of a much-publicized California law, scheduled to go into effect in 2023, that would prevent the NCAA and its member schools from punishing campus athletes who receive compensation for their NILs. It also comes as a number of other states and lawmakers in Congress are introducing or exploring similar legislation—and as the largest national college athletes’ rights organization and a subsidiary of the National Football League Players Association have begun exploring ways that college athletes can capitalize on NIL deals.

Yet while the NCAA’s announcement was made under obvious duress—essentially, a legislative gun to the head—it’s anything but a white flag. Rather than signaling a willingness to stop stealing from college athletes by recognizing that they have the same personal property rights to their own names, images, and likenesses as everyone else in America, the association is attempting to maintain control. Fine, the NCAA is saying, we’ll let athletes get something more for their NILs. But only in a manner that we—an unelected group of university administrators and suits in Indianapolis—see fit.

To put things another way, the association is preparing to do what it always has done. Chisel athletes out. Dollar by dollar, bylaw by bylaw, condition by condition, until the schools keep all of the power and almost all of the money, while somehow the athletes who do the actual on-field work that makes college sports so damn lucrative are supposed to feel gratitude for the crumbs they’re permitted to receive.

And the NCAA isn’t hiding this! It’s all right there in their public statement on the vote. Let’s take a closer look at what the association had to say:

In the Association’s continuing efforts to support college athletes, the NCAA’s top governing board voted unanimously to permit students participating in athletics the opportunity to benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.

The opportunity to benefit is vague. It could mean profit, receive compensation, put cold, hard cash into athlete’s pockets. It could mean trust funds accessible after graduation. It could be capped at a particular dollar amount. Right now, no one can say!

Meanwhile, in a manner consistent with the collegiate model is giveaway that the NCAA does not intend to go quietly into the good night of amateurism, the way golf, tennis, and the Olympics have. To the contrary, the association intends to preserve the collegiate model, which isn’t actually a real thing—like amateurism itself, it’s a simply a quasi-legal-sounding term that in reality is whatever the NCAA says it is, and generally translates into we ain’t paying athletes but we’re happy to give coaches cash bonuses for, like, leading at halftime and stuff.

Let’s move on.

The Board of Governors’ action directs each of the NCAA’s three divisions to immediately consider updates to relevant bylaws and policies for the 21st century, said Michael V. Drake, chair of the board and president of The Ohio State University.

“We must embrace change to provide the best possible experience for college athletes,” Drake said. “Additional flexibility in this area can and must continue to support college sports as a part of higher education. This modernization for the future is a natural extension of the numerous steps NCAA members have taken in recent years to improve support for student-athletes, including full cost of attendance and guaranteed scholarships.”

The NCAA likes to pretend that the idea of college students being able to sell their own names, images, and likenesses—again: their personal dang property!—is some sort of futuristic 21st Century revolution, like 5G wireless or widespread McRib availability. This is bullshit!

Additional flexibility in this area can and must continue to support college sports as a part of higher education means two things. First, the NCAA and its member institutions’ athletic departments would very much like lawmakers to leave their nonprofit, tax-exempt statuses alone—status that traditionally has been justified by tying big-time sports into education.

Is it likely that allowing athletes to make NIL money would in any way threaten that? Of course not. A quarterback endorsing a car dealership or a gymnast monetizing her Instagram account has nothing to do with their school. But still: better safe than sorry if your tax breaks are worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

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Second, antitrust lawsuits seeking to overturn amateurism brought by current and former college athletes against the NCAA in federal court have hit a stumbling block: the association has argued that it should be allowed to limit athlete compensation for the sake of education, and despite a compete and total lack of supporting evidence for that position, appellate court judges have agreed.

If college athletes are allowed unrestricted access to the NIL market—and the world keeps spinning without a bunch of them suddenly flunking out of school—then the NCAA will have a much harder time making the same bogus argument when the next antitrust suit goes to trial.

Moving on again:

Specifically, the board said modernization should occur within the following principles and guidelines:  

  • Assure student-athletes are treated similarly to non-athlete students unless a compelling reason exists to differentiate. 

  • Maintain the priorities of education and the collegiate experience to provide opportunities for student-athlete success. 

  • Ensure rules are transparent, focused and enforceable and facilitate fair and balanced competition. 

  • Make clear the distinction between collegiate and professional opportunities. 

Okay! Here’s where the real chiseling begins. Compelling reason is doing A LOT of work, there—what, exactly, does that mean? Compelling for whom? A bouncy power forward who has a chance to sign a shoe deal with Adidas? Or an athletic director who already is benefiting from an all-school deal with Nike?

The NCAA’s entire amateurism scam is predicated on pretending there are compelling reasons to treat college athletes differently than everyone else on college campuses—and in America—especially when it comes to economic rights established and protected in laws such as the Sherman Act. But what are those reasons, besides labor exploitation being a pretty sweet deal for the people doing said exploiting?

We’ve already covered why the NCAA is concerned with maintaining the priorities of education and the collegiate experience to provide opportunities for student-athlete success. That said, if the association and its members were really, truly concerned with education and success, they wouldn’t work so hard to keep money out of athletes’ hands.

Instead, they’d want athletes to make as much as possible. Why? Money makes everything in life easier—including studying and getting through college. And also:

But I digress. Making sure rules are transparent, focused and enforceable and facilitate fair and balanced competition means the NCAA is planning to limit and police athletes’ NIL deals—which is not something it does for “non-athlete students”—and will justify doing so for the sake of competitive sports balance, which has absolutely nothing to do with education. So never mind what the association said in its previous bullet points. Time moves so quickly these days!

Making clear the distinction between collegiate and professional opportunities means absolutely nothing—money is money; a contract is a contract; payment for services rendered is payment for services rendered—except in the NCAA’s world of semantic make-believe, where standing behind a podium or in front of a federal judge and screaming “we can’t turn college sports into pro sports!” while stuffing GPA bonuses into Nick Saban’s pockets somehow counts as a convincing argument.

Even more moving on:

  • Make clear that compensation for athletics performance or participation is impermissible. 

  • Reaffirm that student-athletes are students first and not employees of the university. 

  • Enhance principles of diversity, inclusion and gender equity. 

  • Protect the recruiting environment and prohibit inducements to select, remain at, or transfer to a specific institution.

Forget diversity, inclusion, and gender equity—those are wonderful things, but have little to do with individual athletes profiting from their NILs.

Instead, focus on the other three points. The NCAA wants NIL compensation to reaffirm that student-athletes are students first and not employees of the university. If that seems initially confusing—NIL compensation involves third parties, not drawing a school paycheck—remember that schools very much do not want to pay salaries or provide health benefits or worker’s compensation to athletes, and very much want to ensure that NILs don’t create a slippery slope toward doing so. (In fact, the NCAA invented the term “student-athlete” to get out of paying worker’s comp to the family of a dead college football player).

Protecting the recruiting environment and prohibiting inducements to select, remain at, or transfer to a specific institution seeks to prevent boosters or other third parties from compensating athletes via NIL deals to attend particular schools—something the NCAA has long propagandized as morally suspect, even though it isn’t. (No one had a problem with T. Boone Pickens lavishing cash on Oklahoma State athletics; no one has a problem with signing bonuses in the rest of the world).

It’s also important to keep in mind that this principle doesn’t protect athletes. To the contrary, it robs them of negotiating leverage at the moment of their peak value: when two or more schools/boosters are competing for their services. What you’re paid to do something is always a function of what it takes to get you to do something—and that amount goes up in a bidding war.

Making compensation for athletics performance or participation impermissible potentially constrains NIL value even more. Does that mean a star linebacker can’t appear in a commercial wearing shoulder pads? Or that a champion women’s basketball team can’t make money signing posters and basketballs? Separating performance and participation from the fame and marketability crated via on-the-field heroics isn’t easy. And it shouldn’t be necessary—unless, again, you’re trying to chisel athletes out.

Now to the final portion of the NCAA’s statement:

The board’s action was based on comprehensive recommendations from the NCAA Board of Governors Federal and State Legislation Working Group, which includes presidents, commissioners, athletics directors, administrators and student-athletes. The group gathered input over the past several months from numerous stakeholders, including current and former student-athletes, coaches, presidents, faculty and commissioners across all three divisions. The board also directed continued and productive engagement with legislators. 

The working group will continue to gather feedback through April on how best to respond to the state and federal legislative environment and to refine its recommendations on the principles and regulatory framework. The board asked each division to create any new rules beginning immediately, but no later than January 2021.

“As a national governing body, the NCAA is uniquely positioned to modify its rules to ensure fairness and a level playing field for student-athletes,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said. “The board’s action today creates a path to enhance opportunities for student-athletes while ensuring they compete against students and not professionals.”

The key clauses above are continued and productive engagement with legislators and how best to respond to the state and federal legislative environment. The NCAA and its member schools are going to press state legislatures and Congress for more time, craft and pass NIL rules by 2021 that preserve as much of their current power and income as possible, and hope that lawmakers are satisfied.

Will they be? Hard to say. On one hand, they’ve repeatedly signaled a willingness to work with the association, and a hope that schools will liberalize their athlete NIL restrictions before governments force them to do so. On the other hand, the NCAA clearly does not want to go as far as lawmakers have suggested.

To wit: California’s law puts very few restrictions on athlete NIL deals, while Rep. Mark Walker’s (R-NC) current NIL bill in the U.S. House of Representatives contains none. Meanwhile, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said Tuesday that the NCAA's new rules would not follow the “California model” of a virtually unrestricted market.

Someone will have to give. And someone is going to squeal. There will be lobbyists. And lawyers. And lots of billable hours. Today’s NCAA announcement is unprecedented, for sure—but for athletes and their advocates, the long battle for NIL rights isn’t over. It’s just beginning.


More to the Story

You’re in luck! While I’ve written a whole bunch of stuff on NCAA amateurism, the last two editions of Hreal Sports cover specific angles of the athlete NIL issue:

“The NCAA Empire Strikes Back”

Why California’s college athlete endorsement law may not be a game-changer

“I think [the California law] is a bunch of bulls—t,” says Richard Johnson, an Ohio-based attorney who represented former Oklahoma State pitcher Andrew Oliver in a landmark 2009 case against the NCAA

“The NCAA knows that it can sit back and do nothing for the next four years, because the law doesn’t go into effect until then. Then when there’s a lawsuit, they can kick the can down the road for another decade. That’s what they’ve always done.”

“Strength in Numbers”

Group licensing for college athlete NILs could restore EA Sports' football game—and much more

On Monday, the National College Players Association (NCPA), the nation’s largest campus athletes’ rights group, announced that it has entered into a partnership with a marketing subsidiary of the NFL Players Association, REP Worldwide, to explore how to maximize NIL rights, with the ultimate intention of providing group licensing representation to “every college athlete whose state passes a law to allow it.”

Among the areas the NCPA and REP Worldwide intend to explore? Merchandise, gaming, and broadcast revenues.

The latter would be a big freakin’ deal.


This has been Hreal Sports, a weekly newsletter written by Patrick Hruby about sports things that don’t stick to sports. If you have any questions or feedback, contact me at my website, www.patrickhruby.net. And if you enjoyed this, please sign up and share with your friends.

Strength in Numbers

Group licensing for college athlete NILs could restore EA Sports' football game—and much more

Welcome to Hreal Sports, a weekly newsletter written by Patrick Hruby about sports things that don’t stick to sports. Sign up and tell your friends!


The potential ramifications of California’s new law allowing college athletes to cash in on the use of their names, images, and likenesses (NILs) just became more interesting.

Most of the discussion around the law, which goes into effect in 2023, has centered around individual athletes profiting from their NILs in ways currently prohibited by the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s amateurism rules: a star quarterback landing a soft drink endorsement deal; an All-American point guard signing with a shoe company; a popular and charismatic track and field athlete monetizing their popular YouTube channel or Instagram account.

However, the law’s biggest impact may involve group licensing—that is, NIL deals involving collections of athletes.

On Monday, the National College Players Association (NCPA), the nation’s largest campus athletes’ rights group, announced that it has entered into a partnership with a marketing subsidiary of the NFL Players Association, REP Worldwide, to explore how to maximize NIL rights, with the ultimate intention of providing group licensing representation to “every college athlete whose state passes a law to allow it.”

Among the areas the NCPA and REP Worldwide intend to explore? Merchandise, gaming, and broadcast revenues.

The latter would be a big freakin’ deal.

After all, merchandise is nice. Bobbleheads and trading cards are sports swag staples. And gaming is cool—everyone wants EA Sports to bring back its popular college football title, and a big group NIL deal with major college players is exactly what’s needed to do it.

But broadcast revenue? That’s the jackpot. Where the real money is. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is worth nearly $1 billion a year. The College Football Playoff alone—just three games, plus the Rose, Sugar, and Orange Bowls!—earns the Power Five conferences about $500 million annually.

If college athletes in California and elsewhere can leverage statutory NIL rights into a piece of college sports’ television money pie, it could mean hundreds of millions of dollars into their pockets. All of their pockets.

Of course, we’re a long way from that happening. But the NCPA-NFLPA announcement is a first step—and a clear shot across the bow of the NCAA, which currently is facing attacks on amateurism from other state legislatures and lawmakers in Congress, and also has convened a NIL rules working group that absolutely, positively will not be recommending that college athletes get a cut of the broadcast cash.

To get a better sense of what the NCPA-NFLPA partnership means and why group licensing for college players could be a game-changer, Hreal Sports spoke to NCPA Executive Director Ramogi Huma, a former University of California, Los Angeles football player who was one of the key advocates behind California’s NIL law and has been campaigning for campus athletes’ rights for more than two decades.

(The following conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity).

Hreal Sports: For those who are unaware, what is the National College Players Association, how long as it been around, who belongs to it, and what are its goals?

Huma: The NCPA is a nonprofit advocacy group I founded as a student group while I was playing football at UCLA back in 1997. Currently, over 20,000 current and former college athletes have joined us. We fight for various college athlete protections such as improved health and safety standards, increased medical coverage, ending player abuse, increased graduation rates, and compensation for athletes.

What is a group license, and how is it different from, say, the quarterback at USC signing an endorsement deal for a sports beverage?

Group licensing is a way to bundle players’ name, image, and likeness value when those players they appear together for various commercial uses. Most people are familiar with the EA Sports video games. They’re very popular. They were pulled from the shelves, unfortunately. Basically, EA Sports needs to secure a group license from college athletes to have a product like that—they need all the players that they can get. That’s different than a star QB getting their own endorsement from, say, Under Armour.

Group licensing recognizes that some commercial value can only be realized with inclusion of the masses—all of the athletes in a given sport, in a given league, or on a given team. Whatever type of player group a commercial entity is interested in making a deal with.

Why partner with a NFLPA subsidiary on potential group licensing for college athletes?

Fist of all, we have a great relationship with the NFLPA. [Union executive director] De[Maurice] Smith has been great about being vocal about the need for better protections for college athletes. And he has provided us other support over the years.

The NFLPA has 25 years of experiences in representing their players for group licensing. And they represent players of other sports as well. (Hreal Sports note: REP Worldwide represents the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA), the United States Women’s National Team Players Association (USWNTPA), the Major League Soccer Players Association (MLSPA), and the United States Rugby Players Association (USRPA). We wanted to make sure players of all sports can maximize the value of their group licensing. And we wanted people who care about the athletes.

I have been watching this discussion unfold for a number of years now. I was an advisor on the O’Bannon case. (Hreal Sports note: that case was a federal antitrust lawsuit brought against the NCAA by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon over the use of his NIL in a EA Sports video game; a district court ultimately found that the association’s amateurism rules violated the law but did not require the NCAA or its member schools to stop prohibiting college athletes from receiving compensation beyond their scholarships and cost-of-living stipends).

In O’Bannon, the federal courts acknowledged for the first time that college athletes have group licensing rights to their NILs—and that the schools and the NCAA are the ones selling those rights and taking the players’ share. They are giving the players nothing. That’s what happens when the vehicle for group licensing has a conflict of interest. They don’t prioritize the players. It’s as simple as that.

Your press release says want to explore opportunities for merchandise, gaming, and other officially licensed products. People are going to want to know—does this mean a possible return of EA Sports’ college football video game?

[Huma laughs]. People have been asking me about that since it went away. I think this is major step in that direction. EA Sports cannot have a game without those player group licensing rights. And unlike the NCAA, we would love to bring those video games back—and make sure players get the value they deserve from the game as well.

What other kinds of merchandise, products, or even services would fall under group licensing, and what kinds of things would fall under individual athlete NIL deals?

Those are things we will be putting out. This announcement is more of a soft release of what is going on. We’ll be putting out more information soon.

Do you have any sense of what group licensing for college athletes could potentially be worth, dollar-wise?

We are not prepared to put out any estimates at this point on any potential revenue streams. That’s part of the process here. 

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Okay, then let’s talk about what I think is the most significant line in the press release: “We will also review how recent developments impact television broadcast revenues in pursuit of fairness.” Is this suggesting that by using group licensing, college athletes might be able to receive some of the billions in TV revenue in college sports?

The answer is yes. In general, when it comes to TV broadcasts, it was made clear in the O’Bannon ruling that players’ group licensing rights must be negotiated for in order for a broadcast to take place. The federal judge in that case stopped short of providing a more robust remedy, but it was established that players have NIL rights and that schools are currently the ones who sell those rights and take the money.

We are looking at those issues now, and the degree to which players could get their fair share of it.

That would be a big deal!

Yes it would.

What is the path to that happening?

That will be some of our exploration! But obviously, we’ve mentioned it for a reason. We believe it can open up real value for the average player—that is what we are exploring. A lot of the potential individual endorsements that have been talked about are for star players. But players of all levels come together to put on a very valuable product. And they all deserve a piece of a pie.

"UCLA | UNDER ARMOUR" by Sean Flanagan, Alex Bardoff, Trang Dam, Gustavo Uriarte is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

How does this initiative tie into the new California state law allowing college athletes to profit from their NILs that is scheduled to go into effect in 2023?

Basically, in O’Bannon, the judge did not strike down the NCAA or its member school’s ability to punish players when it comes to profiting from their NILs. Calfoirnia just did. So that’s the difference, and why we’re announcing this.

Other states have introduced legislation similar to the California law—and more are in the process of doing so. Here where I live in Washington, D.C., there’s a bill in the House of Representatives that would strip away the NCAA’s tax exempt status if doesn’t change its amateurism rules to allow athletes to profit from their NILs. I’d also be very surprised if we don’t see similar legalization in the Senate sooner rather than later.

When it comes to group licensing for college athletes, would it be better to have different states with different laws about NILs, or a national law governing athletes in every state?

I’ve had meetings with staff of various members of the House and Senate. Our position is that federal legislation is fine—unless it rolls back players’ rights established by the California law. That would be a [pro]-NCAA bill. We will support a players’ bill but oppose a NCAA bill. It’s a pretty clear distinction. 

In a group licensing deal—let’s say it’s for a video game—how does the money made generally get distributed to athletes? 

Generally, it’s an equal amount. 

The press release also says that your organization wants to design an injured athletes fund derived from generated revenues to help current and former college athletes who have to pay out of pocket sports related medical bills. How would that work, and would it make more sense to negotiate and fund some sort of group insurance plan?

The options will likely be determined by the amount of money available. We’ve made progress on all relief options. Details on that will be provided in the future.

I wrote last week about how the NCAA and its member schools could—and likely will—tie up California athlete NIL deals in court, potentially for years.

Here’s the short version: the California law explicitly prohibits schools from taking away athletic scholarships from athletes with NIL deals. But it says nothing about withholding them from competition. So I think schools will bench players with those deals—otherwise, the NCAA will penalize the schools for fielding ineligible players.

At that point, the athletes will have to sue for an injunction in order to get back on the field, which means judges will have to interpret the law, which means it will go through a slow and lengthy appeals process. So there’s a good chance those athletes will never play again.

How can that scenario be avoided?

Group licensing will help. It’s one thing for a coach to try to single out one player—but a coach can’t bench the whole team. Also, our model legislation improves the clarity on these issues.

(Hreal Sports note: the NCPA’s model legislation specifically prohibits schools, conferences, and the NCAA from “fully participating in intercollegiate athletics without penalty and earning compensation as a result of the student’s use of his or her name, image, or likeness rights, or athletic reputation.”)

In addition, we’ve asked California Attorney General Javier Beccera to be proactive on the NCAA’s group boycott threats and to enforce existing state antitrust law. I just had a meeting with the California Department of Justice Antitrust staff.


This has been Hreal Sports, a weekly newsletter written by Patrick Hruby about sports things that don’t stick to sports. If you have any questions or feedback, contact me at my website, www.patrickhruby.net. And if you enjoyed this, please sign up and share with your friends.

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