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.


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.


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, And if you enjoyed this, please sign up and share with your friends.