Former Long Beach State basketball standout James Ennis, who now plays for the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies. Photo courtesy of LBSU Athletics.
Tonight’s college football national championship game between the University of Alabama and Clemson University will pit two of the most dominant teams on the field this season against each other as they battle to bring home the trophy, but it will also represent an ongoing economic slugfest between two of the larger athletic budgets in the country. The swelling budgets of big universities have spurred an expanding conversation on whether or not student-athletes should be compensated past the cost of an education, revealing a divide among the American public on the “pay-for-play” debate.
According to the 2015 annual ranking of National Collegiate Athletic Association school revenues published by USA Today, Alabama represents the fourth-largest athletic budget in the country, taking in just over $153 million last year. Clemson, while not a perennial top five budget-champion contender like the Crimson Tide, ranks 39th on the USA Today list with $73.4 million in revenue last year. Despite these budgets continuing to grow in size, in large part because of the performance of the athletes on the field, the national dialogue and public opinion polls have shown an overwhelming sentiment that a free education is “payment” enough for student athletes.
A recent study co-authored by Cal State Long Beach associate professor of social sciences Kevin Wallsten sought to identify what factors shaped the belief systems of those for or against compensating college athletes, focusing in on the race of those surveyed and which side of the argument they agreed with. Its findings, published in The Washington Post late last month, showed that among other factors, negative racial views about African-American athletes were the single biggest predictor of whether or not a survey subject felt pay-for-play was appropriate.
The examination of the role race plays in the equation was undertaken with the help of Lauren A. McCarthy and Tatishe N. Nteta, professors of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and aided by the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) that revealed that 53 percent of African Americans supported pay-for-play, a number more than double the support from whites (22 percent).
In fact, in every survey of its kind the data shows that blacks were far more likely to support the idea of paying student athletes than whites. While this is the first study to train its focus on the element of race, Wallsten said that similar results can be seen in other social surveys regarding healthcare, welfare policies and law enforcement issues. An excerpt from the article published in December states that these feelings, backed up by decades of research, found that “When whites believe that a policy mainly helps blacks, their opinions on that policy are inevitably colored by their feelings towards blacks as a group.”
The goal was to study what kind of connection the race of person had on these public opinion polls measuring people’s support for paying athletes.
“This is sort of the first study to sort of look at the ingredients that go into cooking up someones opinion on paying college athletes,” Wallsten said. “There have been plenty of major studies, sort of popular polls that have been released by various media organizations where they kind of say ‘sixty five percent of the public oppose paying college athletes’ and then it sort of stops there. We were sort of trying to drill down a little deeper.”
The poll controlled for factors like whether or not a person was a college athlete themselves, their education level and their interests in college athletics from a fan’s perspective. Groups of participants were shown pictures of young black men with stereotypical African American first and last names and another group was shown no pictures at all. The study found that the group shown the pictures were more opposed to paying athletes, and in particular, people expressing the largest amount of resentment toward blacks as a group were the least likely to support the idea of “pay-for-play.”
Wallsten said diving deeper into the matter revealed a more complex picture than one might imagine regarding demographics that supported or stood against the idea. For instance, women, college graduates and young people, either currently in college or recently graduated were less likely to support paying student athletes. On the other other hand, fans of college athletics, in addition to African Americans—a demographic that makes up 57 percent of football players and 64 percent of basketball players in the six biggest conferences according to 2013 study—overwhelmingly support the idea. However, white student athletes were not part of the demographics with a majority in support of "pay for play" even though they would stand to benefit from it.
He added that the indoctrination of the idea that college athletes are peers of non-athlete students—as their participation in athletics is more pure than at the professional level—could help shape the opinions of college students and graduates. However, the size of a school and its standing on the college athletic’s landscape could also drive opinions about student athletes and whether or not they should be paid.
“Our suspicion is if you go to Overland, that’s a very different college experience than going to Ohio State,” Wallsten said. “That might lead you to have different opinions about college athletes and how they should be compensated. Part of what happens in colleges, especially big athletic colleges, Division I schools in particular, there’s a lot of socialization into the experience that 'these are your peers, these are college athletes’, there’s something pure about their participation, something distinct from what goes on in the pros, and that could lead you to oppose changing the current system.”
Long Beach, while larger than Overland, still pales in comparison to the athletic bottom lines of larger universities. Its revenue ($16.7 million) was ranked 139th out of the 230 schools in the USA Today list of athletic departments in the country. However, its revenue narrowly outpaced its expenses while the top five schools on that list (Oregon, Texas, Michigan, Alabama, Ohio State) all made profits of at least $7 million, with Oregon ranking number one with a surplus of over $85 million.
An August 2014 ruling by the NCAA that allows for universities to provide athletes with additional stipends for meals to help close the cost of attendance has been criticized for further tilting the scales in favor of universities with large athletic budgets that can afford to offer more without actually “paying” the athletes. Long Beach State Athletic Director Vic Cegles, who was recognized for his fundraising efforts last year, commented on that very issue and how it would continue to increase the difficulty in bringing top-flight athletes to the Beach.
“The top 5 conferences, they will have more resources to take care of their student athletes,” Cegles told the Post last year. “I feel very comfortably right now that we take care of our student athletes. And I think they do also at those other schools.”
The survey was conducted at a national level and didn’t include the campus at Long Beach but Wallsten said he’d be surprised to find out that any of the student athletes he’s interacted with would think they were entitled to any further compensation.
While careful to say that race is not the only factor that plays into the support of paying student athletes, Wallsten and his co-authors concluded that the NCAA should be equally careful in future discussions and policies regarding the matter, as it’s implicitly a racial discussion that may be tainted by existing racial prejudice included in public opinion polls.
“Our study really looks at the pay for play issue, that’s one attitude,” Wallsten said. “But there are are many other policies that are really tied to it. More work needs to be done to test our work further. This is one study and we would never say that we’ve made the final determination on the role of this.”
Photo above, left: Kevin Wallsten, associate professor of social sciences at Cal State Long Beach. Photo courtesy of CSULB.