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Talking Economic Fairness With The McDonald’s All-Americans

There is never a wrong time to bring up how repressive the NCAA’s labor system is, but yesterday — two days after Louisville’s Kevin Ware torpedoed his leg in the Elite Eight; and with the leaked video footage of Rutgers (UPDATE: former) coach Mike Rice’s sadistic practices hitting the Internet — seemed particularly opportune.

And there’s no more appropriate venue to broach this than at the McDonald’s All-American game, where the nation’s very best high school basketball seniors have gathered in Chicago this week to prance and preen before a circle-jerk of corporate sponsors, scouts, coaches, hangers-on and — loosely speaking — reporters.

We’re increasingly coming to the realization as a society that our beloved college sports, from which we derive so much enjoyment and entertainment, is a fetid pile of usury and duplicity. That there is no ethical or moral justification for why these athletes’ compensation is limited to the value of their athletics scholarships. That the term “amateurism” is, as the historian Taylor Branch wrote, a “legalistic confection” that promotes this exploitation.

On Tuesday, I brought this discussion inside the jock bubble of the McDonald’s All-American media avail (the actual game kicks off at the United Center tonight, 8:30 p.m. CST). I asked if players felt gypped (some did, others didn’t). I asked if any were aware of the potential game-changing lawsuit filed by former McDonald’s All-American Ed O’Bannon against the NCAA (only one was). They said “amateur” a lot. I said “bullshit” a lot. In any case, this kind of conversation needs to be had more and more with the principals — the players. Here are some selected excerpts (edited for length):

Bobby Portis, Jr., 6-10, signed with Arkansas

“I think it crosses my mind all the time. I am playing for the university. They are making money off me. They are making money through tickets and the food people buy at the games. And the coach is making money, too, off of us winning and playing hard for them.”

DL : It’s bullshit.

“Well, not really. We’re amateur athletes, so we can’t get paid.”

DL: They say you’re “amateur athletes”, but anywhere you would have gone, the athletics department is making millions of dollars. The coach is making millions of dollars [Arkansas coach Mike Anderson makes $2.2 million per season]. The athletics director is making several hundred thousand dollars. And the only people who aren’t making any money are the talent.

“I think it’s kind of crazy. They’ll have our jersey and a place in the gym for people to buy it and when people will buy our jerseys they will make money off our name.”

Jabari Bird, 6-6, Cal

“Honestly, I never really thought about college basketball players being paid to play the game, because in my eyes we’re still amateurs until we go to the NBA.”

DL: It feels unfair to me, and I’m not even a basketball player.

“Honestly, it doesn’t really matter to me, that some people deserve to get paid. If you have a team, does everybody on the team deserve to get paid? Because not everybody is playing the same amount.”

DL: Right, and not every team is as good. Cal is a better program than San Bernardino. So like with anything else, if you’re LeBron James, you’re getting more than the last guy on the bench for the Grizzlies. Shouldn’t it be the same thing in college?

“At the same time, that’s just how it is and that’s probably how it’s going to be.”

Nigel Williams-Goss, 6-3, Washington

“I think it has been in the media. It is kind of a controversial issue. They talk about the revenue we generate to our programs and our universities. I think, obviously, it would be great and I wouldn’t be complaining at all, if we got whatever the case may be. But this is the way it has been, as far as athlete’s not receiving any money.”

DL: Do you know who Ed O’Bannon is?

“Yeah.”

DL: Nobody else here knows who he is.

“He’s from Vegas and I live in Vegas.”

DL: Do you know about his lawsuit?

“Yeah.”

DL: Your thoughts?

“They were making money off of him and he’s in the video game, and I think if you’re going to use him, I am not saying it should be a whole bunch but he definitely deserves a cut — if they are going to make money off of what he is doing.”

DL: Then I’d say the same thing about the colleges. Washington is a major Pac-12 school. They bring in tens of millions of dollars a year, principally on football and men’s basketball. Don’t you deserve a cut of that?

“Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a controversial issue. I think you can argue it either way. I think you can definitely make some arguments that we deserve some of that money. I think it’s an issue that will continue to be discussed.”

Chris Walker, 6-10, Florida

“I have seen a couple tweets and stuff, saying that players should get paid and stuff, but I feel like I don’t know. I don’t know really what to say about that.”

DL: If you went to the (NBA), and you made it in the first round, you’d be making several million dollars right off the bat. That’s what your talent could be worth as an elite player. Does it not cross your mind?

“Sometimes, it does. Not really, though.”

Isaiah Hicks, 6-9, North Carolina

“I say it is fair in one part, because they do pay for everything, and the coaches have been through that, so you’ve got to expect them to get paid more.”

DL: I’m going to advocate for you, then. I don’t know what Roy Williams makes off the top but it’s in the millions. Is he doing that much more to make the team win, than the players on the team are?

“If the players go in with no coach, there will be no sense of authority. You know that if you get your coach mad, you’ve got to run, you’ve got to sit out of games. It is the sense of authority.”

DL: Your talent is worth so much more than that.

“Then there’s the student part that kicks in.”

DL: I went to college. I got a degree. I didn’t make dick afterwards from that. You’re going to make so much more money on your talent.

“But we’re using their minds as a coach to use our talents.”

DL: Coach Williams is going to love you.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, 6-6, Arizona

“I think about it a lot. Because it is hard, being a college student and coming from where I come from…with the financial situation a lot of people have, it’s hard for us. So why shouldn’t we get paid? I think it is a big problem. I think we should be helped out with the financial situations that we’re having — there should be an agreement or contract we should sign.”

DL: At least let you earn whatever money on the side. Let’s say some car dealership in Tucson says, ‘We want you to be our spokesperson.’ You can do the ad, but you can’t make the money. Why can’t you do endorsement deals, to say nothing about the fact you guys can’t get a slice of the giant pie that Arizona is bringing in?

“That’s a big problem. I think you should be allowed to work for yours. If you want to do something on the side after basketball, or even if it’s a part of basketball, if you want to go to a community thing at a school, why can’t you get paid for it? I think it’s bad. I think we should be able to be helped.”

Noah Vonleh, 6-9, Indiana

“I think it is crazy. I think they should pay the players because they are going out there, working hard for the school, risking their body. And if they get hurt, it is over for them.”

DL: Tom Crean makes three-and-a-half million dollars a year [actually, it’s $3.16 million]. The athletics department brings in millions. Everybody is getting paid except the talent.

“When people bring it up, I think about it a lot more. Players are getting hurt all the time, like at Louisville with Kevin Ware. Yeah, they should definitely pay the players. They are risking their body to go out there and play and play in the coach’s system and help them win. They are making the coach look good.”

DL: Everybody here has the expectation that this is how it’s always going to be. Do you have the same mindset?

“If a few more players get hurt, like Nerlens [Noel at Kentucky] or Kevin Ware, if a few more players get hurt, I think they are going to bring up something and the players will end up getting paid.”

Wayne Selden, Jr., 6-5, Kansas

“You have to think about the funds for the NCAA, and even CBS Sports and all the networks that broadcast the college athletes – I am broke. I’d be happy if I get some extra money in my pocket.”

DL: It’s a scam. It tells players like yourself that you’re an ‘amateur.’ Which is just something to say. But everyone else is making money. How much is Bill Self making, $3 million a year? [Actually, it’s $3.86 million.]

“I look at it like: you work hard, you put in your time, you can make it to that next level and make it as a professional athlete. Because college is not a professional sport. I like to watch it better than the NBA, but you should have to work to get the money.”

DL: So you don’t think you deserve the money next year?

“Do I deserve it? No. I don’t deserve it. Would it be nice? Yeah.”

DL: Why don’t you deserve it?

“Because I haven’t put in enough work to get paid yet.”

DL: You put in enough work to go to Kansas.

“Yeah, but not to get paid yet.”

DL: But everybody else is making money.

“Some schools may even pay their players to go there.”

DL: But then if it’s done, it’s done under-the-table. And it’s thought to be dirty…You guys are worth tons of money to the schools you are playing for. So when you say you haven’t worked hard enough, bullshit.

“But my food is compensated for, where I live is compensated for, I have 24-hour access to the gym. My family can see me whenever they want me to.”

DL: You are worth so much more than that.

“I’m living the life as a college athlete. I don’t really need any money yet. Money would help, but I don’t need any money right now.”

Matt Jones, 6-5, Duke

“Me, personally, being a freshman and I haven’t done anything.”

DL: Haven’t done anything? You’re a McDonald’s All-American.

“On the campus and on the team, I feel like I have to prove myself wearing the Duke jersey.”

DL: Okay, I’m going to argue with you. When LeBron James was drafted to the NBA by the Cleveland Cavaliers, he was drafted and he signed a contract. Would it have made any sense if he said, ‘Well, I haven’t done anything in Cleveland yet, so why don’t you not pay me the first year?” No, he’s good enough to play in the NBA; you’re good enough to play for Duke.

“You’re definitely right. I think it comes down to the mentality the player has and what they believe in and things of that nature. I think it depends on the mindset each player takes with him.”

DL: Are you saying that you think it might compromise the players’ mindset if they start getting money?

“I think it will make them feel entitled.”

DL: They are entitled.

“At the same time, it can lead to complacency.”

DL: If you were on any other kind of scholarship at Duke — let’s say you were on a theater scholarship or music scholarship or a chess scholarship — it would be the same thing. You get your scholarship as a college student, but you can make whatever else on the side. And it’s not dirty, it’s not wrong; it’s fair. It’s capitalism.

“If they came to me and said you can get paid, I’d be happy. Who would deny something like that? The fact that they haven’t done it I really don’t know what to say about it. If they changed it, I’d be all for it. I’d probably be the first one to ask Coach K where the money is at.”

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