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U.S. Senator Chris Murphy Hopes to End the Madness and Pay College Athletes

In the midst of the NCAA tournament, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy is taking action to address the issue of paying college athletes. 

It was when Zion Williamson’s shoe exploded in the first 30 seconds of the Duke-UNC game in late February that Senator Chris Murphy decided it was time to do something. The Democrat from Connecticut had been looking into the NCAA’s rules against paying student-athletes for about five months by the time Williamson—the mortal lock to the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft—fell to the ground and blew through his Nike sneaker. He lay on the hardwood of Cameron Indoor Stadium clutching his sprained knee while spectators (including President Barack Obama)—some of whom had paid up to $4,000 to watch—sat in dumb silence. Williamson limped off the court. Nike’s stock dropped overnight by over $1 billion dollars. Murphy was livid.

“For me, that was the starkest example of a kid making lots of adults super rich, who almost had his career ended without making a single dime,” Murphy said by phone on Tuesday. “I guess I’ve been growing angrier and angrier over the last year. Everybody’s making million of dollars off these kids and they get almost nothing monetarily. I played sports all of growing up. I got a ton out of playing sports, I know there’s still a lot in it for these kids, but fair is fair, and if there’s gonna be billions of dollars there’s no reason why these kids shouldn’t share in it.”

Murphy’s first step in addressing the issue of compensating college athletes comes in the form of a report his office is releasing Thursday morning. Called Madness, Inc.: How is everyone getting rich off college sports—except the players, it’s the first of a series he plans to put out over the course of 2019 looking into the current state of collegiate athletics and the billions they generate.

The report is essentially a white paper outlining basic facts about the current system that forbids players from collecting paychecks and turns the adults around them into millionaires. The facts and figures Murphy presents aren’t new, and he admits that not much in his report will surprise you. What he hopes to do, however, is reach people who don’t know how unfair the system is. He wants to present statistics backing up his point in a light so stark that they become hard to ignore, even to those who preach about the purity of the college game.

The data in Murphy's report comes from the Department of Education and focuses on college football and basketball, the biggest cash cows for universities. The senator acknowledges that the solution to paying athletes will be tricky—those who argue against doing so often point to how difficult it will be to determine how much players on various teams should earn and how the money is distributed. Should a tennis player make the same as a football player? How do you account for students who are a bigger draw than others? But the current system of what students can and can’t accept is wildly complicated already, not to mention the murky world of under-the-table payments—or new Ferraris showing up in star player’s driveways—as schools’ wealthy boosters recruit top prospects.

“This argument that it would be confusing who gets paid what and how much is BS,” Murphy said. “Because the current system of how Nike makes their money, how John Calipari makes his money, and how the schools tie these kids up in knots with the rules of about what they can and cannot do is super confusing. I follow recruiting pretty closely and I have no idea what’s legal and not legal because the rules are so complicated.

“I don’t deny that the system to compensate kids wouldn’t be hard to figure out, but it can’t be any harder than the system they’ve already created.”

A lot of the numbers that Murphy’s report lays out appear as staggering as he wants them to. College sports programs raked in $14 billion in 2018, a figure up from up from $4 billion in 2003. There are currently 45,000 Power Five student-athletes who receive $936 million in student aid, and 4,400 Power Five coaches whose salaries combine to $1.2 billion. The report points out that 100 million people watch March Madness, where they’ll see student-athletes wearing sponsored uniforms and essentially advertising for companies without getting a cut of the profits. (UCLA, for example, has a $280 million deal with Under Armour, while Michigan signed a $173.8 million contract with Nike in 2016.)

What the report doesn’t mention is something Murphy went into detail about on the phone: he sees this as a civil rights issue.

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“It’s not lost on me—it shouldn’t be lost on anyone—that all these coaches and all these college presidents and all these athletic directors are white,” he said. “And the majority of these kids who are playing football and basketball, the money-making sports, are black. You can’t avoid that in assessing the fairness of a system that rewards all the adults and leaves many of the kids very poor.”

New stories seem to break everyday about the vast discrepancies between the finances of the students and the adults making money off them. Last weekend, University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson told reporters that one of his players’ parents wanted to come watch their son in the first round of March Madness, but they couldn’t afford to make the trip or pay for a hotel. Sampson cited a need for change, so that families could go to games. But the issues go beyond attendance.

“That’s ridiculous,” Murphy said. “The college can fly in all their boosters, the coaches can pay for their family and friends to have big reunion at the first and second round games. And the kids play by themselves because their parents are too poor to fly in, and the colleges and the NCAA rigs it so that none of the money can go to help the parents go watch their kids play. That is fundamentally wrong.”

Murphy isn’t the first lawmaker to decide it’s time to do something about compensating student-athletes. Congressman Mark Walker, a Republican from North Carolina, introduced a bill this year called the Student-Athlete Equity Act, which would amend the tax code and allow college players to make money from endorsements. And about 10 years ago, Orrin Hatch, then a Senator from Utah, urged the justice department to look into what he saw as a violation of antitrust laws by college football’s Bowl Championship Series. But otherwise, there hasn’t been much momentum in government to do anything about any of this. Murphy, a huge UConn Huskies fan, was even slightly nervous about taking on the issue, but it’s just too big to continue to brush off. He hopes other members of congress will follow.

“When it comes up in casual conversation, I get a lot of nodding heads,” Murphy said. “That being said, the Power Five is the Power Five. The majority of senators have a school that belongs to a Power Five conference. There’s always been a little hesitancy here in taking on the college sports complex.”

The Sweet 16 of the men’s NCAA tournament begins Thursday night. The conversation surrounding paying players has been gaining steam recently, not just because of the spotlight surrounding Williamson’s injury. In early March, a group of former college basketball and football players won a court case against the NCAA when a judge in California ruled that the governing body of college athletics had violated antitrust laws by capping the value of athletic scholarships.

The ruling, however, said that the NCAA’s permissible scholarship caps must be “related to education,” which excluded sports. While the ruling upended the NCAA’s long-standing model, it didn’t create the free market for college athletic scholarships that the former players were hoping for. And just a few weeks later, March Madness is taking center stage. In other words: the timing of Murphy’s report is intentional.

“The ladder the kids climb up on to cut down the nets is sponsored,” he said. “There’s money dripping off of every corner of the NCAA tournament, and none of it is ending up in the hands of these kids.”

Murphy’s report isn’t legislation, so it won’t put any money in player’s pockets. And it’s easy to be skeptical that anything in the NCAA will ever shift, given how deeply ingrained the inequality is. But Murphy hopes that he can use the current momentum to begin fixing a problem that many acknowledge and few in power have tried to change.