Book review: ‘Indentured’ makes persuasive case for paying college athletes

From left, New York Times columnist and author Joe Nocera and New York Times contributor and co-author Ben Strauss.
From left, New York Times columnist and author Joe Nocera and New York Times contributor and co-author Ben Strauss. Fred Conrad

Few mainstream American journalists are as self-referential as Joe Nocera.

Like certain national politicians who simultaneously repel and fascinate, in his New York Times columns Nocera seems unwilling or unable to separate narrative from ego. As a result, a reader familiar with the author’s work approaches his new book, “Indentured,” with considerable trepidation.

Happily those fears prove unfounded, perhaps because the book, subtitled “The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA,” is co-authored with Ben Strauss. Other than a burst of 16 “I’s” and three “mys” in a three-page span of a prologue written by Nocera, the book maintains an unrelenting focus on inequities characteristic of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body of intercollegiate athletics.

The NCAA has long been an object of derision among those who follow sports, particularly sportswriters and academics. Its voluminous rules can be picayune and excessive, even by admission of Mark Emmert, the current (and exceedingly well-paid) NCAA president. Administration of those rules frequently seems arbitrary, discriminatory, or purposefully mean-spirited. “As the NCAA rulebook grew ever larger, eventually ballooning to over four hundred pages,” write Nocera and Strauss, “many people in college sports came to believe that the NCAA could make a case against any school, at any time, if it so chose.”

Federal lawsuits over college athletes’ rights, such as the O’Bannon case regarding the sharing of revenue from selling player likenesses, have been much in the news lately. When Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch skewered the NCAA and the college “plantation” system in a piece for the Atlantic magazine in late 2011, that captured the attention of the New York media and intellectual elite. Around that time Nocera fixed on the topic.

But the antagonistic stance taken in “Indentured” – and the drumbeat of unfair actions it cites to illustrate NCAA insensitivity to the athletes it supposedly serves – is neither surprising nor original. Where the book takes a less-traveled path is in chronicling the rising tide of legal challenges to the system of NCAA governance and to the organization’s function as a monopoly. Attempts are made to humanize the crusaders for change, if not always via sympathetic characters, and there is a satisfactory grounding in history.

The book persuasively insists athletes should be paid, if only as a matter of economic fairness. Given the recent flood of money paid to conferences and universities to televise men’s basketball and especially football, and an orgy of spending on college athletic facilities and coaches’ salaries, the authors are timely in confronting a key premise upon which the NCAA is built: “that college athletes, whether gymnasts or quarterbacks, must be unpaid amateurs, for whom sports is little more than a sideline to their academic pursuits.”

For those squeamish about paying college athletes, there are reasoned and compelling arguments to change the current model. (Perhaps the best refutations of the no-pay-for-play model are contained in an appendix called “Excuses, Not Reasons” written by Andy Schwartz, an economist and litigation consultant.)

Because the book is a polemic, it is sprinkled with questionable declarations that bear further scrutiny. One is the notion the college sports system is tinged with racial inequity because football and men’s basketball, dominated by black athletes, generate revenues to subsidize teams favored by white, middle- and upper-class students. A reader also is struck by the paucity of reasoned voices arguing the other side in examples cited to illustrate NCAA malfeasance.

Still, as reformers continue to tinker with the system from within, and to forcefully challenge it from without, “Indentured” provides a jaundiced but telling guide to how we got to this point and where the debate might go.

Barry Jacobs is a sports columnist for The News & Observer


“Identured: “The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA”

By Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss

Portfolio, 384 pages