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Intelligence Squared Debate: "Pay College Athletes?"

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There was a great debate last night in NYC about whether college athletes should be paid.  The Clips Editor was there.
By Nick Infante, Clips Editor, 10-26-17

PLEASE NOTE: The below is a slightly revised version of a riveting and award-worthy Clips Eyewitness Report that was bulk emailed to Clips describers on 10-28-17.


GREETINGS FROM the Clips MotherShip.  Hope you are well.

All across the magnificent mosaic in our shared global existence there is an overabundance of ideas to reach accommodations to attain optimal harmony among wise and civilized leaders.  Sun Tzu, 580 BC, Chinese military strategist.  

The above is a 50,000-foot perspective of what could be in a perfect world.  However, in the sometimes fractured and frequently feuding world of big-time college sports, attempts at "accommodations"—via the COI, via the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, via huge media payouts, via autonomous conferences, etc.—can be very difficult to attain.

A perfect case in point is the resurgent interest in overhauling the "Collegiate Model" (that's code for amateurism).  And one of the key tactics to achieve this is by paying college athletes.

There was a debate last night (Tuesday) in New York City produced by Intelligence Squared, and the motion was "Pay College Athletes" (or don't).  I had the good fortune to be in the audience, along with approximately 300 other attendees.  We were enlightened and entertained by a superb quartet of debaters.

To access the entire one hour 43 minutes of the debate click here.

Moderator John Donvan very expertly captained the DebateShip.  These four debaters were all highly intelligent, well prepared, well spoken and intimately familiar with college sports.  And they were very passionate about their position on "do pay" or "don't pay." 

The debaters were each allowed six minutes to outline their positions.  First up was Andy Schwarz, a "for pay" advocate.  I've been in Andy's company several times, and he always struck me as a soft-spoken person.  But give him a mic and an audience and a topic with which he is highly passionate, and wow!

Right at the get-go Andy captured everyone's attention when he authoritatively stated,"Tonight you're going to hear Christine and Len argue that enforcement of amateurism is a bulwark against over-commercialization." 

Andy continued  . . . . "We have let athletes have the right of being paid to be usurped by the NCAA through collusion.  'Should we pay athletes?' is really an arrogant question.  Who are we to tell a group of people whether they can or can't earn a living under the rights the rest of us have?  A better question is if there were no collusion, would college athletes get paid?  And if the answer to that is yes, then you know they're being exploited.  Their pay is being held down by a cartel."

Next up was Len Elmore for the "Don't Pay Athletes" team.  For his open he passionately extolled the menu of benefits that athletes already receive (scholarships, academic assistance, cash stipends, world-class training, medical, etc.).  [Indeed, later in the debate Elmore's partner Christine Brennan stated that Forbes magazine estimated the value of those items is $2 million.  . . . We gotta look that one up.]

In light of the fact that more than half of men's basketball and football players are black, Elmore said, "You've heard from the opposition about 'fair value.'  How about focusing on valuing education fairly.  For black athletes education is resistance.  What's better than a degree to help you prepare and resist the ravages of racism?" 

Next up was Joe Nocera, a pull-no-punches proponent for paying athletes for many years.  He challenged the value of some athlete's degrees that Elmore referred to by saying "A lot of those who graduate major in something called eligibility."

Joe is an excitable guy (understatement), and he uttered the following with palpable repugnance: "Why is it OK to have a business that maximizes revenue in every aspect, but the labor force is supposed to be free?  How is that right?"

The last of the intro statements came from Christine Brennan, speaking against paying players.  She was the only one of the four who I had not previously seen/met, and I was not disappointed.  In her intro—and several times later during the debate—she stated (rhetorically? vaguely? specifically?) that "paying players would be chaos for everyone."  It sounded to me like she thought players should not be paid largely because it would be "too complicated." 

Later Brennan said rhetorically "Are there problems?  Absolutely, on that we can agree.  Is it perfect?  Of course not."  I could hear (and see) Nocera and Schwarz groaning and shifting on their side of the stage when Brennan trotted out this "romance argument" that is often utilized by "don't pay" advocates.

When one is at a debate in person, the ability to pick up on the gesticulations, facials and eyes of the participants is critical.  That's why I sat in the first row center; there was no one better situated to see the dozens of visuals that were part of the debate.

As Brennan went on and on about the supposed complications that would be involved in paying athletes, I thought I saw steam emanating from Nocera's ears.  And then he kicked into his "agitated objector" persona,  He refrained from attacking Brennan personally (but maybe he would have if this were a barroom venue) and he vehemently rebutted her comments about "chaos" being created if players were paid.

Waving his arms and talking excitedly, Nocera said, "Putting money into the equation is not necessarily this horrible, corrupt thing.  You're paying someone for doing some work.  That's what happens in America all the time!"

Nocera's mini tirade resulted in the loudest collective belly laugh from the crowd all night.

Later, when Elmore remarked about some players being "smacked in the face with reality" because they failed to get an education, Nocera offered a solution: "Here's what you do, let them take one or two classes a semester instead of five; and you give them a lifetime scholarship.  And when life 'smacks them in the face' they can come back and get their degree."

This brought on a huge burst of applause from all 300 or so folks in attendance; both "pay" and "don't pay" alike.

At about the one-hour mark, in answer to a remark by Elmore about not paying players, Schwarz played classroom and provided an Economics 101 arm gesture to illustrate his point.  Schwarz said, "If you have a cap and no floor  . . . "   Schwarz patiently repeated this gesture four or five times throughout the debate.

Brennan drifted in and out with her steady drumbeat of naysaying (which was fine, she was on the "no pay" team after all), positing a possible outcome of paying athletes:"Aren't there going to be programs that want to pay (athletes) and some that don't, and aren't you going to kill college football?"  . . . and later: "As sure as I'm sitting here, it (paying players) will alter it, and we will hate it."

As the debate was winding down (and each team repeated and reinforced their opinions several times), Len Elmore, the only attorney in the bunch, kinda swooped in outa nowhere and veered off course by saying, "The NCAA is dying a death by a thousand litigations.  In the Wild West they had Marshall Dillon who had total authority to clean the place up."  . . . . Ed.-here it comes, here it comes . . .   "If Congress allowed an antitrust exemption to the NCAA; give them subpoena power and other powers to regulate coach salaries, spending, etc.; we'd be better off for it."

Seeing as how the entire theme of the debate was about taking power away from the NCAA, Elmore's suggestion to give the NCAA a lot more power was truly a stunner.  The entire theater was quite for a couple seconds, as everyone was trying to comprehend this delusional notion.

Then, there was some stirring at the "pay players" podium as Nocera and Schwarz were expressing body language that signaled scathing disagreement with Elmore's statement.

Moderator John Donvan asked the "pay players" pair what the ruckus was all about.  Struggling to regain his ability to speak, Joe Nocera cleared his throat, said, um and ahand er, and he sputtered out—seriously!—"It is impossible to respond to that . ., ah . . . because I disagree with it so profoundly . . . the idea that we would let the NCAA run everything."

Schwarz added, "It would be like Enron regulating financial reporting."

The closing remarks echoed the above.  Nocera closed off with a reassuring tone, saying "these are solvable problems." (referring to the nits and details of paying athletes) 

To which Brennan underscored her prior comments, "I know it probably sounds like I'm saying the sky is falling . . .  It's gonna be different folks, we may ruin it."


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Intelligence Squared deems the winner to be the side that gains the highest percentage of the audience (i.e.-the degree to which they influence the audience by their arguments).

The "Pay College Athletes side won handily.  Here are the before/after votes of the audience (your ClipsEd abstained because I was "press"). 

Unfortunately I was unable to attend the post-debate reception (I had to drive back to the Clips MotherShip---a one hour drive via the Lincoln Tunnel, Rte 3 and Rte. 80) so I could get started on the riveting and award-worthy Clips eFlash.

I do not think I missed much, because no one has yet reported fisticuffs, slurs, references to body parts or unseemly comments about relatives.  If any Clips readers heard, saw or read about anything newsworthy, please let me know.

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The word "players" is used throughout most of the report above.  For the purposes of this recap, I'm considering "players" to be interchangeable with "student-athlete."  

I'm surprised nobody mentioned autonomy.  The Power 5 conferences have a great deal of independence from the NCAA.  Any future payments to players, ah, student-athletes is likely to start with them first.

Sorry to be late with this "I was there" report.  I coulda had it out late last night, but it woulda had a lot more typos and incorrect names.  Yesterday was my birthday and my wife took me out and she forced me to drink whiskey.  Happy Birthday.

Nobody asked me (and I was not on the panel), but it's my opinion that the primary drivers in moving toward paying athletes, er, players will come in this order: scandals/FBI; the courts; public outcry; the NCAA.

Name game:  I nominate Schwarz (no "t") as the most frequently mispronounced name during the debate (most people pronounce it as if it had a "t" in it) . . .   I never came across a "Donvan before (no "o" between the first "n" and the "v"  . . . .  I was surprised that the following names were not mentioned (unless I missed it) Emmert, Byers, Vaccaro, Pitino, Jurich, Saban, etc.

Rolls Royce, Bentley, Lamborghini . . . I took West End Avenue to get myself out of town and stopped at a local bodega to buy a lemonade popsicle and Drake's cherry mini pies.  I didn't want to mess up my car so I walked around a little and stumbled upon the Rolls Royce / Bentley and Lamborghini Manhattan dealerships.  That they were on a side street in a shaky part of town was surprising.  I am not up to date on the new models so it was very nice to salivate over these cars.  See photos below.

Special thanks to Ray Padgett of Shore Fire. 

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