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Are opinions towards pay-for-play shaped by attitudes on race?

Emergent research seems to suggest there is. But is it that simple?

NCAA Football: San Diego State at California John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

It was long-speculated that there is more than a little racist-thinking (veiled or otherwise) in those that disapprove of paying college athletes. The plantation imagery summoned by some pay-for-play advocates has greatly relied on that notion. But, is there an actual relationship between the two?

According to some excellent reporting by Vice, the answer to the question seems to be that, yes, attitudes towards race do affect one’s perception of pay-for-play, irrespective of political party, gender, SES or other demographic factor.

Nteta and his colleagues looked at previous public opinion polls on college sports. When it came to pay-for-play, they showed a clear racial divide. A 2014 Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 51 percent of non-whites favored paying campus athletes, while only 24 percent of whites agreed; similarly, 66 percent of non-whites supported athlete unionization, compared to 38 percent of whites. A 2015 HBO Real Sports/Marist poll found that 59 percent of African-Americans believed college athletes should be paid; by contrast, 74 percent of whites believed the opposite.

Nteta and company knew from NCAA demographic data that blacks made up the largest share of athletes in Division I college football (47 percent in 2013-14) and men's basketball (58 percent), the two highest-profile campus sports. The numbers in the six largest athletic conferences from 2007-11 were even higher, with African-Americans accounting for 57 percent of football players and 64 percent of men's basketball players. If whites perceived young black men to be the primary beneficiaries of pay-for-play, and if those same whites also harbored negative attitudes toward African-Americans in general, then perhaps college athletics and public policy had more in common than anyone realized.

"Whenever you see those kinds of splits, you know there may be a place for blacks' self-interest and whites' racial resentment," Nteta says.

I am hesitant to draw any resounding conclusions from a single survey-based study, and to my mind, the research has some issues. The methodological weakness of poll-based research is well-documented and has led to many incorrect initial conclusions, particularly in social psychology. The question presented implies that there is a subconscious notion of student athletes as black or minority: That is, the experimental factor presupposes a stereotype that begs a question to even get off the ground. But, the assumption was not tested before the initial conclusion was drawn.

The authors attempt to address this weakness in a follow-up survey — whether or not whites think of college athletics as minorities. But, that is confirmatory and antithetical to the entire notion of hypothesis testing. If anything, that is a question that needs far more analytical rigor and support before the larger conclusion here can be tested: it’s generally best to not shoe-horn a secondary explanation after data are in and then use that to provide the support for your underlying premise. Still, you can read the study for yourself and decide whether this is or is not good social science can be left to others to decide: I’m not doing anyone’s homework for them, and reasonable minds can and do disagree on methodology. All I’m saying is that how the question is tested drives the answer to a large degree.

That criticism aside, I do think it is at least a good first step in identifying one potential issue in a complicated stew that makes up attitudes towards pay-for-play. More exacting research is needed, and I dare say will be forthcoming.

But, to say anything beyond correlation as group attitude would be reckless. And, the study’s principal author recognizes that:

"It's not race and only race," Nteta says. "There are a number of reasons why people will support or oppose policy options here. But race can't be divorced from the story. Race is one of the central reasons why whites are opposed to pay-for-play."

A discussion of race is fair game for the issue as whole, but probably not able to be extrapolated to individual opposition. The most charitable conclusion is that racists may already be predisposed against paying student athletes because they do have a belief that student-athletes are minorities: The belief of athletes as black is the sine qua non here (again, all we have is a single “priming” survey.)

Are there plantation mentalities out there? Absolutely. But the complex question of amateurism implicates a lot of values and beliefs and economic judgments — none of which are necessarily related to race, and all of which we all tend to think are right and just (if only the bastards would listen to us).

I oppose it, and always have, for equitable, legal, and economic reasons. Paying for one class of athletes is to diminish opportunities across the board: the economic reality, in connection with Title IX, is that it would diminish the number of universities that can participate in a given sport, as well as the number of programs within each university that can be funded. And each of those program cuts represents the loss of funding for a dozen, two dozen, a hundred students who may not otherwise be able to attend college.

As a first-generation college graduate, I am keenly aware of the desire to be educated coupled with the uncertainty of affording it. Education should be more affordable and more accessible, not lessened because we have turned colleges into places where the benefits inure to the barest minority of the student-athlete population. And this doesn’t even touch on the hordes of women’s programs that would be eliminated as administrators pare down the number of programs to cut checks for the Star Point Guard: as the men’s programs are cut, so too will the women’s programs — that’s Title IX.

It is my hope that some of the very real fears about the exceptionally elitist nature of pay-for-play, the enrichment of one small class of student-athletes at the expense of all others (particularly women,) and other arguments against pay-for-play, will not be shouted down with the shibboleth of racism. There is always injustice lurking on the other side of this issue: It truly is a zero-sum game. Where one comes down on the question may be related to race, but it is in no way the deciding factor for most, even if it is part of an unconscious thought process. And this research, frankly, isn’t strong enough to tell us if that is even an empirically true statement.

Give the Vice reporting a spin and tell us what you think.