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Whites oppose — and blacks support — paying NCAA athletes, especially when they’re thinking about race

Last Monday, Kylia Carter, the mother of former Duke basketball star Wendell Carter, gave a passionate speech arguing that today’s college basketball system is equivalent to slavery. Carter was reacting to the April 25 release of the Commission on College Basketball’s long-awaited report on corruption in the NCAA. Created after bribery scandals involving highly prized basketball recruits, the commission offered a host of recommendations, including imposing harsh penalties on athletic programs that knowingly violate NCAA rules.

Conspicuously absent, however, was any suggestion that college athletes should be paid a salary. As former secretary of state and commission chair Condoleezza Rice explained, “Our focus has been to strengthen the collegiate model — not to move toward one that brings aspects of professionalism into the game.”

That infuriated more people than Kylia Carter. “Pay for play,” as it’s called, is championed by an increasingly vocal group of journalists, broadcasters, economists, former players and their families. They argue that because the NCAA brings in billions of dollars in annual revenue from college athletics, college athletes should receive a share.

The NCAA has refused, claiming that “pay for play” will lead college sports fans to stay home and tune out. NCAA President Mark Emmert argues that “one of the biggest reasons fans like college sports is that they believe the athletes are really students who play for a love of the sport. … To convert college sports into professional sports would [lead to a product that is not] successful either for fan support or for the fan experience.”

American attitudes toward paying college athletes divide by race

Most Americans are skeptical about paying college athletes. But public opinion on this divides sharply by race. Most whites oppose “pay for play”; most African Americans support it.

Why is opinion on this issue so polarized by race? Because a disproportionately large percentage of college basketball and football players are African American. As with welfare, health care and criminal justice reform, that means that, for most Americans, debates over NCAA compensation are implicitly debates about race.

A number of recent commentators have tried to make this explicit, with arguments such as, “The NCAA isn’t just perpetuating a financial injustice. It’s also committing a racial one.”

Studies of intergroup relations show that people have “deep-seated psychological predispositions that partition the world into in-groups and out-groups — into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ ” Decades of research on the influence of these group attachments suggests that even the most “minimal” group identities can lead people to exhibit favoritism toward in-group members and bias toward out-group members. In earlier research, we showed that the “racialization” of “pay for play” leads racially resentful whites to oppose changes to the NCAA’s current policy. But that’s only half the story.

The other, much less discussed, half of the story is how African Americans think about compensating college athletes. Given the power of racial identity in structuring black opinion, we looked into whether African Americans support “pay for play” primarily because it benefits other members of their in-group.

Here’s how we did our research

Using the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), we conducted a survey experiment on a nationally representative sample of 1,013 Americans. Of those respondents, 164 identified as African American. We presented each African American respondent with a list of fictional college athletes and asked them to “indicate which of the college athletes you are familiar with and which of the college athletes you are unfamiliar with.”

One group of respondents saw a list of stereotypically white names (e.g., Connor Woods, Brady White and Cody Myers). Another group saw a list of stereotypically African American names (e.g., Darnell Booker, D’Andre Walker and Donte Jackson). This technique, used in numerous studies of discrimination, primed respondents to think about the racial identities of the college athletes who might benefit from a change to “pay for play.”

Immediately after reading this experimental treatment, respondents were asked:

Some people believe that college athletes should receive salaries in addition to their scholarships. Others disagree with this position and believe that college athletes should only receive scholarships. Do you agree or disagree that college athletes should receive a salary in addition to their scholarships?

To see whether African Americans who felt especially strongly attached to their racial group responded differently from those who didn’t, we also asked a number of questions designed to measure what social scientists call “linked fate” and “ethnocentrism.”

We assessed their perceptions of “linked fate” with the question, “Do you think what happens generally to African Americans in this country will have something to do with what happens in your life?” In line with previous work on ethnocentrism, we classified African American respondents as ethnocentric when they scored African Americans more positively on a “feeling thermometer” than they scored whites.

Yes, African Americans are more likely to support paying college athletes when they’re thinking about African American athletes

African Americans who were primed to think about black college athletes were significantly more likely to support “pay for play” than African Americans who were primed to think about white college athletes. Specifically, African Americans who were exposed to stereotypically black names were 13 percent more likely to support “pay for play” than African Americans who were exposed to stereotypically white names, by 59.1 percent to 45.9 percent.

When African Americans were presented with hypothetical white athletes, their opposition to “pay for play” spiked by nearly 16 percentage points when compared to African Americans who saw a list of African American names, by 31.6 percent to 15.2 percent.

Here’s what did not matter: We expected that our findings would be most pronounced among African Americans who exhibit out-group bias toward whites or among African Americans who have a strong attachment to the African American community.  However, those who viewed their fate as linked with other African Americans and those who did not responded in the same fashion to stereotypically African American or stereotypically white names. Similarly, among African Americans who hold ethnocentric views and those that do not, we find no significant differences in their response to our experimental treatments.

It’s important to note that our study was relatively small, involving just 164 African American respondents. That’s a perennial challenge in diving into nationally representative samples to study subgroups of racial minorities. So, we should be cautious in drawing too firm a conclusion until more studies are done.

But the findings are consistent with the large body of literature showing that group dynamics — often characterized as “us vs. them” — strongly influence attitudes among racially resentful whites and African Americans. If the debate about compensating college athletes continues to implicitly and explicitly invoke race, our research suggests that the black-white divide is likely to persist.

Tatishe M. Nteta (@TatisheNteta) is an associate professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Kevin Wallsten is an associate professor in the Political Science Department at California State University at Long Beach.

Lauren A. McCarthy is an associate professor in the Political Science Department and legal studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.