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Low-Wage Villain of the Week: The NCAA

In our new regular feature, we'll be taking a look at the villains who are doing their best to prevent the United States from raising wages for all or some Americans. In this series, we're going to look past the usual suspects—for example, while it is true that too often elected officials get in the way of a fair economy, we want to dig deeper.

This week, we’re focusing attention on an institution designed to generate seven-figure salaries off the sweat of uncompensated labor, the NCAA. Trial testimony just wrapped up in a case that has made clear that, while NCAA executives and the coaches of men’s basketball and football teams are millionaires, players risk lives marred by injury without the comforts of adequate compensation, long-term health care coverage or the benefit of collective bargaining.

As The Washington Post’s John Feinstein put it:

[NCAA President Mark] Emmert, who is reportedly paid $1.67 million annually, claimed that if football and men’s basketball players were paid in any way, shape or form, fans would lose interest in college athletics. When [U.S. District] Judge Claudia Wilken, who is clearly skeptical about the NCAA’s claims, asked him if that would be the case if a trust fund was set up so players could be paid after graduation, Emmert insisted that it would. Seriously? What rock has this man been living under? The NCAA sold its soul to corporate America long ago.

What does Emmert do to justify joining the 1% off the sweat and skill of NCAA players? Perhaps it is to argue, without noticeable twitches or other obvious signs of discomfort, in favor of rank hypocrisy. As Grantland’s Charles Pierce observed while covering the trial:

Emmert was trying to make the case that the NCAA’s “core value” of amateurism actually protects college athletes from commercial exploitation. Whereupon [attorney for former NCAA players, Bill] Isaacson displayed on the dozen or so video screens scattered throughout the courtroom example after example of college athletes being used in NCAA promotional material, as well as example after example of college athletes during postgame press conferences, sitting in front of huge banners thick with the names of the NCAA’s various “corporate sponsors.” [Judge] Wilken found this display far more intriguing than was comfortable for Emmert, whose testimony eventually came down to nothing more than a paraphrase of the discussion of hazing from "Animal House": “He can’t do that to our pledges. Only we can do that to our pledges!” Wilken looked very bemused by this argument.

For getting paid the big bucks while wringing each and every last dime from the labor of players who left college decades ago, Mark Emmert is our Low (or should it be No?) Wage Villain of the Week.

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