Former President Barack Obama supports college athletes being paid, criticizes how COVID-19 issues handled

Former President Barack Obama said on a podcast released Thursday he is in favor of college athletes being able to make money on their name, image and likeness and blasted college athletics leaders for how they’ve handled COVID-19.

“Probably the area where I’m most frustrated is college because whatever happens at the professional level at least these are adults who are getting paid and they’re making a series of decisions that may be suboptimal for the players, but for the most part, you’re not putting other people at risk,” Obama said during an interview on the Bill Simmons podcast with Simmons and Bakari Sellers. “When I watch college football in particular right now — we’ll see how basketball develops — there is this sense of the economics driving a series of decisions in which a bunch of very young people are being put at risk in ways that are unnecessary. But that gets me into a whole set of questions about the NCAA that could take up too much time.”

President Barack Obama and NBA commissioner Adam Silver before game two of the 2019 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Raptors. (Photo: Kyle Terada, USA TODAY Sports)

Sellers followed up on that thought, asking the 44th president of the United States whether college athletes should be paid.

“Yes,” Obama said. “I think that the amount of money that is being made at the college level, the risks that let’s say college football players are being subjected to and the fact that for many of these colleges, what these young people are doing are subsidizing athletic director salaries, coach salaries. All of that argues for a better economic arrangement for them, and I think there is a way of doing that that doesn’t completely eliminate the traditions and the love we all have for college sports.

“It just means that if Zion Williamson or a Trevor Lawrence or somebody is participating in those sports and somebody, the local car dealer or what have you who as it is, is probably already a booster and doing a whole bunch for that university wants to also help that student with their parents or facilitate them being able to get a better training situation for their next stage, that penalizing those kids when everybody else is benefiting does not make sense to me. And when you look at the history of the NCAA and how it developed, it developed specifically to insulate these institutions from claims made by these students. The whole myth of student-athletes really evolved in part because early on football players who are being brought in as ringers on these teams were getting hurt and then suing for workers’ comp and suddenly the colleges figured out if we form this association and create this ideal of student-athletes that we’ll protect our pocketbooks. So yes, we should make some changes there.”

Several versions of a bill dealing with college athletics and the name, image and likeness issue are currently circulating through Congress. Many of them would enact something close to what Obama outlined.

The podcast mostly focused on Obama’s sports fandom and his assessment of current issues in various sports leagues, including how all of them have navigated the pandemic.

“I would say that No. 1, it’s hard for any of these sports leagues to do a good job if the White House is not doing a good job,” he said. “If at the top folks are shambolic and dismissive and full of misinformation and politicizing stuff, then it leaves everybody else on their own to make these ad hoc decisions, so with that caveat I’d say the NBA and Adam Silver handled it as well as it could have been handled. And just generally, the partnership between the players, the owners the commissioner, at least the dialogue — I don’t want to overromanticize it — but you get the sense everybody there figured out we’re all in this together, if we are going to do it right, this is what we have to do. It’s going to require everybody to sacrifice and the fact they came through that process and the playoffs ended up being really exciting, really well played, kudos to them. That was impressive.

“Baseball I thought did a reasonably good job. Look, the NFL. … It does feel maybe because it’s a 53 man roster that everybody feels more expendable and the notion is, look, we just put something up there and I don’t feel that they have been as cautious in terms of their design.”

President Barack Obama (center) holds a gift jersey with members of the Villanova Wildcats during a ceremony honoring the 2016 NCAA men's basketball champion Wildcats in the East Room at The White House. (Photo: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY Sports)

Another topic Obama addressed is whether he might be interested one day in ownership of an NBA team, which has been the subject of speculation since he left office given his basketball fandom and close relationship with several NBA players.

“Let me tell you something. The thing I wouldn’t do is, like Jay Z was, quote unquote, part owner of the Nets,” Obama said. “Basically means you get courtside seats and I don’t know what else. Free popcorn. To me, owning a team would only make sense if you actually have a controlling stake and you are then building a culture and creating the kind of organization that, you know, like the Patriots or the Spurs where you have sustained excellence and I don’t have that kind of money no matter how many books I sell.”

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