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When defending his position that college athletes should not be paid, National Collegiate Athletic Association President Mark Emmert points to public opposition to the idea.

“We have long heard from fans that there is little support for turning student-athletes into paid employees of their universities,” Emmert said in response to this week’s Washington Post/ABC News poll that found only 33 percent of the public support paying athletes. “The overwhelming majority of student-athletes, across all sports, play college athletics as part of their educational experience and for the love of their sport – not to be paid a salary.”

The overwhelming majority of athletes are also playing sports that don’t generate millions for their universities, and they skew middle-class and white.

The majority of football and men’s basketball players, on the other hand, are black, and in many cases from low-income homes. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the Post/ABC poll, as well as a new poll from HBO Real Sports and Marist College, revealed a large racial divide among those who believe athletes should be paid – and who believe race is part of the reason they’re not.

Marist and HBO found that a slightly smaller proportion of the public – 29 percent – supports paying athletes. A similar proportion of white (28 percent) and Latino (29 percent) people agree. But ask black survey respondents, and the positive response nearly doubles, to 53 percent.

“I think it’s increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that you have an unpaid labor force that is predominantly African-American and an incredibly highly paid management system that’s predominantly white,” said Keith Strudler, head of the Marist Center for Sports Communication. “That divide is very pronounced, and it harkens images that get very uncomfortable.”

More than 60 percent of black respondents said top athletes are not paid because many are black; only 25 percent of white respondents (and 33 percent of Latinos) said the same.

While athletes may be compensated through scholarships – which are, in fact, compensation, a regional National Labor Relations Board official said Wednesday in his decision declaring that Northwestern University football players employees will be allowed to unionize – they’re not necessarily getting what they’re supposedly there for: a degree.

Leading into this weekend’s Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida released a report detailing the graduation rates of each team, whose players are among those athletes drawing the most revenue to their institutions.

Almost all of the white athletes (98 percent, according to the NCAA’s Graduation Success Rate metric) on the 16 teams left in the tournament will graduate – yet only 55 percent of black players will. That’s the widest gap the study has ever reported.

So TIDES Director Richard Lapchick was not exactly surprised at the racial divide in the survey findings.

“It underlines the fact, to a large degree, that white student-athletes get the promise that they were made, that they’ll leave there with a degree and education,” Lapchick said. “Way too many African-Americans are not going to get that degree and have that promise met.”

Nonwhite people in the Marist survey were also more likely to support a union for college athletes. Only 22 percent said college athletes “should be allowed to join a union so they can receive payments and benefits,” but that breaks down to 19 percent of white respondents versus 28 percent of non-whites.

“Race has become increasingly a big part of the narrative, and I think maybe the union question may be driving this a little bit,” Strudler said. “There’s a lot of people that seem to think that the athletes shouldn’t be allowed to have power, and I think power and race are very heavily tied together in this country.”

The findings should give pause to Emmert and others when they boast about public opinion, Strudler said, with rhetoric that’s “highly insensitive and very out of touch.”

“The general public may still oppose it, but it’s very clear that the group that constitutes the largest part of the unpaid labor force supports it,” he said. “If the people who were making a lot of money weren’t all white, I really think that would solve a lot of the public perception problem.”

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