Northwestern University football players walk to the polling station to vote on the student athlete union. (Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press)

Racial prejudice is at the heart of public opposition to paying college athletes, researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and California State University, Long Beach concluded in a recent study.

Citing National College Athletic Association (NCAA) data, researchers found that African Americans constitute the majority of student-athletes in basketball and football—the two major sports associated with college athletics. That may be why a majority of African Americans tend to favor “pay for play” policies in the NCAA as opposed to Whites. In the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, 53 percent of African Americans supported the idea, more than doubling the percentage of White support (22 percent).

The researchers found that racial views among Whites was the key influencer on their opinions about the issue.

“When whites believe that a policy mainly helps Blacks, their opinions on that policy are inevitably colored by their feelings towards Blacks as a group,” the study’s co-authors wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post titled, “Racial prejudice is driving opposition to paying college athletes. Here’s the evidence.”

The researchers tested that theory by conducting a survey of respondents and an experiment in which one group of White participants were shown images of Black college athletes with stereotypical Black names before being asked their opinion on paying college athletes. Another control group was not shown any photographs. The results showed that the group which saw the images was significantly more likely to oppose pay for play.

“In other words, the discussion about paying college athletes is implicitly a discussion about race,” the authors concluded, further advising, “As the representative of nearly 1,200 schools, conferences and affiliate organizations, the NCAA should consider how much it wants to base its policies on public opinion that may be tainted by racial prejudice.”

The study was conducted by Kevin Wallsten, associate professor of political science at California State University, Long Beach; and University of Massachusetts political science faculty members Tatishe M. Nteta and Lauren A. McCarthy.