Jonathan Chait can’t figure out how Matthew Yglesias’ argument for paying college athletes makes sense.
… I’ve never been clear on exactly what Yglesias is proposing. Is he saying that only athletes in revenue-generating sports should be paid? Or is he saying that all college athletes should be paid? If it’s the latter — and Yglesias focuses his argument entirely on the merits of paying student-athletes at revenue-generating sports — I don’t know what his reason is. The women’s cross country team at Connecticut works just as hard as the men’s basketball team. The difference between the two are:
1) The men’s basketball team gets to play on television and be famous
2) The proceeds from the television contract subsidize sports like women’s cross country, and
3) The men’s basketball players have a higher chance to become professional athletes
I’m not sure what about this situation suggests that the men’s basketball players deserve to be paid by UConn but the women’s cross country runners don’t. So who would get paid here? All college athletes?
Here’s the thing… well, actually two things. First, with regard to compensation for all, Chait’s “works just as hard” point is irrelevant. If our society valued hard work regardless of the context, every coal miner in West Virginia would make more money than Paris Hilton. They don’t, obviously. It’s tautological, but we value the revenue producing sports for what they are, not for how hard the kids work.
But he’s on firmer ground when he rips Yglesias for not recognizing that, whatever its warts, there are some unique characteristics about college athletics that don’t make the case for paying players a (forgive me) slam dunk.
… First of all, there’s no “mandatory amateurism.” There’s nothing stopping anybody from starting a football or basketball minor league that attracts talented 18 year olds, paying its players, and then having some of those players go on to make greater sums in the NFL or the NBA. Why doesn’t such a league exist? Because there’s no demand for it. You have the NBA developmental league, but that league is subsidized by the pros. This suggests Yglesias’s exploitation model is pretty seriously flawed. During the beginning of the NCAA tournament, he wrote, “Professional basketball players are way better at basketball. Just saying.”
He’s right. And yet college basketball is highly popular. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because people like watching games between college students, even if they understand that some of those students are just looking for a pathway to professional basketball. They do not like watching an NBA training league. Now, everybody understands that the reality often falls short of the ideal. I’m very much in favor of reforms like ending freshman eligibility and so on. Yglesias seems far more interested in destroying college athletics than in thinking about what to change it into, or whether that thing could even survive.
A second, and more persistent, flaw in Yglesias’s critique is the problem of profit. He’s been making this argument for years, and he never deals with the absence of profit. A movie studio forming a cartel to underpay its workforce and thus enjoy greater profits is different than a university that does not have any profit. Yglesias might have some explanation for why this difference doesn’t matter, but to ignore it altogether is not really a persuasive approach.
To some extent, college athletics as a business model has been warped as a result of the free ride the NBA and the NFL gets on its back. But another problem is that colleges and their athletic departments aren’t operated like traditional for-profit businesses. The combination of the two has led to a tension that’s illustrated in the NCAA’s flailing about in defending its amateurism standard. The problem is that before we can decide if there’s a happy medium in there somewhere, as Chait hopes, it would help to find some people who have a clue about how to get to that point. I can’t say there’s anything in Mark Emmert’s track record that gives me much cause for optimism there for now.